Saturday, September 19, 2015

Running on Empty: MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS


The kids stuck in a maze in last year’s young adult franchise starter The Maze Runner are out of the labyrinth and in a post-apocalyptic confusion in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. There’s not a single maze to be found, but there’s still plenty of running as a group of boys and one girl find themselves in a mysterious compound where a commander (Aidan Gillen) tells them to be patient and he’ll take them to a better place. Turns out he’s lying, because of course he is. So off the kids run into a desert wasteland stretched between ruined cities. The world has ended, and they have no idea what to do, so why not keep running from the guys with guns who want to recapture them and feed their blood into blue vats pumping out potential vaccines for a zombie virus. (That doesn’t seem too bad, considering.) It really is that simple, but I don’t know why the whole thing has to be knotted up like no one has a clue, or why it takes our heroes so long to figure out their next move.

The least interesting of this cycle of teen adventure series – behind The Hunger Games, and Twilight, and even the thin derivative Divergent – the Maze Runners are without personality. It’s a dystopian sci-fi zombie conspiracy mystery with a screenplay (again by T.S. Nowlin) that works exactly like a jumble of tropes and half-formed carbon copies of better ideas used more effectively elsewhere. The characters are undifferentiated. There’s the lead (Dylan O’Brien), his buddies (Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and a girl (Kaya Scodelario), running through the desert called The Scorch, trying to survive. But between this movie and the last, we’ve spent nearly four hours with this group and I still couldn’t begin to tell you what their goals, hopes, dreams, and proclivities are.

They’re just the runway-ready grubby survivors, lost in scorching heat and stuck in a nightmare of zombie imagery. We know they’re the heroes because they’re young and this is YA. The bad guys are of course the grown-ups with the evil organization (the World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department – or Wicked, for real). It’s never entirely clear why the bad are so bad and the good are worth caring about, but never mind. Grown-ups just don’t understand. The escaped teens have nowhere to turn, and no interior lives to draw upon. Now, I could understand their spotty backstories, since their memories were wiped. But where’s the personality? They are thoroughly bland and lifeless despite the young actors’ best efforts to imbue their line readings with meaning, strain, and stress. When they run, they throw their whole bodies into it, swinging their arms side to side and twisting their torsos. It’s like they’re trying to run right off the screen and out of the theater. I knew the feeling.

As I sat through the movie’s opening stretches, I found myself wondering if the whole thing could be improved by the presence of some welcome older character actors who could at least elevate the dull, empty proceedings with their gravitas and charm. Soon enough, it started regularly introducing tiny nothing parts for the likes of Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Tudyk, Lili Taylor, and Barry Pepper. But even they can’t save scenes that require them to do nothing more than gravely intone exposition or wait for effects work to explode around them. Lifeless dreck, there’s not one moment lively or interesting in and of itself. The closest it gets are a sequence set in an abandoned zombie-infested shopping mall and, later, a woman (Rose Salazar) stuck on a rapidly cracking pane of glass over a deadly vertiginous height. In other words, even at its best it’s weakly lifted from better movies (Dawn of the Dead and The Lost World, respectively) without any creative twist or winking homage.

It’s just borrowed ingenuity heaped on a derivative structure. On a technical level it’s competently made, with convincing effects, sturdy photography, and some brisk action cutting. A moment involving a safe house rigged to self-destruct has a clever beat or two, and a moment of climactic betrayal-induced dread works well enough. But crushing boredom takes up most of its 131 long minutes as I quickly lost interest. I suspect director Wes Ball, helming the sequel to his directorial debut, could do good decent work given a better screenplay. Maybe a corporate superhero universe will call. But here a talented cast and crew have far too little to work with. It’s slick, professional, and completely uninteresting.

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