An ungainly mess of a movie made out of headlong flight and too-familiar ideas, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” follows on the heels of “The Maze Runner,” repeating every flaw and failure in that first entry and adding a few of its own.
Directed, once again, by Wes Ball and continuing to adapt James Dashner’s young-adult novel series, “The Scorch Trials” is a decidedly lower-rung affair in the bottom half of the current YA glut. It lacks the characters and clean allegories of “The Hunger Games” series but it’s about on a par with the annoyingly convoluted “Divergent” films in its ham-fisted sloppiness.
Comprised primarily of scenes where the young leads either race from or race to disaster, with euphemisms and sci-fi dystopian tropes as the weak glue holding them together, “The Scorch Trials” continues this series’ broken, bargain-basement construction, like a Russian nesting doll made of layer upon layer of sci-fi cliches and meaningless revelations that, as they’re prised apart, get more and more tiresome until they ultimately reveal nothing at the core of it all.
Our hero, just as in the first film, is the confused, nearly charisma-less Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who survived the FX-heavy trials and tribulations of “The Maze Runner.”
In that first entry, the cruel corporation that’s governing the globe after yet another world-ending apocalypse had awful, ends-justifies-the-means plans for Thomas and the other teens they were putting through the wringer, literally and metaphorically, in the monster-filled mazes that gave the first film their name.
They’ve escaped the bad guys of the first film … or have they?
Technocrat Jansen (Aidan Gillen of “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones”) insists they’re safe as he locks the teen heroes in yet another of the film’s brutalist concrete bunkers, but he’s probably lying, as he’s played by Aidan Gillen.
That’s the biggest problem with the script for “The Scorch Trials,” with T. S. Nowlin adapting Dashner’s novel: The reversals and revelations feel unearned, present to drive the plot along and not springing from character.
What does it matter if someone who’s ostensibly on the side of the heroes then betrays them if we have no idea of why, or what that decision cost them?
Dashner’s books only seem to work as long as the characters — and the readers-slash-viewers — are moving ahead too swiftly to stop, take a breath and ask any questions about the film’s world and ways.
The supporting cast of adult actors is loaded with talents who assuredly have better (but not more profitable) things to do: Gillen roars hammy dialogue with relish as he delivers the exposition of the film; Patricia Clarkson is a sad, mad scientist; Giancarlo Esposito plays a raggedy-man survivor in the blasted dunes of “the scorch,” and Alan Tudyk squints through his guyliner as a vice-peddler in exile.
As for the teen actors, O’Brien is lightly charming, but he’s also hampered by playing one of those chosen-one wonder-kids that are central to stories like this. Plus, he’s hampered by amnesia: He’s constantly being told he’s the key to all of the conflict, but he has no idea why, and we have to keep him company as he finds out.
Production designer Daniel T. Dorrance and the rest of the visual team create a world that’s numbingly generic: Scorched wastes from “Mad Max,” zippy zombie-like virus victims from “28 Days Later,” a James Cameron two-fer of both ominous helicopters and monsters being incubated in high-tech test tubes.
Dashner may have tapped into the essential themes of current teen-pocalypse literature — corporations and grown-ups are bad, the world’s screwed, we the young people can set the broken world right — but there’s no flare of strangeness or freshness here, just a pile of images and ideas stolen from smarter people’s second-hand bin banged into each other for a numbingly dull 132 minutes.
One of the most tedious apocalypses to come down the chute in recent years, this series gets lamer, and lazier, with each entry. The only ‘Trial’ offered by this film is the ordeal of watching it.