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Friday, September 18, 2015

Review: THE SCORCH TRIALS Ditches the Mystery in Favor of Video Game Action

I liked last year's The Maze Runner. It wasn't great, but it was a solid sci-fi film, the sort I would have fallen in love with catching it over and over on the Sci-Fi channel when I was younger. Sure, it was a conscious "Boy's Only Club" take on some of the typical Young Adult tropes, something the world absolutely didn't need, but it still managed to feel inventive and thrilling, and director Wes Ball proved in his debut feature to have an excellent sense of pacing and a solid eye for design. It was restrained and a little bit weird in a blockbuster environment that typically favored neither. I wish I could say the same for its sequel, The Scorch Trials, a mostly by-the-numbers YA vehicle that runs wild with the absolute things about the first film.

There are still some things that I like. I appreciate the fact that the second movie feels like a continuation, rather than a redo - there's no new maze and, despite the title, no new trials. Instead, the heroes move from playing the game of the egregiously, laughably named WCKD - the abbreviation for the somehow even dumber organization of doctors who inexplicably named themselves World Catastrophe: Killzone Department - to escaping them altogether and rebelling against their desire. You see, only these children are immune to a disease that's ravaging the planet, turning people into plant-like rage zombies, and all WCKD's tests are geared towards trying to cure this disease by testing the young pe--

-- wait a second. That all sounds super familiar. A viral infection that turn people into plant-like zombies. The last hope presented by a young person immune to the disease. A fucking sewer level. Am I watching a really pricey Let's Play of The Last of Us?

Yes, The Scorch Trials is basically just a live-action video game - one video game in particular, if we're being honest - and it borrows many of modern gaming's worst impulses. Take one bland white dude hero, stick him in an ultra-generic setting that barely even qualifies as a pastiche of all the popular sci-fi stuff out there right now, give damn near everyone purely functional dialogue (A sample exchange: "We need to go." "Let's go.") and basically no character, and then make everyone kind of a selfish sociopath.

Because, again, the plot of this movie revolves around a bunch of kids who abandon a shit-ton of other kids to potential death all so that they won't have to be tested on to find a cure for a disease that's killed off a large-and-growing percentage of the world population. These are our heroes. They're led by Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, Teen Wolf) and his mostly-silent lust-object Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, Skins), and they include a number of actors from the first film who are mostly there because I guess they were in the first one. They don't really do much, even though literally any of them would make for a more interesting protagonist. They serve no real purpose, however, largely replaced by the tough-as-nails Brenda (Rosa Salazar, Parenthood) and her conniving father-figure Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad), a pair of wasteland survivors who realize these kids may be their ticket to a better life. Hunting them all down? The wicked WCKD, led by Janson (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones) and the evil doctor who is trying to save humanity, Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson, Easy A), who will stop at nothing to make sure these kids survive.

Wes Ball continues to have a strong sense of pacing, at least, and that helps keep the movie inventive and engaging, even when the story and the characters and basically everything that's happening make no sense whatsoever. The set pieces mostly evolve pretty naturally from the story - though there's one particularly dumb one in which the kids try to outrun a lightning storm, a plot I'll barely accept in a Flash story and actually laughed at in this one - and Ball builds them well, letting things escalate naturally but never letting the action drag on too long. But while they're well-paced, they aren't particularly innovative in their design, basically all boiling down to "The kids get chased for a bit, then they don't," which, by the fourth iteration in the film, you start to get pretty sick of. Ball is legitimately good at them, though; the chases are easy to follow, visually interesting, and pretty relentlessly tense. The climactic battle scene, on the other hand, is a mess, a predictable slog to end the film on, so... you know, be careful when you wish for some variation.

Look, The Scorch Trials isn't without its redemptive aspects, but this is a disappointment. This is as rote as adventure sci-fi gets, honestly, a handful of solid set-pieces with a whole lot of nothing much hanging between them. It's novel, I suppose, to see how thoroughly they steal from The Last of Us - particularly given that the plot of the film is almost completely different from the book it is supposedly adapted from - and there are a handful of strong shots and great design choices that help set it above real trash like Divergent, but there's also precious little to recommend it. If The Maze Runner is the kind of movie a kid could fall in love with on TV, The Scorch Trials is the kind of movie that makes that kid realize, sometimes it's better to let things die.

The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is out now in theaters across the nation. Written by T.S. Nowlin off James Dashner's novels and directed by Wes Ball, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials stars Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, and Rosa Salazar.

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