Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials review – series remains on fire

Setting its sights firmly on taking the best YA film series crown once ‘The Hunger Games’ ends, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” is another exciting entry in a thrilling saga.

What “Scorch Trials” work so well is that it doesn’t just feel like Book 2 in a YA series. Instead, it offers more of a continuing saga feel without neat chapters and end points.

After fleeing the maze, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends Teresa (Kayla Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores) quickly learn their troubles aren’t over.

MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALSThomas (Dylan O’Brien, right) leads Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) in a daring escape from WCKD.Photo credit: Richard Foreman, Jr. SMPSPTM and © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.  Not for sale or duplication.Upon being rescued by a mysterious group led by Janson (Aidan Gillen, “Game of Thrones”), the Gladers quickly realize their saviors aren’t as altruistic as they appear.

Janson’s connections to the perhaps shady, maybe just misunderstood WCKD boss Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson, “Legendary“) further complicates matters and puts a major dent in Thomas’ trust factor with the new organization.

One of the highlights of the series thus far has been the constant second-guessing of character motivation. Those that under normal circumstances would easily be labeled the villains aren’t so neatly classified and the heroes don’t always make the wisest decisions.

MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALSFollowing a daring escape, the Gladers and their new ally, Aris (Jacob Lofland, “Mud“), set out onto the Scorch — a desolate wasteland with unimaginable dangers and harsh environments.

There they encounter more Flare victims — the Maze Runner equivalent to zombies/walkers/infected — who are eager to bite, slash and otherwise infect the Gladers.

Locking in the filmmakers from the previous film proves a smart move from 20th Century Fox as Wes Ball once again shows he’s one of the brightest on the rise directors in Hollywood.

Screenwriter T.S. Nowlin returns as well in adapting James Dasher’s novels. Nowlin again proves a solid choice in his follow-up script with a firm handle on the sequel demands of new characters, expanding the story and raising the stakes. Nowlin also avoids the dreaded dull second act of a trilogy syndrome with one that doubles up on the action of its predecessor.

MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALSSwitching a standard YA adventure into a tense zombie thriller proves an interesting twist with several jump in your seat moments. Ball pretty much crafted the best possible audition tape for any producer with a zombie project in need of a director.

The first film had a $34 million budget and the enhancements to the sequel are evident with massive destruction wrought on the outside world.

Not every character survives the journey, but “Scorch Trials” builds on the established relationship between the characters to make the deaths and sacrifices more memorable than most of its YA peers. The acting is better than normal for the genre although as you might expect, the best performances come from the more seasoned stars like Clarkson and Gillen.

THE SCORCH TRIALSThankfully, there’s no forced romantic subplot, which helps the female characters have more substance than simply being everyone’s object of affection. More quiet character moments that give our heroes a moment to breathe and reflect instead of racing around from one giant action spectacle to the next is the only real knock I have on it.

The sequel maintains the series’ commendable commitment to diversity with the additions of Giancarlo Esposito, Rosa Salazar and Nathalie Emmanuel. After getting immersed in the Maze Runner’s multi-hue world, it makes other franchises’ underwhelming efforts look even worse by comparison.

MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALSI was a big fan of the first film and “Scorch Trials” definitely didn’t disappoint in the second installment.

With a second act this enjoyable and intense, I’m already stoked for the third chapter “The Death Cure.” Move over Katniss, your successor is ready to take the throne.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr./20th Century Fox