The boom in young-adult dystopian cinema has thrown up some interesting surprises. The Maze Runner films have neither the star power nor the knowing satire of The Hunger Games — yet this paranoid series, based on the books by James Dashner, is worth attention in its own right.
The opening of the first film vaguely recalled the work of Jorge Luis Borges: a group of teenagers, mostly boys, wake in an enclosed area with no clear memory of how they arrived. They’re surrounded by a deadly, constantly shifting maze, and only the cleverest and bravest will find a way to freedom.
This could be taken as a metaphor for feelings associated with early adolescence — shock and bewilderment at the newly-revealed complexity of the world, coupled with the realisation that authority is not to be trusted. Directed like its predecessor by Wes Ball, this sequel ups the disorientation quotient in a way that might resonate with older teens.
In other words: even when you’re out of the maze, you’re not out of the maze. Although the opening movement of the film is deliberately bewildering, it’s soon clear that the hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends remain at the mercy of the sinister WCKD organisation, which holds sway over large tracts of a disease-ravaged future Earth.
Breaking free, they set off in search of a resistance group known as the Right Arm — but are they merely swapping one set of false gods for another? In between battling diseased zombies and other foes, Thomas becomes embroiled in a romantic triangle, experiences a drug trip, and is forced to make tricky moral choices without knowing all the facts.
The abstract premise of the original Maze Runner allowed Ball to adopt a streamlined visual approach recalling the 1980s films of John Carpenter. Here there’s more than a touch of the Resident Evil series, masterminded by Carpenter’s heir, Paul W.S. Anderson, which features a similar supporting cast of fast-moving zombies and implacable scientists manipulating events from afar.
Like Carpenter and Anderson, Ball makes assured use of the wide screen: much of the film’s interest lies in the different types of terrain covered, from cramped corridors and air vents to barren desert to a ruined city that might have been designed by M. C. Escher. Each shot does double duty, moving the story forward and mapping out a universe: in both respects, we have no way of knowing what lies ahead.