It’s really easy to dismiss a film by calling it nonsense, and this particular pitfall is one I feel I fall into too many times. I’ve cried nonsense on the plots of so many films over the course of my years reviewing films when I really meant muddled or confusing or pointless that now when I need it most I worry it won’t be taken seriously. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is nonsense in the purest form of the word; the movie has nothing resembling coherence or reason and it is a constant struggle just to understand what the hell is happening, let alone why it’s happening. I understand why these characters need to run away from bad things, but just about nothing else about the entire film. I derided the first Maze Runner film for being cliché and boring but it’s so much better to be boring than to be utterly incomprehensible.
You would think that by picking up directly where the last film left off The Scorch Trials could have some sense of narrative continuity, but you would be completely wrong. This film starts with the idea that everything we knew in the first movie was wrong but never bothers to explain what’s right. There’s some disease out there and for some reason it turns people in to zombies. The lab where they’re researching this disease has some weird shrimp monsters in glass tubes but no one acknowledges them in a serious way and they’re never spoken of or seen again. The outside world is one of sandstorms and powerful lightning storms but I can’t imagine that was caused by the zombie shrimp virus. The city they visit (or cities— it’s very hard to tell visually and the narrative gives no clues) is completely trashed with skyscrapers collapsing and fallen bridges, but none of that seems like zombies or sandstorms would cause it. The movie feels like the sets and locations were made with a paint-by-numbers set of post-apocalyptic clichés, and I could probably abide by it if they dedicated any time at all to justifying any of it. It wouldn’t even be that hard to slide this exposition when you consider all of the primary antagonists have amnesia, a disease practically invented to provide opportunities for simple things to be explained.
There’s also a stunning lack of consistency in the simple facts of the world. The kids travel by days on foot apparently risking dehydration and death by exposure to get from this ruined city to a secluded rebel outpost at the base of a far-off mountain. Then when things in the base go wrong two characters run around an underground tunnel for less than ten minutes before being deposited back out in to a giant city that we definitely couldn’t see in any of the establishing shots of that camp. When they leave this new city a few minutes later, they do it in a truck on a paved road. Civilization returned to this part of the world quickly in the maximum three days these events took place in. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like my intelligence has been insulted so much by a movie, and I saw the Twilight film where the whole climax was a dream twice.
For two movies in all the characters are remarkably thin. I couldn’t come up with descriptions for any of them that last more than a sentence or contain more than two adjectives. I suppose Minho is the brave one and Thomas is the reckless hero. Newt has an English accent and Aris has a weird name. I think Frypan is supposed to be the strong one but I might be wrong. Teresa has almost nothing to do in this movie and barely speaks until it’s almost over but they still expect me to believe she and Thomas have some special connection, maybe by the time this is all over it will be somewhat believable. Patricia Clarkson is suitably menacing in her slightly expanded part as the series’ apparent big bad, but she’s starting to sort of fade in to the scenery as the famous older blond actress playing the big bad has become the new fad among the YA movie swarm. Giancarlo Esposito is a treasure and he gets the most real acting to do in this and while he crushes it I sincerely hope he gets better opportunities soon or that this paid enormously well. Alan Tudyk is featured in a very small role and while he’s utterly transfixing it seems as if the direction offered him was “take everything you’ve ever seen a junkie do on film and do all of it on every line” and it’s awfully strange to see.
While trying to figure out how much of what I didn’t get in this film came from some struggle to adapt the book into the film I read a summary of the book and discovered it basically has nothing to do with the movie they made. Some of the characters are the same and the second act seems to hit a few of the same beats but what are we even doing here at this point? Why make a film so unfaithful to the source material and also so staggeringly terrible? Who is being pleased by this film? Surely not the fans of the book and certainly not the poor audience members with no affinity for this franchise at all. The Scorch Trials is a failure as a film and a failure as an adaptation and it seems like somewhere, with enough effort, they could have gotten one of these things right.