Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a worthy successor to his original The Maze Runner (2014). In fact, in most ways, it’s even better. Both of those statements are of course predicated on the idea that you found the first film a positive experience. I thought it was a superior entry in the apparently unending supply of movies adapted from YA science fiction about teens rebelling against a dystopian future. (It is presumably exactly the sort of thing that Brad Bird was railing against with this year’s earlier Tomorrowland.) Truthfully, I’ve preferred both Maze Runner films to the immensely popular — and thankfully soon to end — Hunger Games movies. They’re grittier, more exciting and, frankly, better acted. And with this second entry, they’ve become a lot stranger. Of course, the films pose no box office threat to The Hunger Games series because they lack the star power and the fanbase, but that has nothing to do with the quality.
The Scorch Trials picks up where the first movie ends, with our (surviving) main characters —Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Winston (Alexander Flores) — being rescued and taken to a kind of holding facility by a man called Janson (Aidan Gillen in one of those performances where you know he’s evil from scene one). It doesn’t take long before Thomas (the leader of the pack) is informed by a mopey character named Aris (Jacob Lofland) that things are not what they seem. A bit of detective work reveals that the kids in the facility are not being taken away to new homes, but are being hauled off to be hung up and slowly drained of their lives. This is of course more inhospitable chicanery from evil Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and (World Catastrophe Killzone Department — pronounced wicked), and soon our heroes (plus Aris) are on the run into the desolation of the blighted wasteland that remains of much of the world.
This is effective enough, but it’s also where The Scorch Trials is at its weakest. The set-up just takes too long and starts to drag pretty fast. But once the movie makes it into the wasteland, things take a quick turn for the better. The wasteland, it transpires, is kind of like Mad Max, but with zombies, or some kind of infected and infectious flesh munchers of the irritable variety. In itself, this may not be remarkable — apart from the fact that the zombies are blessedly solid and not your stock cartoonish CGI creatures — but what is remarkable is how very strange and frequently creepy all this is. It’s not just the fact that the renegade Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito — the first in a procession of never-quite-made-it B-List “guest stars”) — has a secret lair guarded by chained zombies. Actually, this is a secret lair with a self-destruct mechanism that’s triggered by playing Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” From here on the film is on deliriously what-the-hell? ground that propels it for the rest of its length.
Without giving too much away, I can report that the film boasts some truly unsettling subterranean zombies, a terrific and suspenseful action scene in a toppled skyscraper, and a kind of ’70s style LSD rave presided over by a velvet-clad (and very duplicitous) Alan Tudyk (B-lister number two). This is so far ahead of the fairly tame — and often repetitive — Hunger Games efforts that it’s all quite startling. And it doesn’t end there. Sure, the revelations about what’s really at the bottom of all this are hardly shocking — even if they’re enlivened by B-lister number three, Barry Pepper, as the head of the resistance. One big moment involving a “traitor” in their midst is too telegraphed to work as it was intended, while the inevitable reappearance of Patricia Clarkson is more amusing than it should be. However, the film’s latter portions are such loopy — and exciting — fun that my only complaint lies with its too-slow opening scenes. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language.