The “Maze Runner” sequel, “The Scorch Trials,” starts at a sprint and hurtles at us for a good long, stretch, before it stops to catch its breath.
The conspiracy grows deeper even as the mystery unravels. The chases, brawls and gunfights are more intense, the cast broader, with more “name” players adding credibility.
But it runs out of gas at about the time it starts to look like just another riff on the zombie movie. And there’s nothing that happens after that — new characters, big action flourishes — that can jolt this middle film in the trilogy to life.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow survivors of “The Glade” are back. They were tested by that first deadly maze, and there are more mazes here, though they’re not identified as such. They’re put into the barracks of a fortress, to be trained. For something. By the not-quite-confidence-inspiring Janson (Aiden Gillen). Thomas is the one who listens to the hooded, guarded Aris (Jacob Lofland).
Something isn’t quite right, here. And it smells “wicked” (WCKD).
Patricia Clarkson is in charge of the World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department. She has plans for these kids. “Coma” plans, for those who know their sci-fi.
Thomas must lead his crew — Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores) — out of the desert fortress, into “The Scorch,” the sand-covered wasteland that surrounds it. He must find those in revolt against WCKD.
“You kids wouldn’t last one day in The Scorch!”
Not only is the environment unforgiving, but the zombies infected by The Flare are everywhere. Fast-moving zombies. And they’re hungry.
Giancarlo Esposito and Rosa Salazar play characters who have formed an outlaw collective for self-preservation in the ruins. Alan Tudyck presides over a party at the end of civilization. Barry Pepper and Lili Taylor show up later.
And all the while, Thomas & Friends are on the run — from WCKD hunters and zombies ( called “cranks” here) and others who mean them harm.
The dystopian production design is of a higher order in this second film. That and the action beats give us hope that this overlong actioner (2:11 seems 30 minutes heavy) will skate by on excitement. The script, based on James Dashner’s ridiculously derivative novel, is not.
“Hope is a dangerous thing!”
Tudyck is the most colorful of the new characters. Esposito (TV’s “Revolution”) has played too many versions of this end-of-the-world might-be-villain to make this one stand out.
Clarkson has a mincing, bureaucratic menace about her. But we’ve seen this character before, too.
The original “Maze Runner” prompted a scorching “Saturday Night Live” parody that hit all the marks in how these teens-save-civilization pictures, from “The Hunger Games” to “Enders Game,” “Divergent” to “The Gift,” share. It’s a simple formula, one which reveals itself even to its teen target audience while binge watching these copycats.
But nobody’s abandoning it, not while these movies — repetitive though they are — are making a mint.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Rosa Salazar, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, Alan Tudyck
Credits: Directed by Wes Ball, script by T.S. Nowlin, based on the James Dashner novel. A Fox release.
Running time: 2:11