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The Scorch Trials

D: Wes Ball / 132m

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aiden Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, Alan Tudyk

Following on immediately from the events of The Maze Runner (2014), The Scorch Trials begins with Thomas (O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers – Teresa (Scodelario), Minho (Lee), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Darden), and Winston (Flores) – having escaped the maze and finding sanctuary in a facility run by Mr Janson (Gillen). All seems to be well, and Janson refutes any connection to WCKD, the organisation that’s behind the maze and the reason for its existence. But strange things are going on in the facility; each night selected Immunes from other mazes are chosen to be taken to a place of safety, far away from WCKD’s clutches. And Teresa is separated from the group. When Thomas tries to see her he’s prevented from doing so.

Help comes in the form of Aris, one of the first survivors to be brought to the facility. He shows Thomas proof that Janson is lying about the Immunes being safe, and that he works for WCKD. Rescuing Teresa from some kind of medical procedure, Thomas and the rest of the Gladers, and Aris, escape from the facility and find themselves in the hostile environment of the Scorch. There they encounter Cranks, people infected by the Flare, the disease that has brought worldwide destruction to the planet. Thomas and the rest head north to a range of nearby mountains where they hope to meet up with a resistance group called The Right Arm.

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Circumstances find them taking shelter from a thunderstorm, where they meet Brenda (Salazar) and her surrogate father, Jorge (Esposito). Their hideout is discovered by WCKD forces led by Janson. In the resulting firefight, Thomas and Brenda find themselves separated from everyone else, but they manage to escape. At a nearby night club run by the duplicitous Marcus (Tudyk), the pair fall foul of a powerful narcotic but are saved by Jorge and the others. Marcus is forced to reveal the location of The Right Arm’s location in the mountains, and the group travels there quickly. But when they reach the Right Arm’s camp – led by Vince (Pepper) – Thomas is dismayed to discover that one of his friends has contacted WCKD, and more of their forces are on their way.

Where The Maze Runner was a surprising, tightly structured introduction to the world of the Flare and the young people known as Immunes, The Scorch Trials alas suffers very definitely from Middle Movie Syndrome. It tries hard to be as dramatic and as intense as its predecessor but the narrative is against it from the start. This is a movie that gives sporadic clues as to the larger back story, and even seems on the cusp of revealing some really important information about Thomas and his time working for WCKD, but ultimately it holds back from doing so, leaving any revelations for the final movie, The Death Cure, now due in January 2018 thanks to Dylan O’Brien’s on-set injuries suffered back in March of this year.

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With the plot put largely on hold until then, The Scorch Trials becomes one long chase movie, with Thomas once again acting as unofficial leader of the Immunes, and Clarkson returning as WCKD head Dr Ava Paige. Character development is also put on hold, and the introduction of new antagonists such as Janson and Brenda is done in such a perfunctory way that it becomes impressive that both Gillen and Salazar are able to inject anything of note into their performances. And with Thomas front and centre throughout, O’Brien’s co-stars are left wth little to do but stand around while he agonises over his past, and monopolises the action scenes.

But where the plot struggles to make itself felt, the movie does impress with said action scenes, and several of the encounters with the Cranks are filmed with a sweat-inducing energy that makes what are essentially zombie attacks that much more inventive. It’s difficult enough to come up with a new look for any flesh-eaters, but the makeup and visual effects departments have done a great job here, and those that Thomas et al encounter in a ruined shopping mall are a terrific addition to the canon. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is still an adaptation of a YA novel, and the movie should be congratulated for keeping the darkness that is inherent in James Dashner’s novel (even if certain changes have been made in terms of the story).

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More troublesome is the night club sequence which slows down the movie in its attempt to remind viewers that Thomas has a shared past with WCKD (it also seems to have been included to further remind viewers that when it comes to narcotics they should Just Say No). T.S. Nowlin’s script hits an awkward stretch at this point, almost as if it couldn’t find a way forward unless Thomas found himself in even more jeopardy than before. And the subsequent “interrogation” of Marcus by Jorge sees the kind of strong-arm tactics used that doesn’t sit well with the idea that this is being carried out by one of the “good” guys (there’s only a token objection made to Jorge’s methods of information gathering).

Away from troubling notions of the means justifying the ends, the movie lacks a suitable hook for the audience to cling on to. With the movie’s raison d’etre being to set up the final movie (no two-parter, thankfully), returning director Wes Ball can do little except keep things ticking over until next time. That he does this with a certain amount of conviction is evident enough, but it doesn’t help with a number of scenes that prove listless and ineffective, and there’s too much repetition as the characters move from one new introduction to yet another. This also leaves new cast members such as Pepper and Lili Taylor failing to make an impact, an oversight that points once more to the problems of trying to cram so much into a movie that runs for over two hours and lacks an overall focus.

Rating: 6/10 – although it moves (for the most part) with alacrity, The Scorch Trials isn’t as rewarding as The Maze Runner, and tries its best to make up for this by putting all its efforts into making its action scenes as thrilling as possible; in between times though, some viewers may be wondering why so much has been included and why so very little of it builds upon what’s gone before.