Post-apocalyptic thriller is high on style if not substance
So where did we leave off? Ah yes, the only people immune to a global pandemic had been mind-wiped by the evil WCKD corporation, imprisoned inside a fortress-like maze, and forced to fight for their lives while scientists studied their brains. That makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, what better way to manage the hope of all mankind than to murder them inside a 200-foot tall maze of concrete and machinery that must have cost gazillions and taken years to construct? That’s good stewardship of resources, right?
Well, I hope you think so, because Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials doubles down hard on that premise. One of the first things we learn in the sequel is that there wasn’t just one death-maze, but caboodles of them, all chock full of endangered virus-resistant teenagers. I’m not going to worry about it, though. If Spider-Man can develop super powers from being bitten by a radioactive arachnid instead of simply getting cancer and dying, then surely scientists can wipe out a disease by Hunger Gaming the only people who might provide a cure. Sometimes you just gotta go with comic book science.
Do that and you might find The Scorch Trials to be something of an improvement over its predecessor; a feat it accomplishes, oddly enough, by becoming more clichéd and predictable. Whereas the first film had the head-scratching mysteries of the maze, once its survivors escape into the outside world, The Scorch Trials settles comfortably into a standard zombie survival flick. Yes, I’m aware the infected Cranks in this film are technically bloodthirsty super-cannibals and not the walking dead, but they look, lurch, and lunch just like zombies. Call them Cranks, but a zombie by any other name would smell as rotten.
There are other post-apocalyptic tropes as well, such as a sand-covered San Francisco full of barely standing buildings and (of course) a twisted, wrecked Golden Gate Bridge. Seriously, I’m beginning to wonder if the ubiquitous use of that landmark in these kinds of movies is because it’s such a recognizable icon, or if the animators are simply reusing the same computer model of the structure over and over to help keep production costs down.
There are also chases through abandoned shopping malls (even teenagers stuck in a dystopia hang-out at the mall), chases through precariously leaning skyscrapers, chases through darkened sewers; you name it, somebody gets chased through it. Sure, it’s all recognizable from other films, but because the non-stop action is competently put together by director Wes Ball, it’s a fairly painless romp through the familiar.
Unfortunately, the few times the film actually pauses to catch its breath, the cracks begin to show. The characters are too blank to carry any quiet scenes. The mild attempts to fire up a love triangle peter out because nobody onscreen appears to have their heart in it. And the effort to clarify just why it was necessary to put all of the kids in mazes is unconvincing as any middle-schooler could figure out about twenty different ways to accomplish the same goal without actually killing anyone.
Also noticeable is that most of the first film’s not-so-subtle attempts to promote multiculturalism have been abandoned. If you remember, Thomas and friends, the only ones willing to abandon established social norms in order to find a way out of the maze, were so purposely diverse they may as well have been the Rainbow Gang from the Wee Pals comic strip. Gally and his gang of Caucasians, on the other hand, were so doggedly determined to maintain the status quo that it ultimately resulted in their slaughter. Like I said, not so subtle.
This time around it’s more of a standard teens versus grown-ups affair, with WCKD standing in for those know-it-all authority figures who just won’t let kids run their own lives. This is no surprise as teenage rebellion is pretty much the meat and potatoes of the Young Adult genre. The twist in the Maze Runner series is that the adults’ insistence that they know what’s best doesn’t just ruin children’s lives, it literally destroys them.
A more clever movie might have used this set-up to explore the question of what duties do children have to follow the demands of bad parents? The Church’s take has always been that “as long as a child lives at home with his parents, the child should obey his parents [and by extension other authority figures] in all that they ask of him when it is for his good or that of the family…But if a child is convinced in conscience that it would be morally wrong to obey a particular order, he must not do so.”
To its credit, The Scorch Trials toys with this potential crisis when one of the teens, in a horribly telegraphed move, decides that WCKD has been right all along and switches sides, theoretically forcing Thomas’ crew to explore their own consciences in order to determine right from wrong. Unfortunately, by the point this happens in the film, WCKD has already been portrayed as being so over the top, well, wicked, that the choice is obvious.
So, yeah, the movie is a little shallow on substance. It does have style though, however borrowed it may be, and it has lots and lots of running to keep things from getting boring. All in all, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is hardly the worst YA adaptation to come down the pike this year.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ivesspends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.