The film was Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, second in the Maze Runner series of which we’d watched the first the night before. It began life in 2009 when James Dashner published The Maze Runner as a novel, following it up with The Scorch Trials (2010), The Death Cure (2011) and The Kill Order (2012), which are currently being sold as a boxed set. Dasher’s Wikipedia page also lists a fifth book in the cycle, The Fever Code (2016), but says there have been “no official announcements.” (It also reveals he’s a graduate of Brigham Young University — as I recall, Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight cycle, is also a Mormon, and one wonders if apocalyptic visions of the future come with the Mormon territory? Then again, if one doesn’t believe in Mormonism, one would probably regard The Book of Mormon as a fantasy novel by Joseph Smith, Jr.) The Maze Runner won two book awards for young adult fiction (the ALA Best Fiction award in 2011 and the Young Readers’ Choice Award, intermediate grades, in 2012), but the cycle didn’t make it to film until 2014, after The Hunger Games and Divergent series had already established the popularity of dystopian sci-fi films based on young-adult fiction cycles. The central premise of The Maze Runner and its sequelae is that Earth has been hit by two catastrophes in rapid succession: first, the sun inexplicably heated up and baked the earth (“The Scorch”), making the surface mostly uninhabitable and forcing the social elites underground while millions of people died; and then a mysterious virus called “The Flare” started infecting the people who were left and basically either slowly and painfully killing them or turning them into creatures much like the zombies of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its many sequelae, remakes and reboots. The Maze Runner told the story of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who like a number of other men in their late teens was sent up in a long, fast and nausea-inducing elevator (the first thing we saw him do in the opening of the Maze Runner movie was throw up) to a little community called The Glade which is surrounded by a huge concrete maze whose walls close at sunset and reopen the next morning but in a different configuration. A number of the boys become Maze Runners, whose job it is to look for a way through the maze and also avoid being stung by the Grievers, monsters who look like giant tarantulas with mechanical attachments — they appear to be part organic and part robotic — and who once again subject the people “stung” by them to long, painful deaths and make them homicidally crazy before they expire.
At the end of The Maze Runner Thomas and a group of his friends from The Glade finally figure out the secret of the maze and get out of it — and are greeted by a video image of Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who set up the whole experiment as a way of winnowing out the kids who were immune to the Flare virus and also resourceful enough to solve problems. The similarity to the Divergent series — also a story about young people who, unbeknownst to them, are the subjects of a sinister experiment in which their very environment and culture are being manipulated by scientists with their own agendas — is obvious enough I wonder if Divergent author Veronica Roth was ripping off The Maze Runner, though there are enough antecedents for this idea in fiction it may come from a common source (Roth acknowledged Orson Scott Card’s Ender cycle as a source; both Card’s novel Ender’s Game and the film based on it are the story of a teenager who thinks he’s playing war games to repel an extraterrestrial invader but really is fighting the actual war). In yet another borrowing from a science-fiction classic — William Nolan’s Logan’s Run and the 1970’s film based on it — it turns out that the successful maze runners are not being trained to repopulate the surface of Earth and figure out a way to survive the Scorch. Instead, they’re being encased in giant womb-like glass tubes and their life fluids are being sucked out of them because it turns out the only treatment for the Flame virus anyone has discovered is an enzyme extracted from the bodies of people already immune to it — only they can’t synthesize the enzyme, so the only way Flame victims can be treated is by sacrificing the people already immune, rendering them unconscious and continually extracting the enzyme from their bodies. (It’s also an intriguing variation on The Matrix cycle, in which the world was run by super-powerful machines which fueled themselves by sucking out the life’s energy of living people. In Logan’s Run the gimmick was that the youths were allowed to live until age 30, when their bodies were harvested, not for energy or for enzymes, but for spare parts for transplants to keep the aging 1-percenters who ran things healthy and in power.)
From there The Scorch Trials turns into an elaborate chase scene drawing on all the previous films mentioned above plus a strong admixture of Mad Max in the plot gimmick that a group of outlaws calling themselves “The Right Hand” have hidden out in the desert and the mountains and have evaded the efforts of WCKD (pronounced “Wicked,” standing for World Catastrophe, Killzone Department), which is running the Maze experiment and, it appears, virtually everything else, to round them up and/or kill them. One of the leaders of the Right Hand, Vince, is played by Barry Pepper, who in 1988 starred in one of the very best recent sci-fi dystopian films, They Live, which was essentially the Invasion of the Body Snatchers gimmick applied to Left-wing social and political comment (and a better movie than just about all the ones I’ve cited above!). The intrepid refugees from the Maze also have to deal with Cranks, which is what the Romeroesque zombies people turn into when they’ve become infected by the Flare virus are called, and Brenda (Rosa Salazar), daughter of a trader Thomas meets during his travels, seems on track to becoming his girlfriend until she’s infected by the Flare and becomes a Crank herself. But in the end Thomas and the rest of the refugees are betrayed by the woman from part one, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who at the end of the film turns them and the entire Right Hand into WCKD on the ground that she saw her mother die of the Flare and believes it’s for the greater good that she and the other Immunes get hooked up to machines and spend the rest of their lives producing enzyme for the only known treatment. (The whole gimmick with the Flare and an incredibly costly drug — both in money and the human lives that have to be destroyed to produce it — couldn’t help but remind me of the mainstream scientific and pharmaceutical-industry response to AIDS, which has long since abandoned any talk of a “cure” and instead has aimed at making “HIV” a so-called “chronic, manageable illness” whereby people stay relatively healthy but only by ingesting incredibly toxic and expensive drugs for the rest of their lives.)
It seems that, to paraphrase Anna Russell, we’re going to end up right back where we started two hours ago — with the escapees from the Maze once again in the hands of WCKD and about to be turned into enzyme farms — only Thomas and a couple of others escape and he goes off in search of his friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee), one of the Maze runners who was recaptured by WCKD, on a Quixotic quest to rescue him personally. The Scorch Trials wasn’t quite as exciting as the first film in the cycle, but it was still pretty much action porn, albeit action porn with more longueurs between the highlights, and only in the last half-hour did it start to sound some of the emotional depths that were present in Twilight, The Hunger Games and (less so) Divergent from the get-go: Thomas, Brenda and Teresa emerge as genuinely conflicted characters instead of the cardboard heroes and villains of standard fantasy. Still, it’s the sort of movie that’s as much a chore as a joy to sit through; there’s plenty of good stuff but, more so than in The Maze Runner, you have to sit through quite a lot of dull patches to get there. I also think The Scorch Trials has something of a second-act problem; in the classic three-act construction of a stage play, Act I sets up the premise, Act II complicates it and Act III resolves it — and in a number of multi-novel and multi-film cycles the middle entry in the series has the second-act problem writ large. It’s there in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonquest, The Empire Strikes Back, New Moon, Catching Fire and Insurgent, and I think it’s part of the problem with The Scorch Trials as well; some of the plot devices seem like logical extensions of the first film, while others seem to have been put there to lead us into the rest of the story — and the inconclusive ending of The Scorch Trials, in which we’re supposed to “read” Thomas as the indomitable representative of the forces of good even though we’ve just seen the forces of good decimated by the forces of evil, is typical of a second-story climax in that it seems put there more to keep the series going than to provide an ending in itself.