By: Kevin Jordan
Running in circles.
With The Hunger Games series concluding more than two years ago and the Divergent series crashing and burning with its third film, the so-called Young Adult genre has all but died in the film world. That is not to say studios aren’t still trying to find the next Hunger Games, but they have become much more cautious with the amount of money they are throwing at dubious investments. In my review of Divergent, I talked about the correlation between box office draw and book sales for this genre, noting that many of the attempts at starting a franchise died after getting stuck on whatever is on the floor of a movie theater (Dave Barry dubbed it cinemuck) because studios were only paying lip service to book sales.
The Maze Runner debuted a few months after Divergent (in 2014) and, after a nearly-three year hiatus, is concluding with the third and final book of the trilogy, The Death Cure. As of early 2015, The Maze Runner series had sold more than ten million copies, so it probably sits somewhere around fifteen to twenty million total copies by now (it is much harder than you think to find book sales figures). Between that and the previous two films grossing north of $300 million each (on budgets of $34 and $61 million), 20th Century Fox could comfortably finish the trilogy, betting that the third movie will also turn a profit. That is, until they decided to open The Death Cure in January instead of September (like the last two films).
(Side note: James Dashner, author of the series, has written two prequels since concluding the trilogy, but those two books will almost definitely never see an adaptation.)
(Also, SPOILER ALERT, unless you’ve read the books.)
The hiatus I mentioned is one of the biggest problems with this film. Like others I spoke to prior to the film, none of us could remember much, if anything, about the previous film (or, as it turns out, the final book). The Death Cure begins with a train hijacking. The words you are looking for are “uh, what now?” I was completely confused by this scene because, again, I had forgotten 99% of The Scorch Trials. I remembered the main character, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), that a virus had infected most of humanity and turned them into zombies, and that the WCKD organization was trying to find a cure by terrorizing children, but I most definitely did not remember Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) or anyone having cars or trains. But, I remembered liking the books and being okay with the previous films, so train hijacking it is.
Thomas and friends are the hijackers, their goal being to rescue their friend, Minho (Ki Hong Lee). I really tried to enjoy this scene for the popcorn-action it was, but I have eyes and ears that were offended by the absurd contrivances and cliches that filled this scene. If you thought storm troopers and every bad guy in every episode of The A-Team were bad shots, wait ‘til you see the WCKD security troops’ lack of aim. At one point, Vince (Barry Pepper) jumps out from cover in front of several WCKD guys firing automatic rifles from about fifty feet away and isn’t so much as winged by a bullet. Meanwhile, Jorge avoids being blown up by a hover-plane that can defy gravity but doesn’t have automatic aim or guided missiles. Jorge manages to commandeer the plane, shows up at the train just as the WCKD troops are a couple dozen yards from the train and doesn’t shoot all of them to end the fight. Instead, they hook grapnels from the plane to one of the train cars and lift it into the sky with the hijacking crew dangling from the sides. And still the WCKD guys manage to hit nothing but air, probably because they were shocked that the train just happened to stop exactly where a bunch more of Thomas’ friends were hiding in anticipation of the train stopping exactly where they were hiding. I apologize for the detail here, but the entire movie plays out like that scene.
I’d like to tell you what the main plot of this film was, but I never figured it out. Minho wasn’t on the train car they stole, so Thomas decides he is going to storm WCKD’s home city (the last city still standing) to rescue Minho. Seriously, that is Thomas’ objective for the entire film. Meanwhile, WCKD is still trying to find a cure to the virus and has resorted to piping nightmares directly into Minho’s brain (while he’s still awake), hoping it will create enough midi-chlorians or something to kill the virus. I don’t know, but Minho sure looked scared.
“I’m pretty sure he’s divergent. I mean, uh…nevermind.”
At the city, Thomas and crew meet a guy (Walton Goggins) who is definitely infected, but who also says “I’m a businessman” when Thomas asks for help getting into the city. Based on the rest of the movie, his business is wholly composed of blowing a hole in the city wall as a suicide bomber so the rest of the infected mob can burn and pillage the city while murdering as many of its occupants as possible. All this after giving an Independence Day styled speech promising the people they can have the city instead of living outside the walls as refuse. What is happening?
Remember, everything that has happened in this trilogy is supposed to lead up to discovering the cure for the virus. Yeah, WCKD seems evil, but they are trying to save the entire human race and Thomas is actively fighting them and destroying everything in his wake in order to rescue one guy who might be the key to curing everyone. Given that scenario, it’s much harder to root for Thomas and against WCKD, but the movie makes it easy when they cast Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger) as the chief antagonist and everyone hates Littlefinger. At one point, Gillen’s character (Janson, WCKD’s chief of security – and, again, SPOILER ALERT) will shoot his colleague in the back after Thomas turns himself in and also after finding out Thomas’ blood contains the cure. In fact, Janson won’t stop shooting at Thomas for several minutes shortly thereafter. The most maddening thing of all is that death has nothing to do with the cure and the title promised us a death cure. The book actually does explain this, but I guess the screenwriter thought stealing the end of Divergent was more palatable than stealing the end of The Matrix trilogy.
“Why don’t we just do what we did in the book?”
Yes, I’m putting far too much thought into a movie whose writers clearly didn’t, but the shitty writing is a common theme among many of the YA films. Far too many of them end up junking the source material (which The Death Cure very much did), even though the source material is what everyone wants to see in the movie. The Death Cure was easily twenty minutes too long (at a very bloated and explosion-y 142 minutes) and somehow made most of its characters shallower in the process. I left the movie feeling disappointed because nothing is really resolved by the end and discovering the cure ended up being a MacGuffin. Mostly, I was just bored because the last film left zero impression on my memory so I didn’t care about any of these characters. But, hey, train hijacking.
Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back and hope the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time remembered what its audience is paying to see.
By: Kevin Jordan
Forget the book.
In the year that has passed since The Maze Runner was released in theaters, I’ve read a lot of books, including all four in The Maze Runner series. I’ve also read all five Game of Thrones books in that time (yes, I know they’re actually called A Song of Ice and Fire), but that’s a conversation for another day. Though, it is a fun coincidence that two GoT actors feature in The Scorch Trials (Littlefinger – Aidan Gillen; Jojen – Thomas Brodie-Sangster). The reason I bring up GoT is because one of the big complaints from some of the GoT book fanatics is that the show diverges too much from the books (they’re wrong). Well, if they think that’s bad, they should burst into flames at how much The Scorch Trials film diverged from its source material. As a friend and I agreed – the characters’ names were the same and there was, in fact, a scorch.
The Scorch Trials picks up right where the previous film left off – Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends have escaped the maze and are taken by helicopter to a distant compound. As they are exiting the helicopter, they are attacked by what appear to be fast zombies and are rushed into the compound. Inside, they find hot showers, good food, fresh clothes, and dozens of other young men and women from other mazes, and all of this run by a man named Janson (Gillen). Right away, that’s two things different from the book – fast zombies and lots of other maze people. So, if you were hoping for the film to at least start out like the book, you will be sorely disappointed.
After a couple of days at the compound, Thomas starts to get angry because they won’t let him see Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). When another boy shows Thomas a room where other maze folk are taken (they go in, but never come out), Thomas decides to break into the room to find out what’s really going on. Once in the room, we discover that this movie has ripped off The Island – Thomas discovers that instead of taking people to the safe sanctuary Janson promised, they have put them into comas and are draining a blue fluid from them that can cure the zombie disease (called The Flare). Also, they are the same organization responsible for putting them in the maze. At this point, the movie is so far away from the book that it’s not even worth mentioning anymore.
Well, actually there is one thing worth mentioning and then I swear I’ll stop. In the first movie and book, the maze is considered the first phase of tests they are running to discover a cure. The reason the second book has the word “trials” in its title is because it’s the second phase of the testing. But in the second film, they’ve completely written that out. Instead, the second film is Janson and company trying to recapture Thomas and gang (the original maze group) as they cross the desolate landscape outside of the compound. Guess what they call that landscape?
The rest of the movie is pretty generic action movie fare. The group runs into several hurdles, there’s shooting, there’s chasing, there are fast zombies trying to eat them, all while they are trying to make contact with a resistance group called “the right hand.” There isn’t much else to talk about, though I do have two observations I want to share. The first is that there is a shot of a bridge that looks like the Brooklyn Bridge and they are in a city that is definitely large. Yet, after a short walk, they are heading into some rocky mountains that are clearly taller than anything east of the Mississippi River. Either the filmmakers weren’t very concerned with location or the solar flares that caused the apocalypse were so powerful they made mountains rise up several thousand feet. This isn’t important, just something I noticed.
The second thing is that there was a very impressive bit of acting in a scene halfway through the movie. Thomas and a new girl they met in the city, Brenda (Rosa Salazar), are looking for some help at a place that can only be described as a rave. Alan Tudyk (who is as delightful as ever) runs the party, gives them something to drink, and the rest of the scene plays out with Thomas and Brenda quickly becoming fall-down drunk while searching for the man they need help from. Salazar and O’Brien do a fantastic job of convincing the viewer they really are drunk, then share one of the most passionate kisses I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s the kind of kiss that every Twilight movie was missing. Come to think of it, it was missing from The Scorch Trials book as well.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back if you haven’t read the book. If you are the kind of person that hates when movies/shows diverge from the book, you probably shouldn’t go to movies ever again.
By: Kevin Jordan
Only missing David Bowie.
I hope the fad of Hollywood turning Young Adult (YA) books into movies never ends. It’s a never-ending source of dystopian futures, vampires, werewolves, witches, idyllic (and impossible) teen romances, teen angst, and the continued insistence that junior high kids are actually “young adults” and not “older children, most of who have entered that phase where they hate their parents and their parents have fantasized strangling them with their stupid skinny jeans.” If you think I’m being sarcastic, well, I am – but not for the reason you think. The fact that the film rights to the books are being snatched up by the dozen means that more of them will be written and I love books. It also means that we get excellent adaptations of phenomenal books like The Hunger Game and equally abysmal adaptations like Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, The Mortal Instruments, and I am Number Four (I actually enjoyed two of those, though wouldn’t defend them as good movies – I’ll leave you to guess at which two). The sarcasm is pointed at the supernatural themed books, which really have oversaturated the genre and many of which we could all do without. While it’s true that they provide great fodder for my reviews, they have gotten incredibly redundant and completely uncreative. So, let’s all give Stephenie Meyer a round of applause for writing one decent book and three crappy books and Summit Entertainment for turning those books into one okay movie and four increasingly bad sequels that inspired a legion of writers and studios to emulate them with a lot of hastily written crap and even worse film adaptations. Seriously, clap – they make some of my reviews really easy (and fun) to write.
In all fairness, I get that a lot of children like those supernatural books, regardless of how poorly they are written. For some reason besides good storytelling, they can’t get enough of them and I’m okay with that. The books that interest me the most are the dystopian future, action/thrillers, or science fiction books and, yes, there are plenty of those that are just as poorly written. This brings me to our subject movie, The Maze Runner – another dystopian future (or post-apocalypse, if you like) book and also one that I haven’t read yet. I’ll find out soon enough if the book is worth reading (it’s next on my list), but the only thing I knew about it prior to watching the film is that a teenager was going to run through a maze. This actually fit will into my current philosophy of having zero expectations going the slate of fall movies. Having said that, my expectations were actually set pretty low considering the recent spate of shitty YA adaptations. And, no, I didn’t see The Fault in Our Stars. Whatever.
Considering my cynicism of YA movies, you should know that I had to make a choice to screen The Maze Runner or A Walk Among the Tombstones (the latest Liam-Neeson-kicks-everyone’s-ass movie) because they were screening at the same time. I chose the former because (1) I’ve loved mazes and labyrinths since I was little kid and (2) the floor and ceiling of a YA adaptation is much further apart than a Neeson action flick. While I’m sure the Neeson flick was probably decent, I’m happy to say that The Maze Runner far exceeded my undeservedly low expectations.
The Maze Runner begins by showing us our main character, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), waking up in an ascending elevator with amnesia. When the elevator stops, he is greeted by a group of young men in the center of a glade surrounded by giant stone walls. They explain to him that they all have amnesia as well, though can still remember their names. They also tell him that for three years, a new boy has risen in the elevator (along with supplies) once a month and that the walls form the center of an enormous maze. For those three years, they have sent runners through the maze to find a way out, but still have not found the exit, that the maze entrance opens every morning and closes every night, and that nobody has ever survived a night in the maze. As we meet various characters of the group, you can see similarities to Lord of the Flies, though nobody is going to drop a boulder on fat and nerdy Chuck (Blake Cooper). Thomas has an immediate interest in the maze, as do we, but the film makes us wait awhile before we actually get to see more than just the entrance from the glade. Like Thomas, we have to be patient and that means sitting through explanations of their little society while they simply tell us things about the maze. After a little while, the movie picks it up a notch when one of the runners come back “stung.” We later find out that the sting was from a griever – a thing that turns out to be some kind of cybernetic spider – and the runner is infected with some kind of disease. The leader of the group, Alby (Aml Ameen) goes into the maze the next day, is also stung, and Thomas runs in to help him (and Minho – Ki Hong Lee), as the entrance is closing. Finally, we get to see the maze and it’s almost worth the wait.
In this first real look at the maze, we meet a griever and see some of the layout first hand. If you are expecting anything even remotely as imaginative as the Labyrinth, you will be very disappointed. There are walls and vines, but you don’t get to see any of the shifting walls and passages that the boys mentioned earlier, there is no Bog of Eternal Stench, and David Bowie is nowhere to be found. Obviously, Thomas and friends will survive the night (and the griever) or this would be a very short and pointless movie. When they return to the glade the next morning, more things go wrong, the first girl shows up (Teresa – Kaya Scodelario), they go back into the maze a couple more times, the big why is revealed and we are left hanging because of course this is the first book in the trilogy.
For me, I was both pleased and disappointed in the film. I was disappointed because I really wanted the maze to be more than what it turned out to be. It’s worth noting that (in the movie at least) the maze almost doesn’t matter, which might actually explain why it ended up being so vanilla. It’s also very inconsistent – they tell us that the maze changes every night, but then show us a complete map of the maze created by the runners. They tell us that nobody has ever survived an encounter with a griever, yet are well familiar with their stings and their aftermaths. When they reveal the reason why the boys were put in the maze in the first place, you will question why the grievers exist at all. I’m sure the book has a lot more detail and the sequels will answer more questions, but it seems like maze was given far too little attention.
On the flip side, I was pleased because the movie did a very good job of building an intriguing story with intriguing questions and then answering some of those questions. It flows really well and develops the characters through the dynamics of the group. They also tell you about the larger world outside the maze and fit everything you see into that world by the end of the film. In fact, if you saw Divergent, you know exactly what I’m talking about – Divergent refuses to even acknowledge the bigger world (at least until book 3) and makes you wonder why you should care about anything that is going on. The Maze Runner does exactly the opposite – you will care about the characters and what happens to them, even poor Piggy, er, I mean Chuck.
Rating: I’m as surprised as you that this movie is worth your money. It’s no Hunger Games or Labyrinth, but it’s at least in the ball park.