MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS: Action-Packed but Needlessly Overstuffed
Think of this logline: based on the novel (title), a teenage protagonist is forced to battle his/her way through a dystopian surrounding. Does this sound familiar to you?
Think of this logline: based on the novel (title), a teenage protagonist is forced to battle his/her way through a dystopian surrounding. Does this sound familiar to you? Simply said, it has been a reflection of Hollywood these days, in a way that adapting young adult novels into the silver screen has been a trend, one so popular amongst youth and so profitable to film studios. To some who’s had enough of it, you can lay the blame on The Hunger Games and Divergent. Still, popularity breeds success and as long as the windfall keeps rolling, then the Hollywood exec won’t care even a jot.
Using that exact logline, the feature-length adaptation to James Dashner’s The Maze Runner further solidified the genre’s dominance at the box office when it was released last year. For that, Wes Ball deserves a pat in the back for his unique take on the source material. Its minimalistic, restrained approach might be unusual if compared to its action-packed siblings, but that’s exactly what makes The Maze Runner stand out. The dark, claustrophobic atmosphere of the maze certainly helps. Whether The Maze Runner has any more stories to tell beyond it, all hinges on its sequel The Scorch Trials.
For that, at least, The Scorch Trials tries its hardest in doing the book’s world-building justice visually. While being an action-packed upgrade over its predecessor, it only serves to distract itself from its muddled-up substance.
Life after the Maze
Basically, The Scorch Trials picks up from where Maze Runner left off. Right after conquering the Maze, Thomas (Dylan O’ Brien) and his friends now find themselves whisked away to a secure facility. While they are still left clueless over what’s going on, at least, the sight of fellow Maze survivors in their surroundings puts their past nightmares with Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and her WCKD cronies to bed. However, an accidental encounter with a fellow Maze survivor Aris (Jacob Lofland) leads Thomas to a harsh revelation: the WCKD is still alive and particularly, hot on Thomas’ heels. All in all, the facility is just the perfect camouflage for its leader Janson (Aidan Gillen) to take advantage of the survivors for human experimentation.
Just as Thomas and his friends are about to be called for experimentation, they manage to just barely escape the facility. But the gang’s struggle for survival does not stop there. What lies outside the facility is the Scorch, a treacherous desert-like terrain. Roaming amongst the Scorch are zombielike beings called the Cranks. Amidst it all, the gang is part of a power struggle between the WCKD and the rebel organization the Right Arm. With that in mind, Thomas and friends must race against time and Mother Nature herself to conquer the Scorch before death catches up with them.
A Case of Being Too Much
What would The Chronicles of Narnia be without Narnia? The same goes with The Lord of the Rings (Middle-Earth) and even The Hunger Games (Panem), just to name a few. The answer to that would possibly be: no story. They are merely fictional realms, but heir power to drive those stories forward cannot be underestimated. After all, even Pevensies, Frodo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen need their environments to truly develop as a character. There is even a belief among writers that setting should come before characters. With that in mind, it is no surprise to see a lot of first chapters to a novel used to expose the world. The idea is to make the readers understand the visual and historical background of the book’s universe, while acquainting them with the protagonists.
Released just at a time when young adult adaptations were reaching its fever pitch, The Maze Runner was an exception in terms of approach. Instead of making the Maze universe as vast and clear as possible, it was narrowed down to the titular maze. Apart from its dark atmosphere and visuals, that sense of narrowness and restraint was perhaps best epitomized by the narrative’s underlying theme: identity crisis. The two main characters Thomas and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) personified that theme, in a way that identity crisis was not only a literal struggle for them, but also a figurative one with obstacles such as the Glade and the Maze being somewhat life-sized symbols of human’s personal doubt and fear respectively. That very theme remains the underlying element in its sequel The Scorch Trials. Moreover, the way Maze Runner ends in a cliffhanger should mean a more in-depth expansion of the Maze universe.
As faithful as screenwriter T.S. Lowlin tries to be to the source material, The Scorch Trials mashes the book’s additional world-building and characters into the film’s main narrative at once, hampering the film’s flow. Being titled The Scorch Trials, you would expect the Scorch to take center stage just like the Maze did last year. But besides producing one of the action highlights in the film, the Scorch served only as a mere subplot within the rebellion (WCKD v Right Arm) plot. Consequently, other subplots seemed unnecessarily rushed. It even made Alan Tudyk’s great cameo as club owner Marcus seem like a waste of time.
Walking Dead in the Desert
The difference between The Maze Runner and the other yong adult franchises is large, especially budget-wise; just compare The Hunger Games’ ($76 million) and Divergent’s ($85 million) budgets to the first part of The Maze Runner, which had to make do with $34 million. Nonetheless, the first film’s director Wes Ball made use of the shoestring budget to a unique result. If you didn’t know this was a young adult adaptation, it would feel like watching a survival-themed horror film. With emphasizing more on atmosphere than visuals, The Maze Runner’s hands-on approach was a game changer for the young adult adaptation genre.
As low-budget as The Maze Runner was, the final cut was anything but low quality. It was so neatly edited to the point that it would be hard to distinguish between a low-budget adaptation and the high-budget ones. Sure, the steadicam-inspired camerawork used to capture the gait and intensity of Thomas and his fellow runners sprinting through the Maze and other action sequences wasn’t exactly as unique in filmmaking as it was in its atmospheric approach, but it worked onscreen. To top it off, the CGI, for its minimal use, produced the breathtaking special effect in the form of the spider-like threat Griever.
With Fox doubling the budget for The Scorch Trials, audiences are treated to better visuals, and there’s a lot more to pick from as a highlight than in The Maze Runner. Two of those highlights are the zombie chase in the Scorch, and Thomas and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) climbing through fallen structures. Retaining the same camerawork as its predecessor, with only an army of zombielike Cranks replacing Griever, it still makes a thrilling watch. Truth be told, though, if you were not aware of The Scorch Trials’ title and its franchise, the film does feel like a Walking Dead rip-off.
Marginalized Supporting Characters
The strongest point to every young adult adaptation is, of course, the young adults themselves. It is by no means standardizing the young adult genre formula, but it cannot be argued that the first impression does hinges on a strong hero/heroine. The Maze Runner franchise’s Thomas is a stock young adult character. Describing Thomas is like rephrasing the opening part to a Bon Jovi song, “it’s all the same; only the names and genders have changed.”
Nonetheless, the script’s whodunit approach and mostly newcomer Dylan O’Brien’s down-to-earth take on the character prevent the movies from becoming too cookie-cutter. While you’re aware that Thomas plays central role in the unraveling of the mystery, the 24-year-old actor’s elusive gestures and facial expression did well to mask the obvious, just like the script.
On the downside, it does feel as if the returning supporting characters’ screen-time is a bit marginalized just to enter new characters into The Scorch Trials. An example of that can be seen by the larger amount of screentime Rosa Salazar gets as teenage rebel Brenda, compared to returning actress Kaya Scodelario as Thomas’ partner Teresa. Salazar does stand out, with her short-haired, tomboyish appearance and attitude, she gets the rebellious quality of the character right, especially in the action sequences. Moreover, in dramatic sequences, she has some chemistry with Thomas. However, it’s all at the expense of Scodelario’s Teresa. In The Maze Runner, she emerged as the more dominant character alongside Thomas, but in The Scorch Trials, apart from the twist ending, she is virtually non-existent in terms of narrative development.
Supposedly, a sequel always has to be bigger and better than the first. Certainly, The Maze Runner’s follow-up The Scorch Trials makes the Maze universe a whole lot bigger, even if little of the action actually takes place in the Scorch, which is too bad. Also, aside from Dylan O’Brien’s Thomas, the returning actors’ had to make space for the great amounts of new characters that were introduced to the story. Nonetheless, the action-packed Scorch Trials is still an improvement over The Maze Runner.
What did you think of The Scorch Trials? Which do you prefer: the first Maze Runner or The Scorch Trials?
(top image source: 20th Century Fox)
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