Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review - Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

          I have officially ventured into new territory with Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. This is the first movie I have actually seen in Seattle, as well as my first review of a movie that is neither a remake nor a reboot (Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Terminator I saw while I was still living in California), and already it feels slightly foreign. With Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Terminator, I had a point of comparison, or a foundation to build off of, in the earlier installments of those series. With Scorch Trials, I have a new and very active series that only has one previous installment, so that leaves me with very little ground with which to juxtapose it, other than of course its attempt at being a well-rounded science fiction film. It also feels foreign in the fact that I have learned the hard way that there is actually somewhere else in the world that has more expensive movie theaters than California.
          For those that know me, going to see the Maze Runner films may seem slightly out of character; it is a series targeted towards an adolescent demographic (a la Hunger Games), which I have historically found laughable (the Harry Potter series was the big movie series of my adolescent years, and while I will admit to enjoying the books as a child, in my adolescent years, I was busy watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Legend of Drunken Master, and Event Horizon while my peers were watching the Harry Potter films). Accordingly, it might be useful to note that my interest in the Maze Runner series more or less came about by sheer accident; there is a cheap, $2 movie theater near where I used to live in Southern California that screens movies right after their normal screening release in other theaters, for those that either missed the normal screening or for those that didn't feel like paying the $11 to go see a movie in California (apparently it's $13 in Seattle). This theater was one of my go-to movie theaters at the time, since this was back when I was still a barista and $11 was very precious (that's almost two burritos in San Diego, a city in a state where gas prices have hovered between $3.50 and $4.75 for the past three years). Earlier this year, sometime in February or March, I had a nice, long three day weekend, and all of my friends were either out of town or preoccupied with other matters, not to mention the fact that it had been a while since I had been to a movie. I looked at what was playing at the $2 theater at the time and found this movie called The Maze Runner, which I had never even heard of before. It's synopsis was the most interesting when compared to all of the other movies being screened at the time, so I said "what the hell" and spent an afternoon at the movies. Then it was about halfway through the movie that I realized who the target demographic was. Despite this, I actually found the first Maze Runner rather enjoyable, enough so that it piqued my interest in the film series so that I felt inclined to go see this second installment.
          The Maze Runner films are based on a young-adult sci-fi book series by James Dashner. Admittedly, I had never even heard of the book series before going to see the first movie (likely because I'm a little out of the age group for it; this is a very recent series). It was the synopsis of the first movie I read online that got me going to see the first one. In The Maze Runner, a group of adolescent males (interestingly later joined by one female) are mysteriously trapped in a small, lush oasis known as "The Glade", which is surrounded on all sides by a towering, complex monolith of a maze, with no memory or recollection of who they are or how they got there. Occasionally, some of the walls in the maze open up, allowing the boys to explore the inner corridors of the maze, perhaps finding new supplies or a way out. This is notably a dangerous endeavor, however, as the maze is crawling with giant, murderous, cybernetic insects known as "Grievers". The film starts with protagonist Thomas joining our group of scouts in The Glade, of course with no memory of who he is. However, apparently Thomas is the only one in the world with the cunning and leadership skills necessary to help the group escape from The Glade, as he eventually motivates the group (including the eventual female member, Theresa) to venture out into the maze and unravel the mystery of who they are and what they are doing there. It turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the world outside the maze has been devastated by a deadly virus, known as "The Flare", that has driven the world's population mad and towards the brink of extinction, with only a handful of survivors and Earth's landscape left in a desolate, chaotic state known as "The Scorch" (take a wild guess as to where The Scorch Trials takes place). Thomas and his fellow Gladers are actually a new generation of youth that are apparently immune to The Flare, so they were captured by a mysterious, antagonistic organization called W.C.K.D., had their memories erased, and thrown into The Glade to study the inner psychological and neurological workings of their brains in order to try and find a cure for The Flare. The Maze Runner ends with Thomas and crew escaping the maze, the higher-ups at W.C.K.D. being killed off by a different, unnamed organization, and our heroes evacuating with said group into the desolation that is The Scorch. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials picks up literally right where The Maze Runner left off, with Thomas waking up in the same helicopter he passed out in at the end of the first film.
          There are a few things that should perhaps be said about the first film before diving into The Scorch Trials. While it didn't do anything groundbreaking, The Maze Runner was a nice reprieve from the non-stop action, reboot mess that is the current state of science fiction and fantasy films in Hollywood. One simply has to look at Age of Ultron to see that sci-fi films have become like drug addicts; if CGI were a narcotic, and intellectual properties were users, then we would find many of today's sci-fi IPs sprawled out on a dirty mattress in a boarded up house with used needles strewn about the floor. The Maze Runner, in contrast, paces itself, and, instead of taking the Michael Bay approach to science fiction (explosions left and right), it seems as if it is trying to do justice to its literary origins (I say "seem" mostly because I haven't actually read the books).
          There is something very Lord of the Flies about The Maze Runner; as the film progresses, one can document various points where there are almost inevitable power struggles between the boys, particularly after the arrival of Thomas in The Glade. Factions slowly develop, with some taking the side of Thomas in that they think they should try to escape the maze, and others taking the side of Gally, another one of the boys in The Glade, one of the secondary antagonists in the film, who thinks that they should stay. On that note, there is an important question that The Maze Runner asks that a lot of the events and relationships in the film center around: is it better to stay in The Glade, where they know they're safe, but perhaps imprisoned, or try and leave The Glade, where things may be dangerous and uncertain, but also liberating? The spirit behind this question perhaps motivates the phrase "ignorance is bliss"; Gally certainly would rather live in ignorance and security, while Thomas desires to uncover the Truth, with whatever hazards that may bring. Asking this question ultimately earns the film my favor; while this question is not anything new or unheard of, it's one that hasn't been asked in a long time, and the fact that The Maze Runner even asks question at all is already more a claim to success than Terminator Genisys ever had. There were a couple interesting points in The Maze Runner that could have developed into interesting questions, but didn't, for a handful of reasons (i.e. when Theresa, a young, attractive female is suddenly dropped into a camp of adolescent males - a lot of things could have developed here, but those questions might have been too mature for an audience of American adolescents, and likely would have gone way over their heads). Despite this, the first Maze Runner film earned my favor, enough that, when I heard that a second one was being release this past weekend, I thought it would make a good topic for my next review.
          And thus we have arrived at The Scorch Trials. Those who are skilled in identifying the subtle nuances between different science fiction sub-genres will notice a pretty distinct shift of tone between The Scorch Trials and the first film. Where The Maze Runner had a distinct dystopian feel to it, examining a group of adolescent males trying to create a functioning society complete with social strata (again, like Lord of the Flies) while a larger faceless entity watched from a kind of "God perspective" above (think 1984), The Scorch Trials seems to abandon that framework, preferring to instead take the approach of something much more dire and apocalyptic, with vast forsaken wastelands (think Cormac McCarthy's The Road or the Fallout series of games), sprinkled here and there with the ruins of dilapidated cities and the small settlements of those who have managed to dodge both the spread of the Flare and the capture of W.C.K.D (a la The Book of Eli), as well as the crazed demi-zombies of those who have been infected with The Flare and now terrorize The Scorch (a la I am Legend). The Scorch Trials literally picks up right where The Maze Runner left off, so much so that one could probably cut out the credits of the first film and tape the two reels together with a piece of scotch tape and someone who didn't know better might actually think it was all one long film. Thomas wakes up in the helicopter that rescued our group of protagonists at the end of the first film, which takes them to a new, high security facility in The Scorch, where they encounter the survivors of other mazes. Having supposedly escaped the trap of W.C.K.D., the new facility, which promises to keep them secure and eventually take them to a new kind of "paradise", however, seems too good to be true, and Thomas immediately becomes suspicious when Aris, an interesting, slightly creepy boy from a maze full of women (much like Theresa was for Thomas' group) helps him sneak around the complex one night soon after they arrive (one well versed in Greek myth might think of the Amazons when learning about Aris' maze, but instead of Aris filling the role of Hercules completing one of his Labors, perhaps it would be more accurate to portray him as Paris earning the affection of Greek and Trojan women alike). As Fate would have it (and not surprisingly), it turns out this new facility is actually W.C.K.D. in disguise, and the man that runs the place, Janson, is actually under the direct command of Ava Paige, one of the higher ups at W.C.K.D. that was supposedly killed off at the end of the first film. Thomas and Aris quickly learn that this "paradise" that Janson is taking the maze survivors to is actually some kind of chemically induced coma, allowing W.C.K.D.'s scientists to harvest the relevant enzymes from their brains which may allow them to produce a cure for The Flare. It doesn't take long for our group of protagonists to orchestrate their escape, dodging W.C.K.D. security forces and bolting out the front gate into the chaos of The Scorch, where they encounter smugglers, rebel groups, old technology, and, of course, the crazies infected by The Flare.
          Like its predecessor, The Scorch Trials asks some very important questions. I found that the events of the film center around two questions in particular: 1) "Does the end ever justify the means?" and, in keeping in the spirit of the first film, 2) "Can ignorance really be bliss?" It's unfortunate that, also like its predecessor, The Scorch Trials merely presents the questions without ever really offering to answer them, and, on the few occasions that it does hint at an answer, it is usually the cliched view of the protagonists that we are just expected to accept at face value. (1) highlights the dilemma that W.C.K.D. presents for Thomas and crew. I think the spirit of the question is best equated to the utilitarian dilemma of the person that can save the crew of only one of two sinking ships; on the first ship is only a small handful of individuals composed of the person's friends, while on the second ship is a much larger group of complete strangers. More accurately, the aim of the question can also be captured by pointing to the dilemma of a scientist that has the opportunity to discover the cure for cancer, but in the process has to test the cure on live human subjects with potentially adverse and painful effects that may kill them. And such is the case with W.C.K.D.; it is the aim of Paige and W.C.K.D. that they uncover the cure for The Flare, and they seem to be on the right track. The unfortunate thing for our protagonists, however, is that "being on the right track" involves subjecting those that are immune to the disease to the deadly trials of the mazes, in order to cultivate the appropriate proteins and enzymes in their brains so that they can be harvested later. Accordingly, insofar as W.C.K.D.'s situation parallels the generic utilitarian dilemma above, one could try to evaluate W.C.K.D.'s position using the standard approaches given to the above dilemma. The common resolution, and the one that self-assumed righteous individuals are quick to take up, is that the larger crew of the second sinking ship (the complete strangers) should be the one that should be saved "for the greater good". On this view, the end of "saving a larger group of people" justifies the means of "sacrificing one's friends". Applying this approach to W.C.K.D.'s situation, then it would seem that W.C.K.D. is actually justified in its approach; the end of "finding a cure for The Flare" justifies the means of "sacrificing the maze survivors". If this is the most common approach (and seemingly the most intuitive), one is then left to wonder why W.C.K.D. are just unconditionally presented as the bad guys in the film? Alas, it is here that I think The Scorch Trials misses a great opportunity; instead of really entertaining the idea that "maybe W.C.K.D. has a point", the film doesn't engage the idea, nor even appear to consider it. Imagine how different, and perhaps more interesting, the movie would be if W.C.K.D. were actually presented as the protagonists of the film, and Thomas and crew, the antagonists. Or, on the other hand, if one would move to reject the common utilitarian resolution to the dilemma, and argue that one is perfectly justified in letting the larger group of survivors drown in favor of saving one's friends, which is fine, then at least engage the idea and explain why it is a bad idea, and why any alternative would be a better option, neither of which Thomas, or anybody else for that matter, seems to do. A lot of the other characters just blindly follow Thomas, no questions asked, and I imagine that many movie-goers just take it for granted that Thomas is a smart, confident, young kid, when, with a little bit of reflection and contemplation, one could potentially make the case that Thomas is a complete moron.
          Before addressing question (2), there is one last thing that can be said about (1) and the situations described in the above paragraph. Towards the end of The Scorch Trials, Theresa, the single female in Thomas' merry band of protagonists, actually sells out the location of the group to W.C.K.D., telling Thomas that it's better that W.C.K.D. find a cure, resulting in a violent, fiery raid by W.C.K.D. forces on a resistance group. One might look at this scene as a kind of counter-example to my above point that the film doesn't actually consider any alternative to Thomas' view. However, this conclusion would be too hastily drawn, and, again after a little bit of reflection, one would realize that Theresa doesn't really do that by the end of the movie. Theresa simply converts herself from protagonist to antagonist, and the effect that such a scene has the audience is that they simply start hating Theresa and sympathize even more with Thomas. In other words, in order for The Scorch Trials to really provide a counter-example to my above claims, we would need to see a real conflict of ideas, where the pros and cons of each are given equal consideration. As I think the above thought experiments illustrate, the morality surrounding the proposed solutions to these dilemmas is not clear-cut black and white. However, The Scorch Trials presents us with the red herring that the solutions to these dilemmas are supposed to be clear-cut. Instead of Theresa representing an alternative point of view that engages Thomas in discussion (either figuratively or literally), she simply converts herself into yet another hurdle for Thomas and crew to overcome. In short, she is not an adequate representation of an alternative point of view, but rather more of an emotion-jerker for the audience.
          (2) is actually a question that gets recycled from the first film. I mentioned that Gally was an antagonistic force for Thomas in The Maze Runner, preferring to stay in the safety and security in The Glade than venture out into the unknown of the maze and The Scorch. But much like (1), the audience is lead to think that those that actually entertain this point are crazy, as opposed to considering the prospect that, perhaps, it would be better to live in the sheltered, secluded oases that are The Glade or W.C.K.D.'s facility as opposed to endure the harshness of The Scorch. This conflict of ideas is readily apparent if one were to question what exactly it was that Thomas and crew actually achieved by escaping The Glade at the end of the first film, or by eluding capture by W.C.K.D. in The Scorch Trials. In fact, one might even wonder exactly what it is that Thomas is even hoping to achieve. W.C.K.D., for all intents and purposes, wants to find a cure for a disease that threatens to wipe out the human race, while it's not entirely clear what Thomas is doing. (One might argue that Thomas is simply concerned with his own self-preservation, and that self-preservation, in and of itself, is a sufficient impetus for action, a view I would be happy to endorse if I thought that it were applicable in this case. Thomas is presented as the apotheosis of righteousness in the films - selfless, compassionate, and brave. Thomas' character seems wholly at odds with one who is motivated by his or her own self-interest or self-perservation, thus it would seem slightly misplaced to try and argue that Thomas' motivation in the films is simply his own self-preservation where his character is meant to be otherwise). In this case, Gally's perspective at the end of the first film might have some merit to it; The Glade, while isolated from whatever possibilities and blessings that the rest of the world may present, is also safe from the world's horrors. Thomas, on the other hand, offers nothing but uncertainty and action without forethought. Don't get me wrong; I vehemently reject the idea that "ignorance is bliss", and much more favor the notion that, to truly find Paradise, one has to endure trials and uncertainty and ultimately find Truth, however pleasant or miserable it may be. The difference is that Thomas never actually makes this argument; it's just assumed from the outset of both films that Gally and Paige are wrong, which would be fine for the movie to portray if it actually made the case for Thomas' view, which it didn't. Both films seem to have Thomas and crew simply running in random directions, sometimes with particular destinations in mind, but without any kind of larger goal or aim.
          The tension between these two ideas surrounding (2) can be brought out even more if we put it in the context of Philosophy's famous "Sense Machine" thought experiment. This idea was alluded to very, very briefly towards the beginning of The Scorch Trials when Thomas and Aris found that the "paradise" that Jansen was leading the maze survivors to was actually a chemically induced coma. In general philosophical discussion, the "Sense Machine" scenario can be paraphrased as something like the following: suppose that, one day when you wake up, you are greeted by a scientist that offers you the opportunity to experience any sensation you so desire. This sensation can be anything, from feeling a cool summer breeze brush against your skin, to a visually stunning theater performance on Broadway, to having the greatest orgasm ever in a medieval harem. And every detail will be present; this sensation will feel exactly like the real thing in every way, so much so that one wouldn't be able to tell the difference between this sensation and any other experience of the exact same thing. And, even better, this scientist will be able to perpetually replicate this sensation, or other sensations of equal pleasure, and offers you the opportunity to experience them constantly, thus allowing one to forever revel in ecstasy and bliss. However, there is a catch: these sensations aren't technically real. In fact, in order to constantly experience them, one would have to be perpetually fixed to some kind of virtual reality machine, which feeds his or her brain the appropriate neural stimuli as to replicate the sensation in every detail. Not the "real thing" per se, but, from the perspective of sensation, one would not be able to tell the difference. The question that is then posed to participants in this thought experiment is a simple one: Would you do it? Would you enter the Sense Machine? Gally would, judging by his perspective in the first film, and both Paige and Theresa don't seem to think that it's such a bad thing to harvest the proteins from a maze survivor as long as he or she is being properly stimulated in his or her coma. The argument can then be made that it is a win/win situation for Paige and the maze survivors; Paige gets the cure for The Flare while the survivors are comatose, but the survivors don't even realize it because their brains are being given pleasant sensations.
          But, alas, like the alternative solutions to (1), this idea is never really entertained in The Scorch Trials. We are supposed to assume that morality in The Scorch Trials is as clear cut is as Thomas makes it out to be, nor is there ever any W.C.K.D. sympathizer present to make their case. If Jansen or Paige ever really stopped and asked Thomas why a life out in The Scorch is in any way better than a life in an artificial paradise, then the film would be getting at something fundamentally important. However, the film merely hints at the question, and doesn't really actually engage it. What would have been even more provocative would have been to have the case made in favor of W.C.K.D.'s artificial paradise, while Thomas' perspective is left unsupported. A moral 360 such as this would undoubtedly turn several heads, and, within the context of the larger "Sense Machine" thought experiment, it might have really motivated people to stop and actually try to explain why being hooked up to the Sense Machine is truly a bad thing, a feat that many will find, I think, painfully daunting. I am more than willing to support one who at least makes an attempt to explain why the Sense Machine is a bad thing, but, at least when it comes to the Maze Runner series, such a dissenter is absent.
          It may seem as if I am being slightly more critical of The Scorch Trials than I am lauding it. However, despite this, I cannot end this review without giving The Scorch Trials a recommendation. The previous paragraphs highlight the ways in which The Scorch Trials can be improved, but it would do the film a disservice to not underline the things that it does well. As mentioned, The Scorch Trials asks some very important questions, and although these questions are predictable, almost to the point of being cliche, the fact that it asks questions at all already sets it a cut above other recent science fiction films. Couple this with the fact that, also unlike many recent science fiction films, The Scorch Trials isn't so reliant on CGI to achieve its effects, nor is it the most action-heavy sci-fi film of the summer, then you have something that serves as a nice reprieve from a lot of other sci-fi films of the year, even if it just mediocre at doing so. The end of The Scorch Trials, right after W.C.K.D. raids the resistance group and recaptures a large portion of the maze survivors, including one of Thomas' merry band, hints heavily at a third film where our protagonists turn the tables and, instead of running from W.C.K.D., they attack W.C.K.D. head-on. Assuming that this third installment of the Maze Runner series is released at all, and that I am still doing movie reviews at that time, I can already forecast a point that I will hold it responsible for: we will yet again see the very same conflict of ideas described above, whether the characters in the film realize it or not. But, unlike these first two films where the conflict was most evident in relationships among the characters, this future third Maze Runner film will illustrate the conflict by means of violence and armed struggle. And, quite honestly, this is where the series has an opportunity to shine; a person's values can be made most evident in violent struggle, and, if the series really wants to illustrate the above conflict of ideas in the way that I suggested, where it actually makes the case for at least one of them, then the best time to do it would be against a backdrop of armed conflict, where each combatant expresses his or her understanding of what he or she is doing and why. Whether or not it actually will do this, well, we will just have to wait and see.

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