The Maze Runner was one of our favorite films last year, not to mention one of the most critically and commercially successful YA adaptations of all time. After the movie opened at #1, grossed more than $340 million worldwide, and earned major praise from both critics and fans - something that is not easy to do in the YA genre - director Wes Ball & Co. had some seriously high expectations to meet in The Scorch Trials. Fangirlish had the opportunity to catch an advance screening of the film, and let us start off by saying that The Scorch Trials doesn't just meet those expectations - it blows them away. From epic set pieces and stunts to interesting new characters and satisfying development for the ones we already know and love, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials hits all the right notes and continues to lay the groundwork for what promises to be an epic finale.
The Scorch Trials picks up right where The Maze Runner left off - in the middle of the action, with the Gladers on-board the helicopter that took them out of the Maze and into the no-less-terrifying remnants of actual civilization. As Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Winston (Alexander Flores) begin to acclimate to their new lives, they soon become suspicious that their "rescuers" may be in league with the very organization they have been trying to escape: WCKD. They decide to make their own way and seek out the Right Arm, a rumored guerilla resistance group that may offer them asylum. As the Gladers trek through the Scorch - the barren wasteland that is all that remains of the solar flare-burnt world - they must contend not only with the WCKD agents pursuing them, but also with the physical dangers of the Scorch (in terms of its harsh environment and its zombie-like inhabitants, the Cranks), a host of savage new characters, and potential tensions from within the group.
The Scorch Trials is a brilliant balancing act that maintains the adrenaline of the first film while broadening the wider universe, developing both returning favorites and new players, and answering some lingering questions (while, of course, introducing new ones) as it advances the underlying story. The Maze Runner was all about mystery and claustrophobia, and the sequel builds on that foundation of tension and uncertainty while majorly upping the stakes and expanding the playing field. The first act, which takes place in an underground bunker run by Janson (Aidan Gillen), provides the perfect bridge between these two concepts, the Maze and the Scorch. The Gladers have a chance to recover, with showers, food, and warm beds, but they are still confined and dealing with the question of what their rescuers' motivations truly are. Though the fun food fight scene we saw filmed during our set visit didn't make the final cut, this allows the tension to effectively build once more, leading up to the Gladers' ultimate escape into the Scorch.
The wasted remains of our world force the Gladers to contend with a series of dangerous unknowns, from the threatening landscape to the people (and not-quite-people) who live there. The Scorch is stunningly rendered, with vast desert, crumbling cities, and the fascinatingly cobbled-together creations of the remnants of civilization. The fusion of real sets in Albuquerque, New Mexico (such as the abandoned mall the Gladers seek refuge in) with Wes Ball's unparalleled visual effects skills lends to an incredible viewing experience.
The world of the Scorch is further fleshed out by the host of new characters the Gladers encounter, particularly scavengers Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). These two are standouts not only due to their fascinating environment - Jorge's Lair is easily one of the most intricate, impressive sets in the film - but also because of their fiery personalities and the uneasy alliance they forge with Thomas and his friends. Jorge and Brenda add an element of unpredictability to the group, but their street smarts and willingness to do what it takes to survive the Scorch are indispensable as the Gladers continue their journey.
Of course, Jorge, Brenda, and their group of scavengers aren't the only ones living in the Scorch. Anyone who is going to survive in this harsh desert is going to have to deal with the Cranks, the zombie-like victims of the Flare virus that's another lovely bonus of the solar flares that ravaged the planet. As easy as it would be to write off the Cranks as an unnecessary addition to a sequel already fairly jam-packed with new characters and reveals, Wes Ball pulls off their incorporation so well. Not only do the Cranks add another element of danger - and they will terrify you - but they act as both backstory and a warning, adding weight to WCKD's intentions and what has happened to the world while providing an unsettling reminder of what all the characters we know and love may stand to become.
As if the new scenery, fresh faces, and additional enemies weren't enough, The Scorch Trials also delivers on satisfying character moments for all of our favorites. From jaw-dropping stunts to quieter developmental moments, the ensemble cast we know and love from The Maze Runner gives us even more reasons to praise them. Dylan O'Brien continues to shine as Thomas, displaying charisma and capability even as he faces the uncertainties of the Scorch and guilt over leading his friends into a world just as dangerous (if not even more so) than the one they left behind - oh, and he aces some seriously cool stunts, too. Ki Hong Lee brings out the best of Minho's sass and badassery in equal measure. Thomas Brodie-Sangster adds further nuance to his portrayal of Newt, acting as both a supportive and - when necessary - questioning voice for Thomas' leadership (and yes, he does say "Tommy"). Dexter Darden (Frypan) and Alexander Flores (Winston) also have excellent moments to shine, reminding us that they are far more than supporting characters (and giving appreciated nods to fallen friends). Finally, Kaya Scodelario (Teresa) pulls off some of the film's most difficult material flawlessly, setting up her character for a very interesting role in the third and final film. Teresa's presence in The Scorch Trials is majorly expanded from the novel, but Scodelario's performance will make you glad for every second added.
There are still so many good things we could say about The Scorch Trials, but we'll try to wrap it up with a few final thoughts. The amazing thing about this franchise is that underneath the spectacle - the incredible landscapes, the explosions (get ready - they're pretty awesome), the impressive stunts - and underneath those amazing character moments, it is a plot-driven series, and it pulls it off in the best way possible. Even with the drastic expansion of the universe in this film, the new elements don't feel overwhelming or out of place because they are all introduced in service of the underlying story. We have to give a nod to T.S. Nowlin's script and every decision made by Wes Ball here, because you can point to any change from James Dashner's novel and see exactly why it works for this adaptation.
This seems like a good time to note that you will notice a lot of changes from the source material, but we'll be the first to say that we stand behind Wes Ball and his team 500%. Wes nails the balance that so many other directors of YA adaptations don't seem to understand - he collaborates with the author and the fans in order to maintain the elements of the books that are most essential and beloved (e.g. "Tommy," a certain kiss, Minho's sass, etc.) while making the tough decisions to streamline the overall story for an adaptation that truly works. In this way, he does better service to the source material than many more "true" or direct adaptations and makes incredible films.
After a physically and emotionally intense finale, The Scorch Trials ends on another cliffhanger that will lead into the roughly one year time jump for the final film, The Death Cure. Though we left the theater anxious to find out what happens next, we're eagerly anticipating the sequel for more than just closure. The Scorch Trials beats the 'second film curse' of many trilogies - it stands on its own as an incredible movie, and, like The Maze Runner, it effectively lays the groundwork for a seamless sequel that can build on the plot and character development for one satisfying payoff. Not only has The Scorch Trials earned a spot among our all-time favorite films (and certainly the most effective YA adaptations), but it left us confident that the ultimate resolution in The Death Cure will surpass even that.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials hits theaters September 18.