Directed by Wes Ball, the second instalment of The Maze Runner franchise loses much of what strongly characterised the previous film. However, this is mostly an improvement. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is action-packed, explosive and significantly darker than the first film and arguably offers a far more rewarding viewing experience as a result.
Whilst encompassing elements of both the horror and thriller genres, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials remains true to the dystopian science-fiction genre of the original book trilogy. The Maze Runner saw a group of teenage boys trapped inside a gigantic maze with no memories of their former lives. Led by new arrival and protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) the boys and a mysterious girl (Teresa, played by Skins actress Kaya Scodelario) eventually escape the maze. The second film begins almost directly after their escape from the W.C.K.D. facility (the sinister organisation who created the maze, pronounced ‘wicked’). The outside world is a desert-like wasteland, and the majority of the film shows the group attempting to make a perilous journey across the ravaged landscape, heading for refuge in the mountains.
Perhaps due to no longer being confined by the setting of the maze (figuratively and literally, in the case of Thomas and his friends), Scorch Trials is more intriguing and inventive as a film. The experience that Wes Ball gained while shooting The Maze Runner (his directorial debut) is likely another contributing factor to its success. Furthermore, with much of the groundwork having already been laid in The Maze Runner, Scorch Trials is able to devote more time to impressive action sequences and various plot points and diversions, rarely lacking in momentum or interest as a result. Aided by a bigger budget of $61 million (compared to The Maze Runner‘s $34 million) the film is visually glorious, with frequent shots of half-destroyed cities amidst the desert, with filming mostly taking place in New Mexico. The content is at times brutal and disturbing; a virus known as The Flare has infected many people, turning them into zombie-like creatures that serve to inject fear and jump-scares into the film, and the frequent deaths and seeming hopelessness within the dystopian world contribute to a film that is dark and serious to a much greater extent than The Maze Runner. This is not to say that either of them are happy films; they are certainly not comedies.
However, the sheer amount of screen time given to high octane chases and exploration of the desolate setting leaves little space for the film to build on the characters and their relationships. Some of the original cast remain (including the brilliant Thomas Brodie-Sangster who provides occasional but necessary comic relief) but a huge amount of new characters are introduced throughout the film, leaving most of them to be insufficiently developed. Whilst many of the new supporting cast are valuable additions (in particular Aiden Gillen of Game of Thrones fame as the main villain), the overwhelming influx of unfamiliar characters towards the end of the film is most likely in preparation for the next instalment, and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials does suffer from the problems of a middle-film, somewhat lacking in an introduction and ending despite the lengthy running time of 131 minutes. It also lacks the stability offered by the fixed setting of the Glade in the previous film and sacrifices subtlety once the action begins, meaning that there are few moments for characters to engage emotionally with each other.
Nevertheless, the majority of the film works well, maintaining enough of what characterised The Maze Runner to work as a convincing sequel despite its altered setting, villain and new supporting characters. Dylan O’Brien is convincing as the angry protagonist trying to save his friends and discover the truth, and the acting is generally of a good standard, Kaya Scodelario’s decidedly wooden performance notwithstanding. Despite sometimes bordering on ludicrous and occasionally feeling overcrowded by action scenes, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is overall a successful sequel. More sophisticated than its predecessor, it builds on the franchise and attempts to move away from a purely teenage audience with a greater emphasis on science-fiction aspects of the story and moments of terror amidst the almost constant level of tension, aided by John Paesano’s eerie music. Whilst fans of the books may (rightfully) complain that it is a departure from the originals to an even greater extent than the first film, it is well adapted and will doubtless leave many viewers eager to see the next instalment.