MOVIE REVIEW: MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS (PG-13)

3 1/2 starsProps are in order to “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” for not only being considerably larger in scope than the first entry but also for refusing to simply rehash the plot of its predecessor. If only it were as engrossing and as mysterious. Still, there’s quite a bit here worth recommending.

Maze Runner Scorch Trials Movie Review“The Scorch Trials” is based on the second book in the wildly popular young adult series created by author James Dashner, and it wastes no time in picking up where the first story ended. After surviving days of solitude and managing to navigate their way through a massive maze populated by deadly creatures, a confused Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his newfound friends quickly realize that their previous adventure was only a smaller part of a much bigger picture.

That bigger picture includes a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a virus that turns human beings into monstrous, zombie-like creatures (a fusion of the Bonies in “Warm Bodies” and the humanoids in “I Am Legend“). At the heart of a world gone to hell are Thomas and a laboratory full of young individuals who must adapt to a life quite different from the ones they were being tested in just outside their respective mazes.

Ultimately, Thomas and his friends find themselves engaged in a journey that will lead them across a dangerous, smoldering desert landscape all in an attempt to outwit a potentially diabolical organization called WCKD. It wont be easy, however, as they will have to fight off hordes of the infected and deal with the mysterious underground soldier Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) in the process.

Gone from “The Scorch Trials” is the disorienting Twilight Zone-esque mystery of the first movie, and in its place is a more straight-forward narrative akin to something like “The Hunger Games” mixed with the viral horror of “28 Days Later” and the post-apocalyptic bleakness of the “Mad Max” films. There are even traces of “Aliens,” “The Terminator,” and “Planet of the Apes” here.

Maze Runner Scorch Trials Movie ReviewAgain, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” lacks the mystery and intrigue that made the first film so memorable, and sporadic moments of cheesiness don’t do much to help matters. Furthermore, fans of the books have pointed out that a key element from the story has been omitted, lessening the importance of the stakes. In the end though, this is still a journey worth taking for two reasons. First, director Wes Ball is a fantastic filmmaker. He has a great visual eye and he brings a grand sense of adventure to the proceedings that might remind viewers of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” While we’re on the topic of Steven Spielberg, Ball mounts a thriller of a sequence in “The Scorch Trials” that is very reminiscent of a set piece in what is arguably Spielberg’s most disappointing film, “The Lost World.” I’ll refrain from completely spoiling it and will only say that Ball one ups “the Beard” in a doozy of a sequence that involves shattering glass.

The second reason it’s worth seeing “The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” is that it has Dylan O’Brien in its corner. This kid is a star in the making, and it’s a testament to his natural ability as a performer that we’re willing to follow his Thomas on this journey no matter how overly complicated and convoluted it might get. While he has the physicality to pull off this film’s numerous action scenes, he’s equally adept in the quieter, more dramatic moments.

“The Maze Runner” series will conclude with “The Death Cure” in 2017, and while I haven’t read the books and have no idea what the outcome will be, I can’t help but feel that these movies would have been better as a “one and done.” The ambiguity at the end of “The Maze Runner” was the perfect kind of ambiguity. Imagining what would come next is much more effective than being told what comes next. Regardless, I will be there to see how it all comes to a close, and I have my fingers crossed that O’Brien and Ball will close the series out on a tension-filled high note.

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