‘The Scorch Trials’ repetitively repeats itself in a repetitive way

Scorch Trails 04
Image: 20th Century Fox.

Sequels are built on repetition. The best of them will have parallels, moments that ring as familiar in the minds of both the characters and the viewers, which illustrate the theme or demonstrate the characters’ growth since the previous installment. The worst sequels just recycle what they think worked in previous movies (*ahem* Jurassic World) and try to pass repetition off as clever. YA movie adaptations are especially obvious in their repetition. Every Harry Potter movie followed the same basic formula: threat arises that requires Harry and his buddies to find some object which will allow them to stop that threat and has some kind of tie to whatshisnoselessface. Same with Hunger Games as the first and second movie begin with forces conspiring to get Katniss into the arena, then the preparation for the games, and then the games themselves. Perhaps the reason we accept these (if we do) is because the individual stories are interesting enough and we see some level of growth from one year to the next. Going in to Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials I expected some repetition, as that’s what sequels are built on, but after the first film effectively left the maze behind, there was the promise of at least something new.

At first, The Scorch Trials does a fairly decent job of masking its repetition. The story picks up immediately after the conclusion of the first movie, even flashing back to main character Thomas being taken from his mother in a scene that’s extremely familiar from many other movies (remember I mentioned that, we’ll be returning to it). What follows is a well-staged action piece as the Glade Gang (Thomas, the girl, the British guy, the Asian dude that everyone likes, the African American guy, and the other guy who’s just sorta there) rush from their helicopter with soldiers covering them against a swarm of unknown attackers. It’s a pretty good start which feels sufficiently different from the previous film.

This is about as much screen time as some of these characters have. Image: 20th Century Fox.
This is about as much screen time as some of these characters have.
Image: 20th Century Fox.

Then, after the opening title card, the repetition begins. The maze of the first film is replaced by the facility of the second. Once again none of the characters know very much about what’s happening. There are the same restrictions of movement, the same violation of that restriction, the same type of authority figure making decisions which the characters can’t control or understand, there is a scene where main character Thomas makes a rush for an open door after being told not to. Yes, it’s repetition, but at least in this instance there is enough variation that it feels different from the first. In fact, the repeated elements only became truly clear once a lowering door created the exact same shot as the closing gate in the first movie. It’s the same stunt, only not nearly as interesting this time since, again, we’ve seen it done in this series and in so many other movies.

Scorch Trials is essentially an overlong rush from one place to another. And this is where the repetition is the most tedious. Although at times stunning, particularly when outside of the dark corridors the film spends most of its time in, the world beyond the maze quickly becomes just another set of mazes. Every location is an unknown place with a small safe zone that the characters must learn about before fleeing to the next location. Then the characters are taken to a new authority figure who may or may not be honest and is played by a recognizable character actor entering the scene with some bold exclamation. While it’s nice seeing these actors and actresses pop up, the frequency of “We’re taking you to meet blah blah” and then here’s another recognizable actor has been used so many times in both Scorch Trials and every other recent YA adaptation that the only suspense is who’s gonna be the recognizable actor/actress this time. This one movie uses this exact moment five times.

We're taking to the next recognizable character actor we added to deepen a shallow part. Image: 20th Century Fox.
We’re taking you to the next recognizable character actor added to deepen a shallow part.
Image: 20th Century Fox.

The list of Scorch Trials repeating itself includes two injured friends who slow the group down, three occasions where main character Thomas refuses to go along with the others, at least four retreats from the same baddies, and countless last second saves from those same baddies. There is even lesser repetition such as the same character receiving an electric shock on three separate occasions and main character Thomas being handed a series of flashlights which he then loses. A more astute film could have used this opportunity to at least show awareness of its own redundancy (“Here, Thomas, take this flashlight.” “Umm… no. I’ll only lose it.”) but Scorch Trials is not an astute movie, not when it needs to rush onto the next action set piece which ultimately result in another deus ex machina. There’s also the inevitable love triangle and chosen one elements which seemingly must be included in every YA story. In fact, Dr. Paige of Scorch Trials is basically the female version of President Snow of Hunger Games, even down to motives and wardrobe.

Sadly, the new environments and characters, as interesting as they may be, also deepen another weakness of the first film. Every new character eats into screen time and subsequent character development. By halfway through, everyone except main character Thomas is basically forgotten, even the Asian dude that everyone liked. We see main character Thomas’s connection with the girl but beyond one or two shared moments, have no reason to invest in her. On one occasion British guy says of the girl, “If there’s one thing I know about her,” and the most logical end of that sentence is “it would double the amount of things I know about her.” There isn’t even a satisfying self-contained story to fall back on. The film starts, repeats a bunch of things, has a pretty big end, and continues for yet another ten minutes. There’s no thematic tie-in, the characters show no growth, and the crux of the entire plot could be solved by one good conversation.

All kidding aside, the movie looks really good. Image: 20the Century Fox.
And somehow their shirts remain in place. All kidding aside, the movie looks really good.
Image: 20the Century Fox.

To be fair, the film is very well made. Action pieces are tense even when the outcome is never in question, several set-ups are very good, there are some nice horror elements, the effects are excellent (particularly of the world the characters are running through), and moments like a walk across a desert ridge or a night on the flatlands are quite striking. There is shaky cam throughout but it’s not nearly as egregious as it is in other films. It’s an entertaining chase and nothing more.

What worked in Maze Runner was that its central concept lent itself to limited information and by the end it felt like we’d left everything we knew behind. We saw bits and pieces of what felt like an interesting world and we wanted to see more. Scorch Trials takes that interesting world, and trades it in for a mishmash of things we’ve seen from a dozen better movies (told you we’d be returning to that). A film like Mad Max: Fury Road (with which Scorch Trails shares many elements, and none of them successful) has characters who know what their world is and don’t tell us, thus we learn by seeing. Scorch Trials has characters who don’t know their world and everyone refuses to tell them, thus we learn nothing. The little we do learn is basically zombies. Yup. Zombies. The single most overused threat in all of movies and television today.

Repetition. It’s what sequels are built on.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

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