Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

★★★

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 10th, 2015 (UK); September 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Science fiction; Thriller

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen

As a direct follow up to The Maze Runner, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials grants director Wes Ball an opportunity to throw us straight out of the frying pan and into the fire. There is no time to catch up, no dialogue wasted on refresher exposition. You could stitch the final reel of the former onto the first reel of the latter and the flow would be seamless. It’s an approach that respects up-to-date viewers but also risks alienating franchise newbies; unlike the Divergent series, the lingo in this mid-franchise outing is harder to grasp — we suddenly learn of a virus called the Flare, a mountain-based faction who go by The Right Arm, and more about the horribly named corporate wrongdoers WCKD.

Aiden Gillen’s Janson, a facility head with an iffy demeanour, sets the scene: “The world out there’s in a precarious situation”. Perhaps the only thing less stable than civilisation is Gillen’s vacillating accent, though in fairness he does fund the film’s early uneasy air. Having escaped the maze, the Gladers — including Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) — find themselves holed up in a bunker eerily similar to the one run by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) in the last film. Free from seclusion, freshly cooked food, their own bunk beds. It’s as if everything is too good to be true.

Only, in reality, nothing’s good anymore. The world outside, aptly rechristened the Scorch, has been ravaged by heat and disease. Zombie-like creatures called Cranks roam freely in search of flesh to chew on. A step up from the maze beasts, these clambering speedsters evoke a 28 Weeks Later vibe, especially as they are positioned within a climate of militant command and clinical action. Thomas, in spite of all this misery, manages to muster up some rebellious positivity. He is the eternal optimist in a pessimistic world.

Maybe they see a ray of hope radiating from Thomas in the wake of his stubborn idealism, but people do trust him too easily and this undermines the credibility of the story. Aris (Jacob Lofland), a loner who spent time in another maze before the bunker round-up, opts to collude with Thomas despite not knowing him. It is a theme throughout: our hero is heralded as a morally, physically, and mentally infallible being. When the group come across a refuge disguised as a dumping ground for old garments and rusty equipment, they all take the opportunity to dawn suitable Scorch clothing. Apart from Thomas, who discovers a suave jacket among the dross, something that could have graced Ryan Gosling in better times.

It’s as if all the others know he is the film’s central star. Fortunately none of this canonisation really matters because Dylan O’Brien is such a charismatic and inviting screen presence (a less capable frontman might’ve been insufferable given the circumstances). The film is arguably at its most compelling during those rare moments when Thomas does have to confront vulnerability. There’s an animosity at the fore, driven particularly by Teresa who begins to question her counterpart’s role in bringing about rebellion. Are they doing the correct thing by evading WCKD? Was the Glade as good as it was ever going to get?

Regardless, we know WCKD boasts an immoral underbelly. Towards the beginning, Thomas and Aris find out that Janson’s apparently safe retreat is actually a giant-shrimp-breeding-cum-human-blood-harvesting factory controlled by the aforementioned organisation. It may be a source material problem, or an issue with mainstream popcorn fiction in general, but the narrative occasionally lacks plausibility. Aside from the Thomas trust issue, even more blatantly obvious coincidences rear with jarring nonchalance: a revealing crisis conversation between Janson and Ava just so happens to occur in the company of Thomas and Aris on the night they break into the secret facility.

The message is clearly anti-corporation and anti-oppression, and T.S. Nowlin’s screenplay not-so-subtly channels that message via Thomas’ middle finger. These mature themes are matched by a horror-inspired underbelly that teeters right on the edge of a 12A UK rating. Fans of the Fallout video game series might mistake certain set pieces for similar looking locations in said game’s nuclear-torn Washington D.C. (an abandoned subway station springs to mind). Cinematographer Gyula Pados has more to play with here and the wider scope benefits Ball’s film greatly. Broken cities incite awe and wariness as they resemble the urban desolation shown at the end of Inception, while seemingly endless storm-strewn deserts echo Peter Weir’s The Way Back.

Giancarlo Esposito is one of a plethora of effective secondary characters — casting director Denise Chamain deserves credit for employing so many actors willing to maximise the potential of their bit part statuses. As leader of a ragtag stowaway group, Esposito purveys a mystery that keeps you on your toes (like Rick from The Walking Dead, he also always greets newcomers with three inquisitive questions). There’s an exquisitely queasy turn from Firefly favourite Alan Tudyk — who could do with a wash — though he is part of an unnecessary sideshow plot. Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel turns up as a Scorch survivor alongside Rosa Salazar’s strong-willed Brenda.

Having run the maze in sufficient time, they’ve now passed the trials with a splash of merit. It has been an entertaining if unspectacular effort so far. Let’s hope when part three — The Death Cure — rolls into the Scorch, SuperTom and co. finish with aplomb.

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Maze Runner (2014)

★★★

The Maze Runner PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 19th, 2014 (US); October 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Twilight kick-started the craze only for it to ripen amongst the chaos of The Hunger Games’ Cornucopian anarchy. The young adult adaptation trend is sweeping cinema and its latest passenger, The Maze Runner, is certainly one of the better book to screen jobs. This latest jaunt owes a great debt to Suzanne Collins’ novels in particular, and manages to hold up stringently despite not sharing The Hunger Games’ politically infused backbone. It’s a solid film that will likely play better when pitted alongside the planned sequels, but for now Wes Ball’s directorial debut should be considered, at the very least, a steadfast success.

Devoid of his ability to remember, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) awakens inside a noisy metal cage that is rapidly ascending skywards. It suddenly halts, opening to reveal bright sunlight and a group of grubby males. Thomas soon learns that about the Maze, an ever mobile entrapment monitored at night by dangerous spider-like Grievers. To make matters worse, the boys are stuck in the Glade — the grassy centre of the Maze — and there doesn’t appear to be any way out.

The rules: trust, run, return. Led by the longest serving inmate, Alby, the group of young males have systematically formed and subsequently cater to a subsistence society; some build bamboo prisons, some farm vegetables, some run the Maze. These Runners, we’re warned, must return from their exploration exploits before dark or else they’ll be trapped for the night and “no one has ever survived a night in the Maze”. The opening act is very pre-occupied with Basil Exposition. Launching us into this new, mysterious world without any briefing, the filmmakers do their damnedest to catch us up on happenings without giving too much away.

What we have, then, is a Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games narrative composite, and one that works rather well. Whilst thematic exploration is a tad frothy, the film definitely has the latter’s industry. It shows too. Visually, The Maze Runner dips into that familiar gloomy, metallic sheen before unravelling with energy and turbulence as characters enter the Maze. Perhaps too caught up in the action, the camera itself becomes overly-eager on occasion but cinematographer Enrique Chediak ultimately reflects the disparate tone of proceedings. It is worth pointing out John Paesano’s brooding score also, one that spikes in moments of danger and gets the heart racing.

And it’s not just in these areas of technicality that the film resembles its older cousin, but also in plot make-up. The Maze, it turns out, is split into eight sections much like games’ twelve in Catching Fire. The cage that elevates Thomas into the Glades at the start is essentially the glass pod that drops Katniss off at the Cornucopia. Although the piece doesn’t resonate thematically — at least not with the same rigour — there are interesting momentary flares. At its heart, The Maze Runner is an analysis of defeatism, of struggle and acceptance. Thomas’ arrival signals a resurgence in moral determination for some Gladers (“I don’t know if [Thomas] is brave or stupid but I think we should make him a Runner”) whereas others, such as the group’s perennial enforcer Gally, seem somewhat content with their chained destiny. We can almost empathise with him too, given the Glades isn’t really all that horrifying a place.

The aforementioned element of mystery — amplified when Kaya Scodelario’s sole female Teresa shows up — helps us relate to the characters as a collective; essentially, we know as much as they do and vice versa. By the same token, Wes Ball is faced with the task of balancing the integral build of tension with restraint when it comes to use of the Maze. He almost achieves this unity too and that simmering atmosphere is nearly there — the brutalist appearance of the snaring stone structure combined with hardly any knowledge, a sense of dissolution and a lack of someone to villainise all coalesce together into a medium-sized wave of carpeting tension.

We do get the sense that Ball and company have been sold down the river when it comes to matching the tone with on screen events. Put simply, the film needs to be a little more violent. Instead the audience can just about smell the stench of studio-implemented pandering at the expense of storytelling. Sequences in the Maze are effective yet never totally capture the risk that would normally be glaring from the screen, and it’s because of this sterilised approach. The Griever monsters, all hybrids of the Xenomorph, the Predator and Shelob, look like they could do some hefty damage but we never really feel the brunt of their potential capacity.

As is often the case in this genre these days, the cast do well. Dylan O’Brien leads the way as the “curious” Thomas and manages to garner a feeling of hard-to-pinpoint inner turmoil whilst also coming across as capable, as someone fuelled by purpose. The arrival of Teresa does prescribe in tandem worries over a clichéd romance between the pair, but love takes a back seat as it should under the circumstances. Kaya Scodelario is also effective in her role, but she’s the one who draws the shortest straw in terms of character development. More to come, I suspect.

Two other stand-outs are Will Poulter, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a promising big screen talent, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Game of Thrones fans will recognise Brodie-Sangster, here playing second in command Newt who is arguably the most accessible of the bunch. Despite his role as the most remonstrative resident, Poulter ensures that Gally retains an understandable righteousness. Friction-causing notwithstanding, Gally’s thoughts are always practical and occasionally hold greater verve than the riskier doings of others.

The inconclusive ending does hurt the film. Revelations arrive a tad too easily before concluding abruptly, and it is clear that those in charge have at least one eye on the sequel by the time the final act rolls around. It is also true that during the two hour runtime, there ought to have been a warrant for deeper examination into societal codes between the boys. Having said that, opting to engage with The Hunger Games over Lord of the Flies is probably a wise decision in 2014.

The Maze Runner is a very good three star film that could, given time and triumphant sequels, become a laudable four star franchise opener.

The Maze Runner - Dylan O'Brien and Will Poulter

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox