'The Scorch Trials' opens up its predecessor's scope, and makes something out of worn-out material
The Scorch Trials 20th Century Fox
Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aidan Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Ki Hong Lee, Jacob Lofland, Dexter Darden, Alan Tudyk, Nathalie Emmanuel, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 12 minutes
September 18, 2015
(out of four)
On almost every fundamental level, The Scorch Trials is an oppressively boring venture. Desolate, postapocalyptic wasteland? Boring. Mysterious virus that wiped out humanity? Boring. Underground subculture that's nothing more than pure drug-soaked hedonism? Hackneyed. Attractive teenagers who have been deemed special and unique? Ugh, enough. And zombies? Alright, at that point, the franchise is throwing in bonus end-of-civilization clichés just for the hell of it.
Bottom line, the film is as narratively (not to mention ideologically, but more on that in a bit) played-out as it can possibly be. And yet, thanks to crafty filmmaking and a willingness to consistently upend its own status quo (and that of the whole series), it winds up being far more than the sum of its ideas.
Director Wes Ball - who returns after helming last year's series opener, The Maze Runner - is certainly working within familiar templates. The interiors are cold and metallic, and defined by that teal-and-yellow color scheme we're all so accustomed to. The destroyed outside world - or The Scorch, if you want to be official about it - is a sprawling desert on top of the remnants of civilization, its horizons peppered by crumbled skyscrapers and abandoned bridges half-hidden in sand. (In other words, it looks a lot like Oblivion or Divergent or The Road, to name a few.) But despite those generic and constraining qualities, Ball prevents the film from becoming a drawn-out montage of cookie-cutter visuals. There's visceral and emotional energy in his filmmaking, which is a far cry from the impersonal chilliness of many of his YA-directing contemporaries.
In fact, I'm tempted to argue that he deliberately uses those familiar setups to establish a sense of complacency, which he then disrupts as the story takes turn after turn. I don't want to make it sound like the narrative is made up of "twists," per se - more like it's just rotating through genres, refusing to tie itself into one thing or commit to the set of expectations that come with it. Those genres may all be overly recognizable, and this may be a pretty basic "road movie" template, but Ball uses that to sell his abrupt shifts in tone and plot. It's not that he's a spectacular visual stylist - the film looks nice, but it's nothing especially out of the ordinary - but more that he just knows how to use particular styles effectively.
This also plays into the film's emphasis (visual and otherwise) on point of view, as the characters perpetually think they understand where they are and what they're up against, only to turn the corner and discover their situation is an entirely different animal.
The kids - namely Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) - start out in an underground facility presumably designed to protect them. They realize the opposite is true. They escape into a desert wasteland, and we think we understand what movie we're now watching. Until it suddenly, a few scenes later, becomes a zombie movie. Later it kind of becomes a war movie, or at least something adjacent to a war movie. There's an impressive sequence wherein two characters descend into an underground system of tunnels and encounter an erstwhile unknown danger - and the film has abruptly shifted gears once again, using a rather impressively designed and staged horror sequence to turn the narrative inside out. It won't be the last time.
What's key is that the characters are as much in the dark about what's coming next as we are. It makes for a refreshing fluidity, and Ball propels things forward with a real sense of momentum, like he's constantly playing catch-up with a world that keeps expanding. The case could be made that there are too many shifts, too many sections, too many things wrapped into the same whole. Maybe it's a bit too video game-ish, as if we're going from level to level, each one with a different setting or new adversary. Maybe. But I admire a movie willing to reinvent itself as a matter of routine.
The Scorch Trials does suffer from some of the trappings of YA action movies. Specifically, the emphasis on action persistently inhibits the film's intelligence. These adolescents and young adults keep finding themselves in situations from which they have to fight themselves out, and they keep on being unusually adept at doing so. They could be outnumbered and out-skilled, and suddenly they know how to fight. A machine gun falls into their laps and suddenly they know how to operate it. Just to be clear, this isn't something written into the fabric of the story - these aren't a bunch of baby Jason Bournes we're talking about here. They're just teenagers who've learned how to outsmart a maze. Yet Scorch would have us believe they can outrun, outfight and out-think any trained soldier they come across. It becomes a pretty stupid crutch after a while.
This is also one of those examples of a movie whose "villains" seem to be fundamentally correct (or at the very least, have a valid argument). It comes down to a moral/ethical conflict over how to solve the viral outbreak that brought humanity to its knees - and we're meant to be on the side of the on-the-run teens who just want their freedom. Emotionally, this makes sense; philosophically, it's trickier. It's all a variation of the "individual liberty vs. greater good" debate; although more directly, the "greater good" in this case is the very existence of the human race, which at this point in the story's timeline is precarious at best. We're naturally meant to identify with the teens who would rather not continue to be guinea pigs, but the film never actually makes the case. The way it deals with that problem is pretty hilarious, though: After a big standoff between the two sides, one of the big bad adults just randomly, unapologetically murders someone - in public - as if the film is just making sure we know who the bad guys are. Point taken, Scorch Trials. Point taken.
Maybe in the next sequel we'll discover more sinister motives at work. But that would kinda be a disappointment; at least in this movie, there's a prickly philosophical argument to be had, an inherent mixture of right and wrong answers on either side. One group being Bad just for the sake of it would be a whole lot less interesting.