Maze Runner: Scorch Trials

I really wanted to hate The Maze Runner franchise. From the outset, it looked like it was just a lazy, brazen attempt by Fox to copy Lionsgate’s success with The Hunger Games. Both were adaptations of books set in a dystopian future. Both had young, attractive leads. Both revolved around the youth uprising against their tyrannical elders. You get it.

Fortunately (for you, as a viewer), little old cynical me has had to eat humble pie, because last year’s The Maze Runner was surprisingly enthralling. Sure it was almost offensively formulaic, but it did exactly what it said on the tin, providing laughs, thrills, heartbreak and relentless action in a break-neck and downright entertaining fashion.

But now comes the famous, tricky follow-up. In the case of Scorch Trials this rings doubly true, since the end of The Maze Runner saw the series break free from the confines of the titular labyrinth, which has now allowed its vast, fledgling cast to run wild amongst the dystopian remains of its universe. How does Scorch Trials handle this freedom? For the most part, it revels in it -- mainly thanks to the grandiose and ambitious direction of Wes Ball, who builds upon his successful work on the original to take the series to even more spectacular heights.

Unfortunately, while Scorch Trials certainly possesses the most thrilling, eye-catching and daring scenes of the series so far, it’s also, at times, rudderless, and its flimsy structure means that even though it’s only 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, you really do feel it trudge through that time. But, that’s not enough to derail the genuine fun and enjoyment that Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials provides.

Once again, Dylan O’Brien leads the way as Thomas, the mysterious Glader who, alongside his posse, managed to break free from the Maze in the last film, and Scorch Trials immediately picks up as they enter Phase Two. What is Phase Two? Well, it’s quite hard to explain. Thomas has inadequacies as a leader, which means there’s always an edge and unpredictability to Scorch Trials. He soon learns that W.C.K.D, the organization that are caring for the group, are dangerous. The group quickly breaks free, and then begins their tortuous journey through a barren land, where they come into contact with different resistance fighter groups while fending off members of the undead and trying to avoid W.C.K.D’s soldiers as they look to bring them back to headquarters.

All the while, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials throws increasingly impressive obstacles in the group’s way, each of which ratchet up the entertainment in the process. It helps that there’s a Harry Potter camaraderie vibe to the ensemble that means you’re deeply rooting for the kids, while each cast member excels in their, admittedly, hackneyed but still well-rounded and integral roles. Even the elder cast-members, and what a stellar bunch they are as they include Aidan Quinn, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Tudyk, Lili Taylor, Patricia Clarkson, and Barry Pepper, can’t steal the film from them.

The most impressive though is Dylan O’Brien, as he drives the pack forward in a ferocious but compelling manner, while showcasing a wily, everyman quality that means he just about scraps through his ordeals by the skin of his teeth. He is clearly going to go on and lead an even bigger franchise than this very, very soon. You’ve seen this type of character up on screen plenty of times before, but O’Brien emanates a likeability that helps to raise Scorch Trials up a few notches.

Ultimately, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials does suffer because of sequelitus though, and that's why it stumbles. It’s so clearly a mid-series film that is trying to tease the final installment while not giving too much about its frustratingly intriguing plot away that it ultimately stagnates. After a hugely impressive first hour, you can almost feel the film holding itself back, and while it never deviates into tedium, it does stall.

But, along the way it also builds and enhances its world and characters impressively. New ties are created, surprising conflicts emerge, and by the roll of the credits you’ll immediately admit that you’re still invested enough for the final installment, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, due out February 2017. Which is kind of frustrating, but you’ll have been gluttonously entertained that you won’t really mind.

Gregory Wakeman