Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the young protagonist of the post-apocalyptic teen action films “The Maze Runner” and “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” has a pathological aversion to systems of control. He and his friends discover that they have been subjects in experimental trials at the hands of WCKD, the World Catastrophe Kill Zone Department. The scientific organization is searching for a cure to the “flare” virus that has decimated the earth’s population, and what they need is sweet, sweet teenage blood, which is immune to the virus that turns the infected into zombies. This was established in “The Maze Runner,” and in “Scorch Trials,” director Wes Ball puts the pedal to the floor in terms of thematics, scope and bombast – everything is faster, bigger, and scarier. Thomas, we’re definitely not in the Glade anymore.
Where he finds himself, along with his pals who escaped from the Glade and its surrounding maze, is in a helicopter touching down in a vast desert, picking up almost exactly where the first film left off, with a quick dream sequence to fill in the backstory. Taken to a warehouse medical facility, the teens are assured that they are safe from WCKD, but Thomas is not buying it, especially coming from the mouth of the world’s pre-eminent smooth-talking slimeball, actor Aidan Gillen, who plays evil Mr. Janssen.
Like a caged rat, Thomas has a preternatural tendency to and ability for escape, and he quickly breaks the crew out into the wasteland of The Scorch, all sand dunes and crumbling cities filled with flare zombies, in hopes of finding a resistance army. Free of the titular maze, “Scorch Trials” is able to do every action sequence on a larger scale, but it still feels like relentless running in circles. When Thomas sighs that he’s tired of running, we’re tired too. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the sequences that we do get exhausted; they are well-executed, particularly the ones in the dark with only strobing flashlights to illuminate their way.
Unlike other post-apocalyptic young adult properties like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” “Maze Runner” is grittier, dirtier, sweatier. Freed of the cold, austere spaces and bunkers that mark those films, out in a “Mad Max” type world, it feels somewhat real. There are ridiculous and unnecessary monsters, but the stakes are straightforward – Thomas wants him and his friends to be free. He runs and runs without a destination, and “Scorch Trials” highlights the weaknesses of this idea, but it seems like something a teenager would actually do.
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O’Brien is so fully, physically committed that you can’t help but believe in him, and he’s surrounded by a winning supporting cast of young actors – Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Jacob Lofland, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores – that are a pleasure to watch. Character actors Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper and Lili Taylor, playing the adults, are a welcome screen presence.
Wrestling with ideas about science, liberty, and the greater good, “Scorch Trials,” puts these issues at the forefront. When an older generation insists on feeding off the new, what responsibility does the new generation have toward building a better world or saving the old one? It’s not anything groundbreaking in the young adult genre, but these films make the questions tangibly teenage and an absolute blast to watch.
‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Jacob Lofland, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor
Director: Wes Ball
Length: 131 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language)
Raleigh: Carmike 15, Regal Brier Creek Stadium 14, Mission Valley Cinema, North Hills Theater, Six Forks Station Cinema, Marguee Wakefield 12. Apex: Regal Beaver Creek Stadium 12. Garner: Regal White Oak Stadium 14. Chapel Hill: Lumina Theatre, Carmike Park Place 16, Regal. Timberlyne 6. Durham: Northgate Stadium 10, AMC Southpoint 17, Carmike Wynnsong 15. Roxboro: Palace Point.