Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials ★★1/2

    "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" is this year's sequel to the latest young adult dystopian series to slip into Hollywood. Is it as favored or as star-studded as the well-known "Hunger Games" trilogy of films? Not exactly. Is it as feeble or as banal as the two "Divergent" installments? Well, at least not for the entire duration. So, what is it precisely that makes this picture worth attending? Here are five observations from my viewing of "The Scorch Trials."

1. The original "Maze Runner" was a plot-oriented picture that centered on its youthful ensemble cast and an atmosphere infused with mystery and suspense. Although these things do carry over in an admirable fashion, (with new settings, fresh faces, and several tense-filled moments that stem from the action of a closing door or the squeezing through a tight space) there is one aspect that is direly absent: the maze. That remarkable backdrop was arguably the most exciting and, quite frankly, it was the most integral character in the previous film; it simply gave the film a particular structure, shape and focus. Without it, "Scorch Trials" transitions into a clumsy and rather inept free-roam story line that does very little to construct a sense of coherence.

2. As a matter of fact, the incompetent plot here is so distracting that it ultimately hampers any opportunity for success. (If you have never seen the previous installment, then "Scorch Trials" will not only become impossible to follow, but it will bombard you with inconsequential drivel until a headache becomes imminent.) Let's face it, if a film pauses the action in an effort to use the dialogue as a channel to recap the current state of affairs, then that is surely not a sign of good filmmaking. The fast-paced action sequences; the key terms that essentially spur the plot; the chase scenes through the city ruins of post-apocalyptic America; the repetitive flashbacks that strive to shed light on what has been a reckless exposition thus far; the presence of "WCKD"; the emergence of the computer-generated undead that attempt to feast on our protagonists; all of these things unquestionably have a unified commonality: They are merely unimaginative means to an end.

3. So, what exactly is this end? What is the message here? What are author James Dashner, and, to a lesser extent, director Wes Ball trying to convey? (The identity of the initiator of discussion here depends entirely on how faithful the adaptation was to the novel; nevertheless, it becomes quite clear, via the picture's closing remarks, that the idea of utilitarianism and a class statement are the foremost topics for discourse.) As might be expected, the material events that conclude the film set-up for (what else?) a conflict between the rebellion and an institution, yet one cannot overlook the plethora of lines that plainly allude to the above-mentioned concerns. Characters speak of the "greater good" and WCKD ultimately defends their underhanded scheme by highlighting its benefit to society, yet this is combated with a notion that believes this utilitarian decision may have been fueled by subjectivity and that maybe its aim was not for the greater good of all of humanity, but for a select few. Thus, bringing the "tyranny of the majority" argument into plain view. (The majority in post-apocalyptic, allegorical America being the individuals left in charge.) Now, if this is Dashner's true intention to comment on this subject matter, and if it wasn't a concoction of Ball and fellow screenwriter T.S. Nowlin, then we have a problem. Why not directly engage this material instead of disguising it in the confines of a young adult series of novels? No offense to youngsters, but it is highly unlikely that any teenager, with all of the distractions of a technological age, would be capable of reading between the lines here to unveil this theme. Why not become a respected constituent to the realm of intellectual thought instead of settling for a Kid's Choice Awards nomination for Best Book? I guess the former doesn't pay as well.

4. If there is one aspect of the "Maze Runner" franchise that separates it from its contemporaries, then it is undoubtedly its lack of romance. Much like the first installment, any moment favorable to this development is given to an ineffective explanation of the ambiguous exposition and, even though a new love interest is appointed by the film's end, there is no reason to believe this pattern will not continue in the concluding chapter. How does this affect the material? Well, let's just say that it does have an impact on our title protagonist, Thomas, which I will comment on below.

5. When viewing a film of this stature, one must take into account the youth and inexperience that surrounds the director, cast and crew. For, most of their resumes would include this series and nothing more. Ball does an exceptional job capturing the frantic nature of the action sequences by way of the mobile, hand-held camera, and he adequately increases the involvement of the audience with his utilization of the indirect/subjective cinematic point of view. With regard to the cast, no one outshines the charm of Rosa Salazar, a young actress who becomes a spirited embodiment of the strong female disposition. (There is something quite indefinable that contributes to Salazar's appeal; maybe it's those large puffy eyes that won me over.) Dylan O' Brien, the star and resident hero, does not bring the same emotion to the table this time around, and his performance suffers mightily in conviction, especially in a closing scene where his monumental speech is supposed to rally the troops, so to speak. Could this be a ramification of the fact that Thomas has no damsel in distress to save, thereby denying him an air of masculinity? Perhaps, but it is more likely to be the result of an unmotivated script.

    In the conclusion to my review for the original "Maze Runner," I discussed the distinct possibility of that film being the only good to come out of this young adult endeavor. In fact, I couldn't help but ponder as to how useful a maze runner would actually become with no maze to run. Unfortunately, I was correct in that earlier supposition.                                          

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