Silver Screen: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials *1/2
Somebody should make a teen movie about an unconventionally attractive girl with cancer who gets swept up in a love triangle between members of her indie band after the apocalypse.
Think of the frenzy it’ll cause among the teen demographic, whose attention inflames the affections of our country’s most accomplished swindlers. The trailer alone will be shared and liked and reTweeted and Tumblr’d right into the American mythos. Think of how much money can be made, even before the story is chopped up into a trilogy, and the final installment is divided yet again.
Until that glorious day, the underserved youth of the twentyteens will have to settle for movies that contain only two or three of these, the only five plotlines available to teen movies since they outgrew the whole magic thing.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is pro-forma apocalypse schlock that dutifully runs through a checklist of the genre’s more modern essentials. Oppressive government weirdly obsessed with teens? Check. High technology contrasted with rust and ruin? Check. Inevitable shot of a dilapidated city? Check, and check again. The characters even zipline between collapsed skyscrapers, swiping Divergent’s one distinguishing gimmick.
Last year’s Maze Runner stood out slightly from similar fare with a more compelling singular mystery. A bunch of teenagers with no memories are stranded in a wooded clearing located inside of a gargantuan maze that is filled with monstrous, mechanized sentries at night. New boy Thomas (Dylan O’Brien from MTV’s Teen Wolf) helps lead the others farther into the maze than they’ve ever been before to learn the origins of the labyrinth and who has trapped them in the deadly puzzle. The maze lent the story a singular focus, as opposed to its big sister The Hunger Games’ more vague political turmoil.
But Thomas and his pals, including brawny sidekick Minho (Hi Hong Lee) and his sort-of girlfriend Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), made it out of the maze in the first movie, which requires a realignment of the plot. The sequel gets off to a promising start when the kids are relocated to a temporary outpost where they’re given food and medical care while they wait to move on to an unspecified better place. But the lack of specifics makes Thomas uneasy, so he teams up with fellow reluctant recruit Aris (Justified’s Jacob Lofland) to sneak around the facility, which is conveniently webbed with spacious ventilation ducts in even the most secure of areas.
Turns out that shifty-seeming facility leader Janson (the ultra-shifty Aidan Gillen from Game of Thrones and The Wire) is, in fact, quite shifty. He’s not sheltering the kids from the nefarious maze-creating corporation WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” in one of the all-time bad public-relations moves). Janson is in fact an agent of WCKD, which is performing strange experiments on captive teens, although Janson claims it’s necessary to protect them from the horrors that lie outside in the post-apocalyptic hellscape called “the Scorch.”
I’ll save you the trouble of wondering: It’s zombies.
The Z-word is never uttered, and technically the cannibalistic humanoid beasts are infected with some bizarre virus, but whatever. Turns out the whole maze storyline was basically a drawn-out prologue for the umpteenth iteration of a zombie-survivalist tale, of which contemporary culture has no shortage. It’s a terminal bummer from which the movie, and the series, can’t recover, even with the addition of terrific grownup actors in supporting roles, including Alan Tudyk, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, and Lili Taylor.
The pervasive fear permeating The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner series is that adults are trying to better their own lives by treating children as renewable resources. The Scorch Trials literalizes that point when it reveals that WCKD is physically draining special teens of a valuable chemical that only their brains produce.
The grim irony is that the teen audience really is being manipulated and harvested— but for their fickle attentions and disposable dollars, specifically by movie studios conspiring to sell them a Soylent Green culture recycled from sacrificed ideas that look remarkably like art without containing any sustenance.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to sell something to you.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.