In an effort for makeup work on writing a movie about nothing (and not in the fun Seinfeld variety), The Maze Runner‘s screenplay piled on a whole bunch of plot twists revealing the state of the world of the franchise and why the kids were trapped in giant circle for a long time, ending on its two most horrifying reveals.
The first is that Patricia Clarkson is forced to appear in this movie with a lifeless monologue to deliver, something she deserves so much better than it deserves. This is followed up by the more horrifying reveal that her character, Dr. Ava Paige, did not commit suicide as we were led to believe and so Clarkson was shackled to appear in this franchise as its apparent long-term antagonist. I can’t imagine this has any impact on a viewer not familiar with Clarkson as an actor, since our knowledge of the character’s existence up until the movie tells us she died is less than 2 minutes and less than a minute passes after that to tell us she’s alive and the bad guy.
Anyway, now Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials came about to bring along a cast of regretful and overqualified veterans to stifle her loneliness. Giancarlo Esposito’s on autopilot, Alan Tudyk’s playing a gay stereotype, Lili Taylor is just dying inside, and Barry Pepper’s the only one that’s giving a performance could call “committed”. But before any of them pop up, we are introduced shortly to Aidan Gillen’s apparent guardian Janson kicking off the overqualified adult actors after Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the franchise’s hero, has an inscrutable flashback before waking up in the helicopter we saw him and his friends get scooped up in at the end of the previous film. Janson offers them quarter in his industrial facility with the total amount of trustworthiness that a character played by Aiden Gillen can provide, which is like… nothing so it’s not a shock when we quickly discover he’s actually working for the evil corporation of WCKD (something pronounced “wicked” but I totally feel like pronouncing as “wrecked” because I don’t wanna do a damn thing this movie asks). Thomas and his crew wisely escape upon this discovery into the real world.
By the way, included in Clarkson’s final lines of the last film was an observation that more kids survived the events of The Maze Runner than expected and clearly The Scorch Trials thought this as well because the group Thomas escapes Janson’s facility with is smaller than the group Thomas entered that facility with, I swear to God. And they get split up anyway halfway through the movie in search of a resistance group against WCKD called The Right Arm, so there’s little interest in any character that’s not Thomas and being interested in a character as bland as Thomas feels just, like, a bad move.
But there is a good thing about this new quest they go through is that they’re not stuck behind walls and that means WORLD-BUILDING in what we now see (and Clarkson again told us in the final minutes of The Maze Runner) is a ravaged post-apocalyptic world since a virus known as the Flare destroyed most of the world. It happens to be a virus that Thomas’ clan is immune, the point of being trapped in that hole in a maze. Yeah, it still sounds stupid to me too, but when I’m about to praise the world-building of Scorch Trials, I’m not talking about the verbose and exhaustive attempt at mythology screenwriter T.S. Nowlin (now working alone, still based on James Dashner’s novel) tries to stretch out the concept. Nor am I talking about the totally unmoving addition of zombies called Cranks into the terrain replacing the CGI monstrosities in the original (and being no more convincing).
I’m talking about the set design frankly, a place where director Wes Ball gets to use his background as a graphic artist and visually shape a world that feels completely abandoned by anything but heat and smoke. Most of the travels of Thomas and company take place in a giant desert filled with fallen edifices and drown metropolitan structures called The Scorch, which Ball and cinematographer Pados Gyula do a lot to make the landscape feel endlessly barren and dry. Which sounds like the same as the boring ol’ hole-in-a-maze of the first movie except without plants and with better color timing, but it’s not. There’s character in the Ozymandias structures these kids* run through and climb, the implication of our world past in some cases recognizable. In several cases to geographically confusing degree with the buildings we catch, but I’m trying to cease being mean to Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials for like two seconds.
And well before we even enter that desert, Jansen’s “sanctuary” to the kids is already so cold and character-less in a deliberate manner that it’s not surprising to find one’s self not entirely at ease when he leads the protagonists there with open arms (Good golly, could actually be visual directing of tone from Ball? Or was I just already on this movie’s bad side that my distrust extended to the textual context of its characters? Probably both.). Meanwhile, the little “guarded” hideout where we meet allies Jorge (Esposito) and Brenda is scrappy and desperate enough in its makeshift fashion that it’s kind of clear it’s the characters have some at-the-ropes alignment against WCKD and we can trust them. Tudyk’s corner is all unglamorous decadence in a bazaar-esque fashion, costumes and nightclub/opium den lair (with some drugged-up editing and lensing which seems… quite weird for a kids film, but aight).
Pepper and Taylor are living in a Western (Pepper’s performance especially reminds me of the one he gave in True Grit). It’s not a great Western but it’s a Western set with the same sort of texture and low-key design as the rest of Scorch Trials.
Basically, it’s not inventing the wheel in design and certain setpieces (The Scorch, Jansen’s lair) are a lot less interesting than otherwise (Pepper and Taylor’s home area), but it’s the closest Maze Runner: Scorch Trials has to feeling like it’s moving somewhere (it certainly has more momentum than its predecessor). And it doesn’t stop the story from feeling like a bunch of aimless wandering goose chases to find the legendary Right Arm until the movie decides to have WCKD show up to perform one “Very Evil Moment” yet again (but probably a godsend to one of the actors) and deliver another labored and contrived twist with one great big “is the movie over?” cut to black before returning for another scene to taunt me, but it’s something. Ball can use set design well enough once he’s out the gates and Lord let that keep me holding on when I dive into that one final Maze Runner movie and then forget this franchise ever existed.
*I have to note how weird it feels to regard these characters as “kids” when most of the actors are legit older than I am, but that says something about how I feel about Young Adult in general.