Review: Maze Runner – The Scorch Trials

I was quite late getting around to watching the first Maze Runner film.  The trailer didn’t sell the film to me, and I dismissed it as, “Yet another of those Hunger Games type things!”  Even the word of colleagues who told me that it was worth checking out didn’t convince me.  So, it was only a few weeks ago that I finally watched the first film, and was pleasantly surprised with what unfolded.  Whilst the film had flaws, it engaged me for the whole run time, and left me wanting to see how the tale of Thomas and the rest of the survivors of the Maze plays out now they have escaped.

The Scorch Trials picks up right from the end of the first film, and sees the Gladers taken to a refuge by the army who we saw pick them up at the end of the previous film.  Led by Janson (Aiden Gillan), this group promise to shelter the group and help them escape to a safe zone somewhere beyond ‘The Scorch’ (the name given to the apocalyptic wasteland).  In the complex the group are introduced to other survivors of other mazes, but Thomas is suspicious, and the threat of WCKD still looms.  Before long the group find themselves fighting for survival as they try to cross the Scorch to get to the mountains, where it is rumoured that a resistance group are located.  Along the way they encounter the zombie-like Cranks, a mercenary group led by Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), and the perilous conditions of The Scorch itself, as well as finding themselves constantly on the run from WCKD, who want them back at any cost.

"What you doing?"  "Ah, just hanging around!"

Just building bridges….get it?  Building…..bridges…..aw forget it!

The previous film, whilst boasting some impressive visual moments, relied more on the mystery and character, whereas spectacle is the order of the day for this second film as the location shifts to sprawling deserts, apocalyptic landscapes, decimated cities, industrial facilities, and subterranean pipelines.  With more of this decimated world to work with, the film is understandably quite a journey at around 130 minutes in runtime.  Whilst, overall, it maintains attention, there are moments where it plods along, and a few scenes could have easily been excised for a tighter pacing.  One such section sees an otherwise star turn by Alan Tudyk as Marcus, the self serving owner of a bar within the city ruins.  Whilst Tudyk is on great form in such a small cameo, the scenes add very little to to the overall story, and could have easily been dropped, allowing the movie to progress with a bit more pace.  In addition, Gillan is a bit of a casting misstep as fans of his work on Game of Thrones will instantly be suspicious of him, and so within minutes of the film starting we are just waiting to find out what he is really doing, making the slow build up in the first act kind of pointless.

But these niggles aside, the film ticks many boxes and whilst never being more than predictable sci-fi fluff (with inspirations taken from a variety of sources – heck, it even seems to go ‘Last of Us’ at one point), it just about holds attention to the end – an ending which leaves us hanging, waiting for the next film to continue the tale.  Some people may complain that the film is meaningless on its own, and the necessity to see the first, and the need to see the next in order to make a complete story is a negative.  To those folk I simply say, ‘Empire Strikes Back’, drop the mic and walk off stage.  This is the middle act of the story, and doesn’t try to resolve itself.  Instead it simply expands on the minor information about this world, and the virus (the flare) that has wiped out so much of humanity.

The Gladers just hanging out for a while.

The Gladers just hanging out for a while.

Fans of the books may be upset at the removal of some key elements, and reshuffling of stories, but isn’t this the norm these days anyway?  The film is tailored for a cinema audience, and as such this second film should please those who, like myself, were pleasantly surprised at the first film.  Scorch Trials is a visual spectacle that doesn’t quite outstay its welcome, and sets up the pieces ready for The Death Cure, due in 2017 (and if Wes Ball stays to direct will be one film, unlike the fad to split final books into two films for no good reason).

 

Review: Everest

There’s a danger in adapting a real life tragedy to film in overdoing the sentimentality, or adding unnecessary drama to tragic moments in order to artificially amp up the emotional stakes.  Thankfully Everest avoids such pitfalls, and aside from a minor slump in pacing in the midpoint of the film, manages to convey the harsh reality of man versus nature in a very real, and very unforgiving way.

Back in 1996, climbing to the top of the world’s highest mountain had become a tourist sport.  After decades of only professional climbers following in Hilary’s footsteps, now amateur adventurers could pay for a guide to take groups up to the peak, resulting in circumstances where multiple teams compete to make the climb at the same time, creating a dangerous bottle neck of people in the short safe window that the conditions on the mountain allows. On May 10th, various groups were attempting the ascent, and the film focuses on two of those teams who ascended together on the south face. Rob Hall’s (Jason Clarke) ‘Adventure Consultants’ team, and Scott Fischer’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) ‘Mountain Madness’ team. The tight window of conditions gives them a targetted safe return time of 2pm, meaning the groups need to summit by that time to ensure the safest conditions for descending back to camp. However multiple issues impact on the ascent, including fixed lines not being in place, and delays caused by some of the inexperienced climbers suffering the adverse effects of such high altitudes. With a delay in reaching the summit, an advancing storm then provided further problems for the groups as they descended.

The real events of the disaster have been written about in detail by a few of those connected to the climb, and have also created controversy as each writer tried to apportion blame for the events. Thankfully the film doesn’t appear to take any sides, and cleverly incorporates aspects of all possible reasons for some of the poor decisions or issues that all compounded to lead to the loss of lives on that day. The film also touches on the issues with the ‘danger tourism’ industry that compounded the issues that day, from arguments between rivalling teams, to the discarding of empty oxygen cannisters creating confusion over locations of full supplies on the mountain. Most impressively, as mentioned, the film carefully avoid overly dramatising the events, and simply presents a rather brutal aspect of man versus nature. Hall, early in the film, explains to his group the danger involved, and that above a point your body will be literally dying, and the later parts of the film shows this well with even the experienced climbers struggling for breath and fighting conditions. The punishing nature of the mountain is conveyed in all its brutal glory, and when one of the team asks the group for reasons why they want to do it, you completely understand his bewilderment at the reasons given – is it really worth so much risk to make the journey?
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The answer to why, however, is made very clear thanks to some remarkable cinematography and effects work, to convey the splendour and majesty of the mountain. To stand on the highest point of the earth, and take in that view after such a gruelling climb must be such an amazing feeling, no wonder so many each year want to risk it. But along with the beauty, the direction also ensures the danger is covered well, and the early part of the film focuses on the initial training the teams must do to prepare themselves for the climb. This act of the film not only highlights how some of these climbers are simply not ready for such gruelling conditions, but also works as a team bonding, allowing us, the audience, to get to know the characters. We are also given a link to the outside world via Rob Hall’s wife, Jan (Keira Knightly), and the family of Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin). Through them we see how the events of that month impacted on them, and they give the emotional core for the film, but without feeling forced or saccarine.

All in all, Everest is a visually striking film, highlighting the passion and motives for those wanting to risk the ascent to the highest point on earth, whilst also showing how in the battle between man and nature, nature will generally win. The 3D lends well to the film, and really takes in the vertigo inducing moments of the climb, making it yet another rare example of a film where I extol the importance of seeing in the format (and, if possible, IMAX 3D where the visuals will also be accompanied by a brutal sound system). Telling the basic story without unnecessary embellishment, the film has a strong cast throughout, and doesn’t outstay its two hour run time.

Superheroes in Decline?

This past week has seen some reporting on the number of superhero movies that are released each year, all started with a reasonably presented statement by Steven Spielberg in an interview with The Associated Press:-

US-OSCARS-ARRIVALS

“We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” said Spielberg. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.”

That’s a perfectly valid point to make. After all, there was indeed a time when the Western genre accounted for the bulk of the film releases in each year, but then grew out of favour, so it is important that the industry recognises that whilst the superhero genre is strong right now, it may decline (particularly if the quality of the films declines, and so audiences move away from it). The Western was pushed aside during the advent of the sci-fi and horror films of the 50s and 60s, with glossy (for the time) effects and main characters who were generally young teens (albeit played by older actors), thus relatable to the core audience of the time. In addition, the rise of awareness of the race issues associated with the Western genre made some of the films quite embarrassing and in reflection caused a re-think of how to present the old frontier legends, and whilst attempt have been made in recent decades to bring it back in films such as Young Guns, Unforgiven, and True Grit, it certainly hasn’t become a major genre again.

Seriously, watch this film – best example of a remake in recent years.

But, you could argue, Superhero films are diverse, with the fantasy sci-fi of Guardians of the Galaxy being significantly different to The Dark Knight in tone and content. Yes, that’s true, but the same could be said of the classic western genre. There were the generic, and somewhat corny westerns, and there were the grittier ones, such as Clint Eastwood’s series of films. However, as stated, the young audiences moved to the sci-fi and horror genres of the time in droves, which is an important factor in the decline. What genre could they move to now, given that most genres are already covered these days, and the days of effects really impressing us so much with something new are generally gone (with the rare exception of films such as The Matrix and Avatar)?

All that aside, Spielberg’s comment has been taken out of context by many, and he is in no way being demeaning to the genre – heck, the guy is a Producer on the Transformers films. No, he is simply proffering a warning to the industry to not anticipate the genre lasting forever, and maybe they should also invest in other ideas and genres too.

Then Emma Thompson weighed in on the debate in an interview with Vulture:-

emma-thompson“I loved the original Superman with Chris Reeve because there was a real tongue-in-cheek-ness to it,but their constant appearance at the theatre is getting old. After a while, you do get a tiny bit cynical about it.
The fact that I know they’re going to win out in the end has now slightly interfered with my continuing to go to those movies. If I see yet another Spider-Man, I’m going to have to actually hang myself.
I can’t do it any-more! They’re all marvellous, but how many times can you make this franchise, for crying out loud?”

It does feel that the final sentence was tacked on when she came to the realisation that she had just managed to alienate her from every major studio – unless, of course, she really thinks they are all marvellous…including Fantastic Four. However, her general statement sums up to, “I hate knowing that everything will work out in the end for the heroes, so am fed up with them!” Okay, that’s fair enough, but isn’t this the same for pretty much any genre of films? Don’t we know, generally, that the boy and girl from opposite sides of life will get together in the end? Don’t we know that the pure, innocent girl will survive the attack by the knife wielding psycho, whilst the highly sexed best friend will be killed in the second act? Don’t we know that the criminal who has evaded those two cops for decades will finally have a showdown with one of them in a one on one fight, and be taken down? To refer to a franchise that Thompson herself was part of, didn’t we know that Harry would win and Voldermort would be defeated? Heck, don’t we know that the rowdy kids that won’t listen to the nanny will eventually be amazed by her magical abilities, and the family will become a perfect unit by the end?

Yes, there are examples in every genre where things don’t go the predictable route, and the hero dies, the killer gets away, and so on – heck, even Amazing Spider-Man 2, which Thompson appears to not be a fan of, kills off the love interest (sorry, it’s a spoiler, but seriously the comic told that story decades ago) – but we watch the bulk of films (particularly the summer blockbuster) for a sense of enjoyment, the thrill of the spectacle, and to see good defeat evil because if we wanted to see evil win all the time we would stay at home and watch the news. The superhero genre is escapism, and a way to believe that all evil can be overcome, delivering us hope in ourselves. That’s why I read comics, and that’s why I watch films – to escape.

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And because of shots like this! Damn, this film was awesome!

If Thompson sees another Spider-Man she is going to actually hang herself? Really? Better get the rope ready then, love, as he’ll be in Civil War next year. Will she follow through with her ‘actual’ claims? I get what she is trying to say, the plethora of Superhero films are dragging her down. You know, there are just so many each year! I mean, this year alone has seen…erm….three released (four if you feel the need to include Kingsman as it came from a comic, but seriously it isn’t the same thing). Last year saw 5 (7 if you include TMNT and Transformers: Age of Ex-Stink-Shun, or 8 if you throw Birdman into the mix). This is a lot, isn’t it. No wonder celebs feel the need to weigh in on the fatigue they feel about it all.

However, this year (2015 for those caught in a timewarp) also sees 19 horror films, 53 comedies, 12 biographies, and 51 dramas, as well as a load of sci fi, thrillers, and documentaries. “But the comedies are all different sub-genres!” I hear some of you cry out. Okay, let’s just use the 7 romantic comedies then (the smallest breakdown of the comedies this year). Looking at those figures the 3 Superhero films don’t seem that excessive, do they? You can’t even argue that they dominate the box office, which makes them take away from other films, as only one (Age of Ultron) resides in the top ten for the year (at number 3).

This won’t be the last we hear of this debate, after all the subject has come up every couple of years since Iron Man hit the screen. Regardless of whether the genre does decline, lets just enjoy the fantasy whilst we have it, and stop trying to predict its failure.