Franchise Fix: The Maze Runner & Maze Runner: Scorch Trials


Director: Wes Ball

Writers: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T. S. Nowlin (screenplay), James Dashner (novel)

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter

3/5

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Release date: September 19th, 2014

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 113 minutes


The Maze Runner is yet another entry in the long, unending line of young adult franchise adaptations. Adapting dense, overwhelming content from stage to screen, cinematic YA series’ have to appease the desires of fans, studio executives, and authors. They go one of two ways: critically and commercially successful (The Hunger Games) or flat on their faces (Divergent).

The Maze Runner was seen as one of 2014’s biggest surprises. Overcoming the YA too-many-at-once stigma, this action flick surpassed the majority of YA fluff to deliver on its promises. The plot kicks off in the thick of the action, with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in a steel cage being transported to the maze. After meeting key players, including antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), second in command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Thomas pieces together the system of operations (the ‘Glade’) along with his shattered consciousness.

As the contemporary version of Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner is one of few YA flicks to connect with a wider audience. Along with our leads, the audience is trapped in the labyrinthine maze setting throughout the 113-min run-time. Like many YA adaptation, the plot relies on world building and exposition to break down its central premise. Giving every aspect a peculiar title (Glade, Grievers etc.), the film never strays too far away from YA convention.

The film is hindered by its third act, explaining the significance of the maze and its place in the dystopian world. However, it benefits from its action-thriller aura. From first-time feature director Wes Ball, the action sequences illustrate the scope and sense of danger the maze offers. As the ultimate obstacle course, the maze sequences add some much needed thrills and chills. Its cast of bright, young actors make the most the somewhat laughable material.

The Maze Runner, the opening chapter of a promising trilogy, is a fun YA adaptation perfect for a Saturday afternoon.

Verdict: A surprisingly enjoyable YA adaptation. 


Director: Wes Ball

Writers: T. S. Nowlin (screenplay), James Dashner (novel)

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee

3/5

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Release date: September 18th, 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the second instalment of author James Dashner’s franchise, was released at the tail end of 2015’s blockbuster season. Coming off a surprisingly fun first entry, the sequel could have gone either way. Thankfully, the sequel successfully continues this still-promising series.

The Scorch Trials picks up immediately after the events of the 2014 original. Rescued by an unnamed squadron, led by Janson (Aidan Gillen), Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Winston (Alexander Flores) finally feel safe. However, Thomas discovers that their new home is owned by powerful organisation WCKD (led by Paige (Patricia Clarkson)), tasked with testing children to find a cure for a deadly worldwide disease. Escaping from the facility, our leads must face the dystopian wasteland to find the resistance (called Right Arm).

The sequel doubles down on everything, delivering an increased amount of exposition, plot twists, flashbacks, and action sequences. The plot, in true blockbuster sequel fashion, lurches from one major set-piece to the next. This middle chapter merely delivers more of the same; carrying the difficult task of continuing the events of the original whilst building towards the third chapter (The Death cure, due for release in 2017). As an extension, this instalment aptly, but unremarkably, sets up the MacGuffins and conflicts for the future.

On its own, this instalment serves to depict the scope and increasing danger of the series’ dystopian setting. The film becomes an extended obstacle course – jumping between chases, gunfights, and fist-fights against WCKD personnel and zombie populations in the Scorch. Dylan O’Brien and Ki Hong Lee pull off the standard action movie running style. Our characters grow ever so slightly in between moments of awe and spectacle. However, with character actors including Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor, and Barry Pepper joining the cast, screen time becomes scarce.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a successful but ultimately underwhelming follow-up to the pacy original.

Verdict: A fun follow-up. 

Home Release Round-up: Seventh Son, The First Time & American Ultra


Director: Sergei Bodrov

Writers: Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight (screenplay), Joseph Delaney (novel)

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander

2½/5

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Based on Joseph Delaney’s novel, The Spook’s Apprentice, Seventh Son is the very definition of throwaway trash. Released to scathing reviews and even worse commercial traction, this fantasy-epic was thrown to the wolves by its studio overlords.

Seventh Son kicks off with the imprisonment of evil witch mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) by knight/monster hunter/badass (Spook) Gregory (Jeff Bridges) after their romance turned sour. The story jumps forward; Gregory – becoming the last of his kind – scours the land for similar demon-like creatures. After Malkin’s prison break, and his apprentice(Kit Harington)’s murder at her hands, hires aspiring local farmhand Will (Ben Barnes) to take up the mantle and save the kingdom.

Faced with an extraordinary share of production issues, Seventh Son is the by-product of blockbuster era gone by. The film languishes in forgettable fluff, once made whole by everything from Ridley Scott’s Legend and the original Clash of the Titans. Like the Clash remake, however, the plot lurches from one monster battle to the next. Lacking original story or character elements, the film goes through the motions.

Despite the dearth of emotion or intelligence, the action sequences – along with the CGi creations – are almost worth a watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The actors all put on a brave face, with Jeff Bridges hiding behind a thick (British?) accent and overall charisma. Moore, coming off her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice, chews up the scenery. Up-and-comers Barnes and Alicia Vikander handle themselves eloquently.

Verdict: A silly, forgettable fantasy-epic.


Director: Jon Kasdan

Writer: Jon Kasdan

Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Britt Robertson, Craig Roberts, James Frecheville

3/5

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The First Time is one of few films focusing on that scary, interesting era in everyone’s life. After the initial boyfriend/girlfriend stuff, the first physical encounter can spell immediate success or instant disaster. The film takes it on with considerable care and thought.

The First Time, in true teen dramedy fashion, follows the hit-and-miss life of Dave (Dylan O’Brien). Dave is a high school senior pining after long-time friend Jane (Victoria Justice). Stuck in the deadening abyss known as the ‘friend zone’, Dave watches on as Jane hooks up with one guy after another. One night, at a sex-fuelled house party, Dave meets Aubrey (Britt Robertson) and his life takes an immediate turn for the positive.

This coming-of-age dramedy pays homage to 1990s independent filmmakers known for human moments more so than plot. Mimicking Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith’s works, the film works best during extended conversations between our lead two characters. Unlike most contemporary movies, it makes a point of focusing on dialogue, human interaction, and on-screen chemistry. Its highs and lows thrive on O’Brien and Robertson’s effervescent performances.

Writer/director Jon Kasdan, brother of Jake (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher) and son of acclaimed filmmaker Lawrence (Star Wars), clings onto his less-is-more approach a little too far. The supporting characters, including Aubrey’s older boyfriend Ronny (James Frecheville), are pushed into the background.

Verdict: A solid, harmless date movie.


Director: Nima Nourizadeh

Writer: Max Landis

Stars: Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton

2/5

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Director Nima Nourizadeh is an up-and-coming comedy director known primarily for Project X; one of the past decade’s most unlikeable movies. Writer Max Landis, known for Chronicle and a Man of Steel rant on YouTube, is one of contemporary Hollywood’s most divisive figures. Put them together and you get American Ultra – a derivative, pointless action-comedy.

American Ultra focuses on pot-smoking layabout Mike Howell (Jessie Eisenberg) in Liman, West Virginia. Mike, cared for by his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), envisions a better life via his collection of graphic novel illustrations. Meanwhile, at Langley’s CIA headquarters, agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) learns that Mike, sole survivor of a particular sleeper agent program, is to be eliminated by Adrian (Topher Grace).

Light on action, laughs or anything of substance, this action-comedy creates a fan-fiction-esque universe of bizarre, over-the-top plot points, characters, and actions sequences. Talking down to their audience, Nourizadeh and Landis present simplistic, juvenile depictions of everything including relationships, stoners, and, well, basic human traits. Mike and Phoebe are caricatures, defined only by ticks and forced backstories. However, Eisenberg and Start, two of the 21st century’s most divisive performers, elevate their roles with undeniable chemistry.

The film’s strange anti-establishment agenda paints a concerning portrait of American security agencies. Landis and co. restrict the CIA players to caricatures and cyphers, using operation titles like ‘Tough Guy’ and ‘Ultra’. Character actors including Grace, Britton, Walton Goggins, and Bill Pullman are restricted to unlikeable, incompetent characters illustrating the CIA as horrific, bloodthirsty morons.

Verdict: A messy, obnoxious action-comedy.