Friday, September 25, 2015

"Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" Review: Post Apocalyptic Zombie Runner Is More Like It


September has long been the dumping grounds by movie studios. One might even call it the month for misfit movies as there is almost never any rhyme nor reason for any movie that gets released this time year. We get Oscar contenders such as Drive (2011), trash such as Shark Night (2011) and experimental fare that usually goes on to garner cult status with such infamous titles as Dredd (2012), Riddick (2013) and Looper (2012). But now the month has its own bonafide annual trilogy which began last year with the surprisingly decent novel turned movie The Maze Runner. So how does the sequel stack up to the original and which category of September film does it fall into? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 11 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: September 18, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Zombies
Likes: The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games
Neutral:  The YA film/book genre in general
Hates: The Twilight saga
How long until the third and final film?: 2 long years away.


When we last saw our group of wayward maze survivors they had just discovered the truth behind the maze and why they were placed inside it...or so they think. After being airlifted out of the facility they get to see what has become of the real world and to their horror things aren't going so good as the planet has been ravaged by a plague that has turned most of the world's population into zombie-like creatures that stalk the post-apocalyptic wastelands. Cities lie in ruin as two opposing factions, the WCKD organization which created the mazes and the Right Arm who wants to liberate those trapped within their walls, fight over the children of the mazes who seem to be immune to the effects of the plague and are the only source for a cure.

The Maze Runner benefited greatly from a unique premise and an equally unique setting which helped separate it from comparisons to other YA (Young Adult) novels/movies such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. Dropping the usual assortment of late teen/early twenty-somethings into an environment unlike any we had seen before was a breath of fresh air from the Dystopian futuristic settings associated with those other films as well as an unusually high body count which ramped up the danger level a bit. While it wasn't a great film and the conceits of the genre it is firmly rooted in held it back more than helped it, The Maze Runner succeeded mainly due to how it flipped the script on the genre and had the maze itself be the oppressor and had the kids be its victims instead of the usual kid versus adult authority figure storyline associated with the genre.


With the sequel The Scorch Trials however that unique premise gives way to a more standardized formula where we find our disparate group of kids facing off against a very familiar looking group of adult authority figures led by an evil woman in pristine white clothing despite the decaying world around her. They of course can't be trusted and want nothing more than to control the lives of these rebellious youngsters which serves as the perfect metaphor for students versus teachers, a common theme in all these types of movies. The unique setting is also sadly replaced with a stereotypical post apocalyptic world filled with dirt, decay and even more oppressive adult figures. If this is all sounding a bit condescending then that's perhaps because it is, but just a little.

The truth of the matter is that even with all those unfortunate changes the film as a whole is still as entertaining as the first. This is mostly in thanks to a competent script mixed with a solid stable of semi-bland young actors who are asked to run away from things...A LOT. You thought there was a lot of running in the first film (and why wouldn't there be, it was called The Maze "Runner" after all), but its sequel takes the level of running to new heights as they run from soldiers, zombies, storms, explosions and of course plenty of adults chasing after them for the entire movie. The real saving grace though is that director Wes Ball (who made the first film as well) really knows how to keep us pleasantly distracted by ramping up the intensity and delivering one pulse pounding set piece after another with the highlight being a creepy journey underground that leads into a sequence where our heroes must run (of course) away from a number of infected called full-termers (advanced zombies basically) which concludes with a harrowing chase up through a tilted skyscraper.


Another positive that was sorely lacking in the first film is the large number of  supporting talent on hand which is comprised mostly of well known character actors filling all the oppressive adult roles. From Aiden Gillen, Lily Taylor, Alan Tudyk, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper and the sole returning adult figure from the last film Patricia Clarkson, there is no shortage of talent on hand. Spread throughout the film and carefully revealed one after the other like a breadcrumb trail, each actor adds an immense amount of gravity to their roles which is like a double edged sword as they all easily one up their younger counterparts.

Speaking of our main group of kids, holdovers such as Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) along with a couple of red shirts are more or less the same as before meaning if you didn't care about them the first time around or if you did that remains largely unchanged. The sole exception of this is Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) who has now become even more annoying than before. At least her change is balanced with the introduction of a new (and more likable) possible love interest for Thomas in the form of Brenda (Rosa Salazar) who is Thomas' Peeta to his Katniss (with Teresa falling into the dreaded Bella category). There are a couple of other new additions but they get so little screen time that it is hardly worth the effort to finish this sentence.


As for the story this time around, as mentioned earlier watching people traverse a very familiar, albeit well realized, wasteland over the first film's much more dynamic and unique maze environment is probably this sequel's biggest downfall in terms of trying to live up to its predecessor's modest number of successes. The execution is still top notch though which helps you forgive it for many of its inherent flaws such as a few boring locations and being a bit more disjointed than the straight forward and to the point narrative focus of the first film. Fans looking for more insight into the mysteries behind the maze and the WCKD organization do get some long overdue answers thankfully but it is all basically just build up for the final chapter. In the end though it is difficult to imagine anyone really knocking the film too much as it succeeds at what it sets out to do and pulls it all off rather well all things considered.

All in all The Scorch Trials is an entertaining, if a bit derivative, sequel to the first film that will have fans of both the books and the films eagerly anticipating the eventual final chapter "The Dead Cure" when it comes around. As far as how it stacks up in the crowded field of misfit films being released in September it comes out ahead for the most part and fills a much needed gap of mindless entertainment. The only real downfall of the film is that unless you have seen and/or liked the first film there is absolutely no reason to see this as the mostly one note characters and cookie cutter post-apocalyptic setting isn't enough to help it stand on its own. As the middle chapter of a trilogy it works, as a stand alone experience it comes up short.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

If you liked The Maze Runner, like watching an assortment of bland teenager types running away from things for 2 hours and are partial to a little zombie action here and there all taking place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that you have seen in countless films before, then The Scorch Trials will give you what you want. If none of the above interests you then its best you skip these trials and stick with your Hunger Games and Divergents.

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