Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language

When I saw the first Maze Runner movie last year, I thought it to be ninety percent of a great young-adult sci-fi movie, only really let down by its ending and by the actress cast as the female lead. Unfortunately, these two factors both made me fear for the quality of the next film in this planned trilogy, given that it would be following on from that ending, and that said female lead would be playing a larger role in the story. I went into this movie with my brother James and his girlfriend Mary simply because I liked the original, not expecting it to live up to it in the slightest. I certainly wasn't expecting for all three of us to be completely blown away by it. What could've been just a disposable, junky teen dystopian movie instead turned out to be one of the best action movies of the summer, one that doesn't deserve to be dismissed as a ripoff of The Hunger Games like it probably will.

Following on from the end of the first film, The Scorch Trials begins with our protagonists, led by Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), solving the mystery of the maze. Short version: years ago, a solar flare devastated the planet and wiped out civilization, and then a zombie virus broke out (in true zombie movie form, the Z-word is never used; they're called "flares" instead). This led to the rise of the villainous government organization WCKD (sorry, still can't get over that name), who created the maze as an experiment in curing the virus; since it affects people's brains in accordance with some neurological technobabble, it was concluded that putting people through the mental/physical tests of the maze would help find those who were immune. Our heroes passed the test and escaped, only to find themselves brought to a military bunker. There, some people claiming to be part of the resistance against WCKD (hehehehehe), led by one Dr. Janson, offer them protection from WCKD (hehe- okay, I'll stop) and the Scorch, the harsh wasteland outside the walls, before resettling them in some of the more habitable parts of the world. Before long, however, it becomes patently obvious that these guys have more nefarious motives in mind -- namely, they're working for WCKD, looking to experiment on the kids further. Thomas leads his friends in a daring escape from the bunker, and now, they must survive in the Scorch, a battered landscape of ruined cities, storms, flares, and human survivors with their own ulterior motives, all while looking for a resistance group called "The Right Arm".

There are more than a few holes in the overarching story -- the explanation for the flare virus doesn't make a lot of sense from a scientific standpoint, the fact that they need to experiment on teenagers in particular is never really explained all that well and works better as metaphor than anything -- but honestly, in the face of everything that this movie does right, I can hardly fault it for that. This is essentially a YA dystopian version of a zombie survival movie, and when it comes to both world-building and action, it had me eagerly anticipating what was coming next just as I did when watching the first movie. One standout scene involved the crew venturing into a city that, while battered, is still inhabited and is under some level of control by WCKD, albeit held together by the barest of threads. When the protagonists meet Marcus, an informant for WCKD who may know where the Right Arm can be found, we don't get much of an explanation for why Marcus is hosting a massive party in his mansion, filled with loud music and people in Mad-Max-by-way-of-Burning-Man fashions... but we don't need one, because everything about the scene explains itself better than words ever could. We see that there's actually a world left beyond WCKD, that most people are still trying to get by however they can, and that Marcus (a small, but great, cameo by Alan Tudyk) is a pretty eccentric and flamboyant individual, one who's found a way to provide a valuable service to people starved for a chance to blow off steam. Likewise, while the film's themes of the older generations exploiting the young are plain to see, it doesn't beat you over the head with them either. It's such that you really don't need to have seen the first movie to get what's going on (though it definitely helps), as this one deftly builds its universe such that it easily pulls you right in.

The same is true with the various subtle shades given to the characters, most of whom never lay out their backstories in detail but drop enough hints as to what they're up to and what they're thinking about that they feel quite fleshed-out. We get lines here and there throughout the film giving everybody some depth. The returning cast does a great job with this -- Dylan O'Brien is still likable yet tough as Thomas, Ki Hong Lee still kicks ass with a smile on his face as Minho, and even Kaya Scodelario as Teresa seems to have taken some acting lessons between the first film and this one, as evidenced by a pivotal scene towards the end. It's the new guys who are the standouts, though, most notably Giancarlo Esposito and Rosa Salazar as the post-apocalyptic survivors Jorge and Brenda. When we reach their compound, they feel like they stepped straight off the set of The Walking Dead, and their presence definitely livens up the experience. Little is said about their relationship, but you can definitely feel that the two of them care about one another and have some sort of father-daughter bond, which is brought to life incredibly well by the actors. They care little about WCKD or the Right Arm at first, but after they learn first-hand why WCKD earns its acronym (sorry, couldn't resist), they eagerly join the fight. Both of them bring a rougher edge to this movie, each getting a chance to shine in the grand finale.

And speaking of, the action in this film, with a budget that's downright tiny by modern blockbuster standards, still kicks more ass than half of what I've seen this year. Much of it relies on old-style, slow-build tension in the vein of a zombie movie or Jurassic Park, as the heroes explore abandoned malls and sewers before encountering hordes of flares. Even with a PG-13 rating, both the flares and WCKD feel like a real menace, and you get to see enough of the flares' surprisingly grotesque design that you never want to be in the same room as them. While shaky-cam is occasionally present, it's kept under control far more often than not, used more to give a sense of panic to the proceedings than to cover up poor fight choreography. The final melee where WCKD closes in on the survivors is exhilarating, and every battle with them before then is a treat to watch. While smaller in scope than most of this year's crop of blockbusters, it often feels far more intense than something like, say, The Transporter Refueled.

Score: 5 out of 5

This film is behind only Mad Max: Fury Road as the best action film I've seen this year, and right now, the series is up there with The Hunger Games. It takes what should've been, by all rights, a silly teenybopper flick and makes something incredibly entertaining out of it, without insulting viewers' intelligence. It's no masterpiece, and it never tries to be anything more than a great thrill ride, but it pulls that off with flying colors from start to finish.

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