Friday, 11 September 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It seems like only a year ago that The Maze Runner shuffled into the multiplexes wielding an interesting concept and a middling finished product. 

But it's true. Only a year ago, debut director Wes Ball dove headlong into the crowded waters of young-adult-literature adaptations and emerged with a green-lit sequel deal that signalled, rather accurately, the public's appetite for still more post-apocalypse teen thrillers.

In 12 months, then, Ball has managed to corral a meatier second instalment that chugs along with admirable confidence in its own limited ability. Removed from the claustrophobia of the eponymous maze, film two, The Scorch Trials, tackles infinitely broader themes: the survival of the species at the expense of the few; the expendability of the powerless; man's proclivity for conflict during times of peril. 

In spite of the expanded canvas and spirited performances, however, there is a distinct lack of originality here. With its predictable dialogue and a cornucopia of well-worn dystopian tropes, Ball's film will struggle to compel as much as it fails to appeal.

Proceedings pick up immediately from where The Maze Runner departed, the small band of capable teens – led by Dylan O'Brien's determined, if perpetually confused, Thomas – having been transported from their prison of the last movie to a fortress inhabited by a mysterious, well-equipped group purporting to oppose the evil WCKD corporation. That rescuer-in-chief Janson (Aiden Gillen, leering as usual) should have ulterior motives is obvious and before long Thomas is scrambling for freedom alongside his devoted fellow travellers.

Making few allowances for those who have neither read James Dashner's terribly serious literary series, nor seen the previous entry (in which the existence of more than one mighty labyrinth was finally revealed as being a significant plot point), The Scorch Trials pitches its young heroes into a breathless chase movie peppered with the occasional slice of visual artistry – the vastness of the wastes beyond civilisation, "the Scorch", is undeniably impressive – and a good deal of self-belief. 

The middle third, too, is solid, Ball creating genuine tension in the detritus of our fallen planet. Indeed, for a time, there exists potential for something beyond the rote conventions of the genre. Unfortunately, it doesn't last. Robbed of its strongest central element, namely the bio-mechanical purgatory that was the maze, this is a picture that swiftly runs out of steam. 

Latterly, Thomas and friends are sucked into a kind of Terminator-meets-The-Hunger-Games mishmash of familiar futuristic material. From the efforts of ghostly (but not really) resistance fighters the Right Arm, to the main character's inevitable renaissance as a revolutionary leader, the puzzling story never moves beyond a narrative that is still less exciting than all concerned appear to believe. The arrival of shadow-dwelling mutants, hiding in a set that the Walking Dead crew might consider luxurious, is little more than a tired nod to the zeitgeist, our cast's various frantic escapes from putrid clutches having been witnessed in every zombie movie ever made.

In spite of appearances by seasoned vets like Barry Pepper and Giancarlo Esposito, this is a film that rests on Thomas's skinny shoulders. Wielding enough charisma to pass as a leading man, O'Brien does a sound job conveying the gravity of his situation. 

Yet, late on, as events crumble around him into a haze of explosions and snooze-inducing action, one is left with the impression that O'Brien looks most perturbed by the fact that Thomas's fate, deferred until Dashner concludes the saga, should feel so predictable.