The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials: Aggressive Expansion, by Tyler Smith
Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner was an unexpected stand-out amidst several franchise YA sci-fi adaptations, such as Divergent and The Giver. It looked as run-of-the-mill as possible, but emerged as one of the better-conceived films of the genre. It seemed to understand its world a little bit more, taking the time to really get into all the nooks and crannies so that we really knew what we were dealing with. It was scary and exciting and I enjoyed it tremendously. So much so that I was actually a little worried about its sequel, The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.
As the characters leave the maze of the title and are thrust into a much larger world, my initial concern was that the series would begin to lose focus and fall into the same exposition-heavy traps that so many others in the genre do. However, much to my pleasant surprise, the shadow of the original film looms large over our characters as they start to comprehend the world they’re dealing with. This genuinely feels like an extension of the first film, both practically and emotionally.
Right and left, our characters discover that freedom in this dystopian future looks an awful lot like their previous imprisonment. While they may have escaped the mechanized maze of the first film, they find themselves in several others. It could be an air shaft or a dark series of corridors. Over and over, the characters find themselves lost, desperate to find a way out of their surroundings.
The sad part is that there really is no way out. The hopelessness of this world is found in the idea that there is nowhere to go, as we see when our heroes finally escape the clutches of the villains, only to find themselves dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. I’m reminded of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai, lecturing his prisoners. There is no use for walls, because the world outside the prison is so forbidding that they aren’t necessary; there’s more safety in the prison than in freedom.
And indeed the world outside is terrifying. Major cities have been reduced to dangerous ruins. Skyscrapers have literally fallen over. Entire shopping malls are buried under mountains of sand. A great deal of credit is due to the Production Designer, whose post-apocalyptic world feels genuine and lived-in (or, more appropriate, once-lived-in-now-abandoned).
It is this expansion of both world and theme that make The Scorch Trials a worthy follow-up. That and the impressive action sequences. Just as the first film tried to leave no stone unturned in its world exploration, so the sequel gets the most from every action sequence. Whether the characters are navigating the jagged remains of a crumbling building while being pursued by zombies or trying to shoot it out with WICKED, the organization that imprisoned them, every emotional beat is there and the characters try everything that we want them to.
There’s even a nice little moment when a car-mounted machine gun is loaded and ready to fire, but is abandoned when our heroes are overwhelmed. As the scene goes on, that huge machine gun and its readiness to cause mayhem lingered in the back of my mind, mocking me. And sure enough, once the action starts again, there’s the machine gun, smiling and waiting. Chekhov would be proud.
There are also plot twists that, when revealed, actually pack an emotional punch, rather than simply make us roll our eyes, shrug, and continue watching. Nor are these twists completely out of the blue. They are carefully set up (though we don’t realize that in the moment) and eventually paid off. And rather than being content to “blow the audience’s mind”, the film desires that we feel a sense of betrayal and loss, which we do. The twist comes as a function of character development, not the writer trying to surprise us.
And these are just a handful of the ways that The Scorch Trials attempts to raise the bar in the YA sci-fi genre. Yes, there are the standard story beats to hit, but Wes Ball doesn’t seem interested in simply hitting them and moving on. Instead, he wants to understand why something might happen and what the implications of it are. In other words, he’s genuinely interested in the stories he’s telling. And the amount of care and craftsmanship is all up there on the screen, which we’re watching with interest and fascination.