Wednesday, September 23, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials was written by T.S. Nowlin and directed by Wes Ball.

Nowlin co-wrote the original film with Noah Oppenheim and Grant Pierce Myers. Wes Ball directed the original as well. Amazingly, this is the second film he's ever directed. 

I liked the first film for the most part. I thought the Maze and its mysterious origin made the movie feel like a big budget Twilight Zone episode. Then they revealed the reason behind the Maze, and suddenly I didn't like it so much anymore. Better to have left the ending vague, with Thomas and Minho discovering the exit and going through as the screen faded to black. That certainly would have been preferable to the vague, nonsensical explanation we got. Any time you have a story with a big central mystery, answering it is nearly always a letdown. The audience can always imagine something much better than the actual answer.

The Scorch Trials opens up the Maze Runner world quite a bit, adding destroyed cities, vast deserts, Mad Max-style societies and hordes of pseudo-zombies to the mix. Unfortunately it doesn't add much in the way of plot, as the characters simply dash from one expensive set piece to another.

Character development takes a big hit in this installment as well. Anyone who isn't Thomas is little more than set dressing this time around. When one of the characters is bitten by a zombie and begins turning into one, we're obviously supposed to be saddened and concerned by his fate. Unfortunately all I could think was, "Who the hell is this kid? Was he even in the first movie?"

The first film had an identity all its own, as it concerned a group of kids trying to survive a deadly maze. The Scorch Trials has no such uniqueness. It's all over the place, as it cribs elements from outbreak movies, post apocalyptic films and even zombie movies.

Despite the title, there are no mazes in this followup, but there is a lot of running. Lots and lots of running. There's no time to breathe or think about what it all means, as the minute they arrive at a point, it's time to head to the next one.They rarely if ever stand still, like they're afraid if they stop for even a second, the audience will lose interest and start diddling with their phones.

Most of these YA film series are action packed, but also contain a message for those willing to look below the surface. The Hunger Games is about the evils of the media. The Insurgent series is an allegory against conformity (I think). The Maze Runner films though... I have no idea what they're about. Socialized medicine? Thinking outside the box (or the maze)? The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? I'm honestly not sure.

One last thing— I haven't read any of the books, but I assumed that this was a trilogy, like the majority of Young Adult series. Well, not quite. Turns out there are a whopping FIVE books in the series! There's the main Maze Runner Trilogy, plus two prequel books. So does that mean there are gonna be five movies? As long as they make money, I'd say yes. Steel yourself, gang, we may still have three more movies to get through.


The Plot:
The film picks up right where the last one left off, which will be mighty confusing to anyone walking into this one cold. The survivors of the Maze— Thomas (our hero), Minho, Teresa, Newt, Frypan and Winston— are all whisked away by helicopter to an unknown facility. It's run by Mr. Janson (played by Game Of Thrones' Aiden Gillen), who assures them that he and the facility have absolutely nothing to do with WCKD (the evil organization that built the Maze).

Janson explains that Not-WCKD is a safe haven and provides food and shelter for the many Immunes from the various Mazes (yep, there were more than one!). Once a day Janson selects several Immunes who will be taken to yet another even more special sanctuary. Thomas is suspicious of Janson and Not-WCKD, especially when he notices Teresa is missing.

Aris, a survivor from another Maze, contacts Thomas and tells him all is not what it seems in Not-WCKD. The two sneak out of their rooms and explore the facility. They find a secret lab housing all the previously taken Immunes in giant tubes. They're apparently being harvested for their precious bodily fluids, which can cure the Flare (the world-wide plague that decimated the world). Thomas also overhears Janson talking to Ava Paige, the evil scientist who runs WCKD, and who apparently got better after seemingly killing herself in the previous film. Gosh, it's a WCKD facility after all! Who would have guessed? Janson tells Paige that he's close to locating and wiping out the Right Arm, a resistance group located in the mountains.

Thomas finds Teresa and rescues her, and he and his group escape the Not-WCKD facility. They're unprepared for life outside though, in the lifeless Scorch. They hole up in an abandoned mall, but are attacked by Cranks (humans turned into zombies by the Flare virus). Winston is bitten by a Crank, and the group barely escapes for their lives.

They trudge through the endless Scorch, trying to make it to the mountains and the Right Hand. Winston begins turning into a Crank and kills himself. The rest make it to a hidden base at the foot of the mountains. There they meet Jorgé and his adopted daughter Brenda. Jorgé is an opportunist and plans to hand the group over to WCKD for a hefty fee. Just then WCKD attacks Jorgé's base and kills nearly everyone in it. Jorgé, Brenda and Thomas' group flee and eventually find the Right Arm camp high in the mountains.

Brenda was bitten by a Crank during their escape, and Vince (played by Barry Pepper), the leader of the Right Arm, wants to kill her before she turns. Mary (played by Lily Taylor), the group's doctor, synthesizes a serum from Thomas' blood that stops the Flare virus. Unfortunately it doesn't cure it, and she'll need regular injections of Thomas' blood for the rest of her life.

WCKD manages to track down the camp and blows it to smithereens. Teresa reveals she contacted WCKD and told them their location. Apparently WCKD restored her wiped memory, and she's now working for them, believing they only want to cure the Flare. Paige and Janson take Minho, Teresa and a bunch of other Immunes back to WCKD, leaving Thomas and a handful of survivors behind. Thomas convinces the others they have to fight back and overthrow WCKD once and for all, as the screen fades to black.

• Just a reminder that WCKD stands for World in Catastrophe Killzone experiment Department, which tells me someone reeeeeeally wanted it to spell "wicked."

• After reaching the sanctuary, Thomas and his group take much needed showers. In true movie fashion, Thomas places one hand against the wall and stares at the floor as the water pours over him. HAW! I couldn't help but laugh.

Does ANYONE ever take a shower like that in real life?

• The Not-WCKD facility features massive air vents that are wide enough and sturdy enough for a person to crawl through. Just like in 95% of movies and TV shows.

• At the end of the film there's a big ol' full screen credit that reads, "Costume Design By Sanja Milkovic Hays." Seriously? Someone designed these outfits? 

It looks more like Hays drove to North Face, bought all the jackets, shirts, pants and boots they had, dragged them behind her car for a few miles and then passed them out to the cast.

The only costumes I saw that might have actually been designed were the WCKD troopers and Ava Paige's white "Cruella de Vil" coat.

• Patricia Clarkson plays evil WCKD leader Eva Paige. Every time she was onscreen, I couldn't help but think of Tammy I from Parks & Recreation. She even acted like Tammy I!

• Aiden Gillen plays Mr. Janson, Eva Paige's evil minion. Gillen would make a really good live action Reed Richards if Fox ever decides to make a good Fantastic Four movie. One that doesn't feature an all-teen cast, like their recent abomination, that is. He's even got the requisite graying temples!

• As is the law in most scifi movies, this one features 3D holograms, but with visible scan lines and less resolution than an old school picture tube TV. Why do they always do that? Why would futuristic video technology look worse than what we have now?

I guess they do this to help sell the idea we're watching a screen and not a live person, but surely there's a better way.

• As Thomas and Aris snoop around Not-WCKD, they find a lab full of giant tubes, each containing a large flea-like monstrosity. 

I guess they were supposed to be the Grievers, the monsters that populated the Maze in the previous film. Oddly enough, no one ever comments on them. Not even a perfunctory, "I say, what the heck are those giant weevil things?"

• Once again I have to mention the awesome spectacle of Minho's massive shelf of hair. It juts out a good six to eight inches over his forehead, like the bill of a baseball cap. It's really quite impressive.

* As they're crossing the vast desert of the Scorch, Minho drains the last few drops of water from his canteen. He looks at it for a few seconds, then throws it away in disgust. Hey, might as well, Minho! I'm sure you won't ever be needing something to hold water in ever again!

• The Crank zombies were pretty impressive and gruesome looking. That said, some of the more advanced specimens appeared to have tendrils or roots growing out of them, looking a lot like the Infected in The Last Of Us video game.

• Ava Paige's giant WCKD transport ship looks a lot like the Hunter Killers from the Terminator films. A LOT. It looks for all the world like they took a Hunter Killer model and stuck two more engines on it and called it a day.

• Lily Taylor plays Mary, the Right Arm's resident doctor. It's always good to see her in anything. Unfortunately she's killed off way too soon.

• When Thomas and his group arrive at the Right Arm's camp, Mary, their resident doctor, tends to Brenda's wound. She synthesizes a serum from Thomas' blood, which treats, but doesn't cure, the Flare virus in her system. She tells Thomas that Brenda will need these injections for the rest of her life, or she'll turn into a Crank.

Jorgé thanks Thomas of the blood, and says he doesn't know what he'd do if anything ever happened to Brenda. Um... Jorgé did just hear Mary say Brenda will need Thomas' blood serum from now on, right? It's a treatment, not a cure. 

And what happens after Mary's killed? Does anyone else in the Right Arm know how to make the serum? Seems to me like Brenda's screwed.

• Since this is the second part of a trilogy (unless they split part three into two lucrative halves), I knew it would end on a cliffhanger. Trouble was there were about ten spots where it could have ended, but it kept going and going and going and...

I came close to shouting, "Just end it already!"

• At the end of the film, things look pretty grim for our heroes. WCKD has captured Minho and dozens of other Immunes and is taking them back to their lab to grind them into medicine or whatever they're doing. Thomas and his handful of survivors decide enough's enough, and vow to overthrow WCKD once and for all.

Since they're hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the outlook's not so good. They're going to need reinforcements. I predict they'll discover yet another hidden rebel group somewhere in the mountains. One that has a large, highly trained army and is equipped with guns, ammo and vehicles.

That's exactly what happened in The Hunger Games and the Divergent series. In each case, the ragtag heroes didn't have a chance against their technologically superior enemy until they discovered a heretofore unknown army, pulled directly out of the writer's ass. I expect the same thing to happen here.

• When everyone agrees to side with Thomas and attack WCKD, they ask him what his amazing plan is. The camera cuts to a closeup of him, and fades to black before he can open his mouth. Eh, don't worry about it, he'll tell you his plan same time next year!

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials features much more action than the origin, and opens up the series' world. Unfortunately it does so at the expense of plot and character development. I give it a B-.

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