The second entry in a dystopian series is always a challenge. The first installment usually has a simple hook—we fight in the arena, we deal with being the only person who has complex emotions, etc. And now, in the second outing... there’s more of the same. Or possibly, a whole lot more mythos. Either way, it’s not the same.
Part of what makes us love these dystopias, especially teen dystopias, is their simplicity—unlike real dystopias, which are horribly convoluted. A fictional dystopia can have a single wacky concept—like, everybody dies at age 35. And that’s satisfying for a single story, but it’s harder to sustain across multiple entries.
Luckily, the Maze Runner franchise, which just released its second movie today, has found the perfect solution to the “part two” blues. Instead of having our heroes run through a second, even mazier maze, or trying to actually reveal the secrets behind the maze from the first movie—like, was Frankie Beverly behind the whole thing?—and instead, just goes kind of bonkers, running through every action-movie and dystopian-adventure cliche they can think of in two-plus hours.
The first Maze Runner had a sort of Lord of the Flies thing going on, as a ton of teenage boys (and one girl) are stuck in a lush enclosure, with noplace to go except for the mysterious, ever-changing maze. A lot of time is spent on the dynamics of the group, and whether they can trust each other, and who’s going to be the leader, in addition to the mystery of the maze.
Now, in the second film, it’s much more just a crazy all-out rampage. The kids are out in the world, dealing with the vaguely post-apocalyptic, vaguely dystopian landscape, and they’re being chased by an evil organization while dealing with scary laboratories, deserts, zombies, deserted cities, evil raves, pirate scavenger types, freedom fighters, and various other things.
The actual plot of The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is pretty simple—an evil organization, conveniently called WICKED, chases after these teenagers, and they search for a safe haven—but what’s amazing is the sheer number of gleefully random twists that happen.
And if I had to pick one factor that makes this movie a blast (way more than the first one), it would be the guest stars they managed to rope in. Aidan Gillen from Game of Thrones and The Wire is in it, and he’s basically still playing Littlefinger. Alan Tudyk is playing an evil raver, which is just as much fun as it sounds. And Giancarlo Esposito is basically being Gus Fring. The quality of supporting cast this movie is able to recruit this time around massively elevates the whole thing, while also leaving you feeling as though all of these actors are having way too much fun in this dopey sequel.
Pretty much nothing happens in Scorch Trials that you haven’t seen before—but this movie throws itself into the cliches with such gusto, it’s like a bar band playing every classic rock song they know, as long as the shots of well vodka keep coming. There’s a scene in the desert where they shake their empty water bottle upside down. There’s a scene where something explodes and they’re on the ground and there’s a ringing in their ears, and the sound in the movie cuts out for exactly 90 seconds. There’s a scene where they climb through ventilator shafts to get inside a secret laboratory where teenagers are being experimented on. There’s lots of skulking around tunnels and being attacked by zombies.
And the backstory, as much as we learn of it, also seems crazily baroque. The apocalypse, in this case, was a series of solar flares that turned much of the world (I guess) into a lethal desert, while ALSO unleashing a virus that turned almost everyone into zombies. At least, that’s what I gleaned from it.
The good news is, the pace of Maze Runner: Scorch Trials is pretty relentless, as we hustle from set piece to set piece. There’s never any chance to stop and think about how random all of this is, or to scratch your head at the occasional explanations for all that maze-running in the first movie. We’re too busy watching a smeared-eye-liner-wearing Alan Tudyk push drugs onto kids, or Giancarlo Esposito act demented-yet-twinkly.
Director Wes Ball, back again, seems to be at his best when filming institutional corridors and dark, claustrophobic spaces. Backlit shapes, and lots of smoke, add a sense of mystery and suspense to Ball’s endless tunnels and warehouses, and I was strongly reminded at times of the music video for Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys.” Which makes sense— “Wild Boys,” like most Duran Duran videos, was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who also directed Highlander and now directs tons of episodes of the show Teen Wolf.
If you watch the above video, then you’ve basically already seen Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.
Seriously, I really believe there’s a case to be made that our present-day teen dystopian ethos owes a lot to 1980s Duran Duran videos. Your telephone been ringing while you’re dancing in the rain. Sums everything up, really.
Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien, of course, stars in the Maze Runner films, and he proves once again that he makes a great action hero, with all of the twitchy-faced, nervous jaw-clenching action that made him great in Wolf but less of the comic-sidekick nattering. All of those times when O’Brien had to try and puzzle out whether the Kanima needs a friend and what kind of Japanese fox fairy might be putting tattoos on people’s necks, are standing him in good stead here. He’s pretty much the perfect lead actor for a wild romp through an endless succession of “oh shiiiiit” moments, and he already fits into the Mulcahy post-industrial-monstrous aesthetic.
All in all, there’s a special place in my heart for movies that just keep the manic set pieces going, rolling downhill long after the wheels have flown off and the axle has snapped. In a sea of joyless, overly self-referential action films, the second Maze Runner stands out simply by taking so much pleasure in its own madcap action.