THE MAZE RUNNER: SCORCH TRIALS is a fast-paced, involving adventure tale that is better than the original. Where that installment, though entertaining enough, had the usual quota of young adult novel clichés, this one is a lean, mean look at a dystopian future run by an evil entity with noble intentions. Those are, of course, the worst kind.
The action picks up where the last one left off, with just the tiniest of nods to what came before, and a tantalizing glimpse into something that came before that. That would be how Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), whose memory has been wiped, the maze runner who beat the game, first came to WICKED, surrendered by a weeping mother on a snowy night as guard dogs howled and armed guards menaced. Such dangers are in the past, though, as Thomas, Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Winston (Alexander Flores) willingly embrace the institutional bunk beds and cafeteria meals offered by the people who saved them from WICKED. Led by Janson (Aiden Gillen), there is medical care and the promise of an idyllic life on a farm, just as soon as their name is called during the evening meal. But there is something about Janson that Thomas doesn’t trust. Perhaps it’s the way the very polite requests have an undertone of command, and perhaps is the odd goings on in the restricted area that Aris (Jacob Lofland), the loner kid from another maze (yes, there was more than one) shows to Thomas after lights out. Naturally, he decides to leave, and persuades the others to come with him to join the Red Arm, as the resistance is called. Even though it means facing the arid expanses of the Scorch, the deadly virus to which Thomas and company are probably immune, the still ambulatory, but not quite living victims of same, and the motley crews of humanity riding out the collapse of civilization.
Those crews are an interesting bunch, from a blissed-out band of decadents led by an effete Alan Tudyk, partying away the end times with mind-altering substances and industrial music, to the more traditional barely civilized survivors, holed up in an abandoned building with the several snarling victims of the planet’s pandemic used as guard dogs. Their leader, Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), is the best new character in the story. A cerebral leader with a caustic wit to his three required questions, a genius for self-preservation, and an endearing attachment to both Patsy Cline and his foster daughter, the tough-talking Brenda (Rosa Salazar).
He is the most vivid character, but not the only one to evoke an emotional commitment from the audience. Jorge is clever, but so are Thomas and his gang. Watching them outsmart their elders is as arresting as the special effects with which the film is punctuated, starting with those plague victims, who should not be confused with mere zombies, and are carefully presented in either half-light or quick cuts to heighten the horror of them by forcing us to add our own nightmares to what is on screen. The vistas of civilization’s collapse, on the other hand, are given plenty of time to sink in, letting the oddity of sand beneath a ruined Brooklyn Bridge take root along with the buildings in various stages of decay, and that beached supertanker. Director Wes Ball never uses those effects as a crutch. The sound, for example, of a windowpane cracking is at least as terrifying as the virus, and Patricia Clarkson, returning as the WICKED doctor looking for a cure, may be the most unsettling element, as she explains in soft, motherly tones why human experimentation is necessary.
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS has one other thing going for it that is worth noting. It avoids the usual problem of middle films in a trilogy in that it could stand on its own (almost), and leaves us with both a satisfactory conclusion, and a cliffhanger.