One of the biggest movie surprises for me last year was The Maze Runner, a cilm based on a young adult sci-fi novel I’d never read starring a group of kids I recognized but couldn’t name. I figured, because I was fair-to-middling on the Hunger Games movies and utterly despised the first Divergent movie, that The Maze Runner would fall somewhere in between. I ended up really liking it, which made me extra excited for the sequel, The Scorch Trials, which sped into production when the first one proved a hit. In many ways, it’s a huge step up from the previous film, in terms of scope and scares and, dear God, running, but it also definitely suffers a bit from “Middle Part Syndrome.”
One thing I certainly appreciate about The Scorch Trials is that it doesn’t spend any time re-acclimating the viewers to the world of the film. You have to remember everything that went on in part 1 or you just won’t understand what they’re talking about. Largely, this is because there’s just no time. This film moves at a pace that’s almost too fast, with most scenes featuring the main characters running away from something that’s going to catch them if they slow down for an instant. While it does find some time for quiet reflection, it’s a lot of breathless fleeing. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
To catch people up, at the end of the previous film, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and some, but not all, of his friends from the Glade had escaped the Maze and found it to be run by a clandestine agency called WCKD, or Wicked for talking purposes. Suddenly, a group of paramilitary break in to save them, but that seems to have been a ruse. When this film picks up, Thomas and crew – including Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Minho (Ke Hong Lee) – get taken to a barracks of some sort run by Jansen (Aidan Gillen) where they find other kids from other mazes. It seems they’re the only ones immune to whatever disease helped to turn vast amounts of people into Cranks, or basically fast zombies.
Very soon, Thomas and a kid from another maze named Aris (Jacob Lofland) discover kids are being taken into a room, made catatonic or dead, and their blood is being harvested, presumably for a cure. This ain’t okay with Thomas, so he orchestrates an escape, but Jansen quickly warns that they’ll never survive The Scorch, a.k.a. what’s left of the Earth — a massive desert full of ruins of the old world. The only thing Thomas has to go on is the notion that a resistance group living in the mountains is fighting against Wicked and they head for that, along the way suffering losses and meeting new people, including Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito). But Wicked is never far away, and might even be closer than anyone thinks.
In some ways, The Scorch Trials is a major improvement over the previous film. For starters, it feels more like our characters are in a greater world, not just part of some strange little alcove of sci-fi Lord of the Flies. Mostly gone (but not entirely) are the lengthy explanations of what things are and why they’re called the dumb little jargonny nicknames (“we call it the Glade;” “we call it a Screamer”). Things are mainly just allowed to exist and the characters can intuit what everything is without needing a branding. Jargon that needs explanation is my least favorite thing in movies.
The bigger canvas leads to some truly wondrous and creepy vistas, with the characters forced to trudge through the desert, past fallen bridges and toppled buildings, which they eventually have to run through. The Cranks as this film’s monsters, replacing the large insectoids of the Maze, make a lot more sense. They feel like regular ol’ zombies, but it all tracks within the context of the story, and frankly they’re just easier to buy. One of the tensest scenes in the whole film is when Thomas and Brenda find their way into a dark tunnel only to find a pack of the worst kind of Crank.
There’s a lot of great action, the characters for the most part are defined well and played very well, and the new additions are truly additions and not diversions. But where the movie falters a little is in being the second part of a trilogy. While there’s certainly an arc to this film, a lot of it feels like we’re just waiting around for part 3, which will surely come out next year. The same thing happened with Catching Fire; it felt like the REAL stuff was going to happen in Mockingjay. There needed to be a bit more introspection, a-la the best example of a part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, if it was going to be more than just a bridge. That said, The Scorch Trials definitely succeeded in making me look forward to the next movie, so I guess it did its job.
Overall, a much improved movie over the first, which I also enjoyed. It moves very fast and at times feels like 131 minute running time really is just running time, but it’s a solid sci-fi actioner that doesn’t talk down to its largely-tween target audience.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!