Friday, September 18, 2015

Maze Runner — The Scorch Trials: A barren wasteland

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and relentless action violence

By Derrick Bang 

As was the case with last year’s opening entry in this big-screen franchise, this sequel looks great — the special effects are quite impressive — and the acting is solid.

But the storyline remains bonkers-stupid and utterly impenetrable. If last year’s cliff-hanging Maze Runner left us with far more questions than answers, this second installment doesn’t even try to make sense. It’s as if scripter T.S. Nowlin abandoned any effort to parse James Dasher’s complicated source novel, and chose instead to fabricate one superficial chase sequence after another.

Things seem mighty bad, folks ... then again, maybe our heroes should simply stop looking
over the next ridge. Try as he might, Thomas (Dylan O'Briend, second from left) can't stop
leading his friends ‚ from left, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster),
Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) from one crisis to another.
When our primary protagonist Thomas insists, at one point, that he’s tired of running, I cheerfully agreed: I’m tired of watching him run.

Him and everybody else in this preposterous, kitchen-sink excuse for a sci-fi thriller.

We’d ordinarily be inclined to blame Dasher, since his book logically serves as the source material. But Nowlin’s screenplay bears scant resemblance to Dasher’s novel, perhaps because the filmmakers are trying to condense a five-book (thus far) series into a more compact trilogy. Which would have been a reasonable idea, if Nowlin had the slightest talent for narrative, plot structure or dialogue.

Yep: This is one of those movies with eye-rolling, melodramatically laughable one-liners, invariably delivered with utter sincerity. The cast isn’t at fault; everybody does their best ... but not even seasoned Shakespeareans could wring emotional honesty from these verbal clunkers.

Such dialogue also frequently anticipates moronic behavior. “They’re never gonna stop chasing us,” our heroes lament, having narrowly escaped a massive land- and air-based search party. So what do they do next? They take a long walk across a wholly exposed desert landscape, where — based on what happened just a few scenes earlier — they’d clearly be spotted and captured.

But no: Apparently the bad guys decided not to look that day.

On top of which — and this is Dasher’s fault — I still can’t get beyond his internal technological inconsistencies. Consider the engineering ingenuity and sheer brute manpower that would have been required to build, maintain and operate the massive maze that initially trapped our young heroes. Now ask yourself whether such structures could have been fabricated so quickly — because we now know there were numerous mazes — given the timeline of events as established via maddeningly brief flashbacks.

And, more crucially, to what purpose, precisely? Two films in, and we’ve still no clue as to the original maze’s intent.

On top of which, we’re once again forced to accept a truly dismal picture of human nature under stress: a degree of “civilized” behavior so barbaric, so abhorrent, that it frankly defies description. That’s not merely sad; it’s also loathsome.

Popular entertainment often mirrors a given time, and if the current trend of dystopian, death-laden young adult novels are any indication — aside from Dasher’s work, we can point to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, among others — our national psyche is in deep, dark trouble.

The books may better reflect their respective authors’ personalities, but the resulting movies all look alike: post-apocalyptic landscapes improbably existing alongside pockets of aristocratic technology; lone teenage protagonists who are somehow “different,” and who attract loyal followers; lots of running, jumping and hair’s-breadth escapes from various monsters and crumbling infrastructure; and the cruel, systematic loss of said protagonist’s comrades.

This mini-genre has been played out in the space of just a few years, and The Scorch Trials glaringly exposes all the worst flaws. Nowlin’s script shamelessly snatches bits and pieces from countless other, better sources, as if hoping that by throwing so much narrative spaghetti on the wall, at least some of it will stick.

Hardly. All that remains is a mess.

Which director Wes Ball has orchestrated with all the emotional depth of the intentionally silly serials from Hollywood’s Golden Age, with their 10-minute installments that always concluded with a dire-peril cliff-hanger. Watching this bloated, 131-minute film, we easily can imagine where editor Dan Zimmerman could have cut it into a dozen pieces, each with its own climax of (in their dreams) heart-stopping terror.


Having escaped the first film’s maze, only to be rescued (snatched?) by an unknown military force, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends — primarily Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) — find themselves in a massive barracks/hospital facility supervised by the solicitous but rather smarmy Janson (Aidan Gillen).

“You’ll be safe here,” Janson promises, but we know better; Gillen is best known as the scheming Baelish on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and he’s obviously up to no good here, as well.

With scarcely time for a meal or two, and assisted by new comrade Aris (Jacob Lofland), Thomas discovers the facility’s true purpose. (Cue a “reveal” scene lifted directly from Robin Cook’s Coma.) Time to go, kids! With Thomas in the lead, our core protagonists charge blindly into “the scorch,” the outlying ruins left devastated by the solar flares that ravaged Earth and also led to a deadly virus dubbed “the flare,” which transforms anybody infected — or scratched, or bitten by one so infected — into...

...wait for it...

...a ravening zombie.

Seriously? Zombies? Again?

Yep, suddenly our heroes are tossed into a mash-up of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — seeking sanctuary in a “deserted” shopping mall — while trying to evade rage-virus zombies straight out of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

From there, things just become a blur, with a detour into a decadent “party” run by Blondie (Alan Tudyk) being a particularly random highlight. (Tudyk, at least, plays his role with a sassy nonchalance that suggests full awareness of how ludicrous everything is.)

Along the way, our heroes gather two more sorta-kinda-friends: Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), leader of some ragtag toughs, and his sorta-kinda ward, Brenda (Rosa Salazar). Nor should we overlook Vince (Barry Pepper), leader of a sorta-kinda resistance, and Mary (Lili Taylor), a doctor who once worked for the oft-referenced governmental (?) entity known as WCKD, and always referenced as “wicked” ... particularly when people keep telling Thomas that “Wicked is good.”

This sequel, at least, finally acknowledges the entity behind the acronym. (It lives up to its billing.)

And then there’s Patricia Clarkson’s Ava Paige, who supposedly killed herself at the end of the first film, but who reappears here and reveals Her Actual Plan (which still doesn’t explain those silly mazes). In behavior, end-justifies-the-means line readings and white-garbed appearance, Ava is a virtual clone of Kate Winslet’s Jeanine, from the Divergent film series. (Do these filmmakers read each other’s email?)

Matters get so sloppy, that by the time Thomas finally is confronted by A Huge Betrayal — a deplorable act that really should have a major impact — we’re beyond caring. Ball’s live-action cartoon simply isn’t worth any more of our emotional involvement.

Which is a shame, because O’Brien is a likably resourceful hero, and he certainly puts considerable passion into his performance. Brodie-Sangster likewise is a solid supporting pal with an engaging dry wit. (He was Liam Neeson’s love-struck son in Love, Actually, now all grown up.) Lofland, recognized from TV’s Justified, makes Aris an intriguing character, mostly because he keeps such close counsel; we’d love to know more about him.

Salazar is appealingly spunky; Esposito is an entertaining rogue. Pepper and Taylor, both veterans, deliver some badly needed character depth.

But they’re all acting in a narrative vacuum, reduced to stick figures tossed about by Nowlin’s script and Ball’s chaotic excuse for directing. He’s already attached to the third film — The Death Cure — which has been announced tentatively for release in 2017.

Oh, frapjous day, collooh callay.


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