Given it is a part of a recent cinematic tsunami of Young Adult dystopian films, it won’t surprise you to learn that there are zombies in the Wes Ball-directed Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the sequel to 2014’s The Maze Runner.
Lots and lots of seriously aggrieved, Flare Plague-created, fastmoving, occasionally plant-draped zombies that look something like the undead love children of The Walking Dead and World War Z.
What may surprise you, however, is that the near ubiquitous zombies, whose reign atop the pop culture heap shows no sign of ebbing any time soon, are joined by lightning-spewing storms of apocalyptic proportions, the viral plague that caused the zombies in the first place, Mad Max-ian villains, drug-addled, off their rocker warlords, and rebel armies with attitude, to name but a few of the many cliched tropes that screenwriter T. S. Nowlin has seen fit to shoehorn into the film.
In fact, there are so many dystopian stalwarts jostling for screentime in The Scorch Trials that the film feels like one big over-ambitious blender of scifi and fantasy tropes, all thrown into the mix with gleeful delight to see what might emerge on the other side.
What does come crawling out of the storytelling primordial ooze – it’s highly likely there was some of that hiding in there too – is a movie with no real sense of its own identity, a gloriously kitsch pastiche of highly imaginative, originality-starved been-there-done-that nothingness that displays all the wit and sparkle of one of the zombies that seems to bedevil our hapless group of escapees at every turn.
Leading the group, as in the first film, is plucky though none too bright Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who possesses all the self-awareness and understanding of other peoples motives of a dimwitted doormouse hunkering down with a trap full of cheese.
Time and again he impulsively leads his all too trusting, only sometime-questioning crew – old pals Newt (Robert Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Winston (Alexander Flores) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), and new lambs to the insufficiently thought-out slaughter Aris (Jacob Lofland), Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and her “father” Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) – into all manner of peril with little to no forethought or planning, or any sense of what to do once they are up to their necks in the proverbial.
Photogenic he may be, but a hero for the ages? No.
And he really needs to be, given the number of randomly-thrown, haphazardly-realised baddies that come across our intrepid group’s path throughout the film.
Naturally, of course, World Catastrophe Killzone Department or W.C.K.D., represented as in the first film by Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), and new henchman, Game of Thrones alum Janson (Aidan Gillen), is still finagling its way into Thomas and the gang’s lives, even after their escape from the titular maze, at every turn.
They are ruthlessly committed to finding a cure to the deadly Flare Plague which, along with solar flares that have laid waste to the Earth’s ecology creating the so-called “Scorch” zone of endless desert which give the excitingly-titled, content-challenged film its name, and are, as is the way with melodramatic movie villains who sneer and over-explain at every turn, determined what they need to do to get it.
Even if it means taking out Thomas, his gang, and just about teenage/early twenties actor working in Hollywood to do it.
So much beaming natural collagen lost, and for so little gain.
For all this portentous material however, brimming with all sorts of potential commentary about humanity’s suicidal impulses, neglect of the environment and inability to see that there’s no point to surviving if we sell our collective soul in the process, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a confused mess of half-done characters with barely-justifiable emotional reactions and tenuous connections, barely there themes of no discernible intent, and a storyline in search of a hook on which to hang its narrative hat.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t find it, and the audience is forced to spend this overlong film trying hard to care about characters and situations that simply don’t merit any kind of emotional investment.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials lack any clearly-defined sense of purpose with Thomas et al running from one peril to another like brain-addled rats in an, ahem, maze.
Even when we reach the overcooked finale, after every cliched situation and visual cue in the book has been wheeled out – friend turning into a zombie? Hand them a gun and walk off slowly into the desert only to hear a lone gunshot ring out as you are silhouetted against the harsh desert sun -it’s increasingly hard to care about what happens to Thomas and his scattergun-inclined friends.
In fact, you’re almost willing W.C.K.D. to come scoop them up, and take them away once again for god knows what nefarious goings-on.
The filmmakers also rather clumsily telegraph their intentions to saddle us with a third film in this blighted trilogy by slotting in an utterly irrational, makes-no-sense declaration by Thomas who, remember, has displayed all the capability and wherewithall of a brain-damaged marmoset, that he is going right into the heart of Danger to do Heroic Things.
He all but winks at the audience, fourth wall be damned, and assures them he’ll be back as will W.C.K.D. and presumable all the zombies, cliches and sand.
At one point one of the characters, halfway across the desert, and it has to be said looking pretty damn good for someone close to death, angrily throws his empty water bottle into the sea of dunes around him. (What if you find some water? What will you carry it in? Isn’t that rather shortsighted? Oh, never mind.)
So pointless and excruciatingly tedious, and lack in any real sense of engrossing tension – despite all the light, noise and action that ultimately signifies nothing – is Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials that you almost wish you could chuck the rest of the film right along with said water bottle and leave it to die out in the desert graveyard of half-baked dystopian films, never to be seen again.