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Too Many Dystopian Clichés Extinguish The Scorch Trials

Too Many Dystopian Clichés Extinguish <i>The Scorch Trials</i>

DVD Release Date: December 15, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: September 18, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language)
Genre: Sequel, Action/Adventure, Dystopian
Run Time: 129 min.
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Lili Taylor, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aidan Gillen, Katherine McNamara, Ki Hong Lee, Giancario Esposito, Barry Pepper, Jacob Lofland

Dreary, dystopian movies, most of which are based on popular young adult novels, have been arriving in theaters so regularly these past few years that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish one bleak reality from the next. After all, for every Hunger Games or Divergent, there seems to be something not so spectacular like The Giver or Insurgent.

And for me, last year’s The Maze Runner, adapted from author James Dashner's YA novel,fell somewhere in the middle. The storytelling, and characterization in particular, didn’t blow me away, but the shape-shifting nature of the maze itself kept me on the hook for the inevitable sequel.

Now that the good guys, the Gladers, have escaped the maze just in time for Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, however, it’s like watching LOST without the island or The Avengers without any of your favorite Marvel superheroes. So in the absence of the one original idea the series had going for it, screenwriter T.S. Nowlin opted for incorporating every possible cliché in the dystopian playbook instead.

Perhaps, hoping that at least one idea will stick, Nowlin overstuffs the narrative with some really angry (and infected, naturally) zombies, a solar storm, killer lightning and some alien plant life so nasty that it would probably deter any future gardeners. In short, the story is a ginormous mess, and the filmmakers are forced to compensate for its shortcomings with an abundance of big, loud, go-nowhere action sequences that look cool on occasion but add very little to the bottom line.

While some of the set-ups and set pieces are scary enough for anyone under the age of 12, most of what happens in The Scorch Trials follows a predictable course. One would hope the Gladers would actually catch a break, or at least a brief reprieve from peril, after escaping from the Maze, but unfortunately these young protagonists have been given even trickier terrain to navigate. Turns out, life outside the Maze is rather dismal and depressing too. Ravaged by disease, disaster and little in the way of hope because of global warming gone wild, the Earth, not to mention many terrestrial ecosystems, is damaged beyond recognition.

But seeing what the world has become is really only the beginning of the discovery process for the Gladers. After being summoned to an underground paramilitary facility that looks anything but on the up and up, the teenage protagonists find out they weren’t the only ones subjected to the shadowy maze trials. In fact, they discover that many of their peers experienced similar realities—and escaped—too. Eventually subjected to a series of medical exams and aggressive debriefs from Janson (Aidan Gillen, The Dark Knight Rises), Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, The Internship) and Teresa (U.K. actress Kaya Schodelario) quickly learn there’s a huge disparity between reality and what the adults are telling them.

While these discoveries and the quest that ensues as a result may satisfy those who enjoyed the books, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to follow a plot as haphazardly constructed as this one if you didn’t bother with the source material. It seems once the viewer has a general feel for what’s going on, a whirling dervish of a plot twist or an unnecessary backstory shows up. Normally, an element of surprise is a real asset in storytelling, but here it clutters a script that wasn’t already making much sense in the first place.

With Frodo in Lord of the Rings or, on a far less serious note, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte's characters in the recent film A Walk in the Woods, the writers invested enough in developing the leads on their journeys. Not here. And when you don't necessarily care about who is involved, what's happening feels pretty meaningless too. The world and inhabitants that have been created for The Scorch Trials simply don't deliver most of the time, which inevitably leaves anyone who may have enjoyed The Maze Runner feeling a little cheated.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Brenda and Thomas drink a mysterious liquid (they’re forced, really) that impairs their judgment. Drugs also play a key role in the story.
  • Language/Profanity: Several misuses of God’s name, plus your garden variety profanity including he--, dam-, bast---, bit-- and ass----.
  • Sex/Nudity: While under the influence, Brenda tries to seduce Thomas but when they kiss, Thomas sees someone else. There’s some suggestive behavior in the pit of iniquity as scantily clad woman litter the opening hallway and make it known they’re available for whatever fantasies men may harbor.
  • Violence: Like most dystopian worlds, the reality depicted here is full of perilous situations. The body count is pretty high as characters are beaten, shot, struck by lightning, bitten, bludgeoned and more. The Cranks (basically zombies) are very flesh-hungry and rather grotesque. The WCKD personnel are often chasing the teens with stun guns. Anyone squeamish about blood will find a handful of moments on the disturbing side.

*Published 9/18/2015