Blockbuster adaptations of young adult novels are very easy to green light, this is due in large part to two factors: a pre-existing fan base and the disposable income of the YA target market. It all started with Harry Potter, then Twilight (ugh) and then the Hunger Games series, all of which collected over a billion dollars at box office figures alone. Naturally the formula was striped across the calendar year to varying degrees of success – beloved novels I Am Number Four, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures and Vampire Academy all failed to greenlight a sequel, while Divergent and Percy Jackson persevered through negative criticism thanks to the star power of their casts.
It seems that apart from the odd indie exception – The Giver, The Fault In Our Stars – nobody can hold a candle to the gargantuan Hunger Games series. Until the second instalment of the Maze Runner series.
The first film – in which the majority of our heroes escape a maze filled with nasty critters – was certainly flawed. The claustrophobic maze was an odd set piece that made every plot development seem conceited while the script was a touch too angsty and didn’t know what to do with its many characters, least of all its lone female Teresa. The sequel addresses all of these problems very naturally and streamlines the cast to about a dozen key players, giving everyone a small piece of a larger and more intricate puzzle than the maze. Some of those pieces are about WICKED, a scientific organisation with a strong military arm that is forcing children into human farms to provide a remedy for the virus that made their world a dystopia.
The Scorch Trials is an excellent zombie movie. It puts Brad Pitt’s World War Z to shame by making properly scary zombie–fast, menacing and ruthless–in a society already brimming with other villains. Imagine The Walking Dead had a crossover episode with the Hunger Games that was had the pace of Mad Max: Fury Road. That’s The Scorch Trials.
It’s a very engaging film. Going into the movie without reading the novels made every plot point more exciting and helped to wind up the tension of the big showdown finale. Switching to an ensemble allowed the narrative more freedom to play with character dynamics and continued to spotlight the distant Teresa until the big emotional payoff. Her arc could go either way and it’s exciting to see a young adult film, or even any Hollywood film, remove the sexuality to a certain degree to engineer more engaging storytelling.
Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee and Giancarlo Esposito deliver formidable performances that differentiate Maze Runner from all the other young adult content crowding the market at a fraction of the cost of Jennifer Lawrence or the younger Hemsworth brother. While the cast are not household names they are all attached to loved and quality brands.
O’Brien is a supporting character on Teen Wolf, Scodelario was the lead on niche British series Skins and will co-headline Pirates of the Caribbean 5, Brodie-Sanger is interestingly the voice of Ferb on Phineas and Ferb and more recognisably Liam Neeson’s kid in Love Actually, Hong Lee did a killer multi-episode arc on the hilarious Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Esposito is the iconic villain Gus Fring from one of the best televisions series of all time, Breaking Bad.
In the third act a bevy of new characters are introduced including Nathalie Emmanuel of Game of Thrones and Fast and Furious 7. Another example of excellent casting.
The casting of villians fell a little flat. Academy Award nominee and Tony winner Patricia Clarkson occupies the villainess role but is not allowed to fully embrace it due to all the blurry grey areas the series continues to toy with. At the end she confronts an ex-employee and has a spark of something but given the cold, authoritative role so commonly found in the genre, it is hard not to compare her to legends like Meryl Streep (The Giver), Kate Winslet (Divergent) or Julianne Moore (The Hunger Games).
Elsewhere Alan Tudyk feels miscast as a slimy partier that probably has his local market under some kind of gang authority. Tudyk was the pilot in Firefly, the leprechaun in Dodgeball and voiced parts in Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and Frozen. This just wasn’t his role. Same goes for Game of Thrones and Queer as Folk actor Aidan Gillen. He plays a cruel and cowardly lieutenant known in the novels as Rat-Man who just comes off uncomfortable.
None of this is a detriment to the film. The good significantly outweighs the bad due to an awesome script that bizarrely came from the same guy that did the Fantastic Four reboot. It’s astonishing how well this movie turned out compared to the mixed comments about Fox’s latest blunder.
And they did it all in a year. Just twelve months to craft one of the better blockbusters of the year and a film that would slot nicely on a top twenty end of year countdown. Top Ten? Maybe not. But in a year of Star Wars, Mad Max, James Bond, Avengers, Jurassic World, Kingsman, Dope and Mission: Impossible, it’s not surprising that the cool and quirky popcorn movie gets pushed outside the countdown.
It doesn’t make it a bad film. The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is worth the price of admission and a better film that the original. The concluding chapter – which has magically not been split into two films – has been added to my 2016 movie calendar.