Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A/PG-13, 131 mins)
Director: Wes Ball
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Released this time last year, The Maze Runner was one of the more successful examples of young adult fiction properties looking for a slice of the action in the wake of the triumph of The Hunger Games.
Where Divergent started out mediocre and then just got worse, and the likes of The Host and The Giver exploded on the launch pad, The Maze Runner offered a well-realised world while sowing seeds for further exploration. Unfortunately that early promise has been somewhat squandered in this lumpen sequel that does nothing to separate it from the herd.
As we join it here, a small band led by Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) have escaped the Glade to learn that they're part of a program run by Patricia Clarkson’s Dr Paige intent on finding a cure for the Flare, a virus which has ravaged the planet.
Where the first movie was keen to promote a mystery, with characters not even knowing their own names at first, this starts us out with a hint of backstory and flashback, as Thomas as a young boy is put into the care of Dr Paige by his mother.
Now he and his friends are at a facility run by Aidan Gillen, which seems as much a prison as anything, immediately raising questions of who can be trusted. It transpires they weren’t the only maze, but just one group among a handful of young people who appear to be immune to the virus. True to futuristic sci-fi tropes, Thomas discovers a conspiracy in which they're being harvested in order to find a cure, leading them to bust out and into the Scorch, a desert world that’s all that remains of our planet.
Where the first film seemed fresh and had a number of distinctive characters to get behind, this feels like Young Adult by numbers, full of crumbling cities and grubby resistance groups. It’s dark and grim and hope is thin on the ground, though that isn’t a bad thing, and it’s probably one of the least youngster-oriented of YA adaptations. With victims of the Flare exhibiting zombie-like behaviour, for a while the movie turns into World War Z, which does it absolutely no favours either.
So not only is it dry during the setup phase, the midsection is just a lot of running and hiding and fighting monsters. Where the first film had a clear selling point, this rambles vaguely between locations and antagonists, presenting scenarios that are much too familiar from other dystopian fantasies.
In fairness the visual effects are first rate, but dialogue is mostly exposition. It’s a big sprawling mess with a couple of good sequences, but lacking the characters groundwork essential to true success. Thomas does prove himself to be a worthy hero on several occasions, but that’s not quite enough and there’s no clear view of what if any end game is in sight.
With one more of James Dashner’s books still to be filmed, let’s hope they wrap the trilogy up in a stronger manner than has been teased with this middle chapter.