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In a 1939 brief story by lifelong labyrinth aficionado Jorge Luis Borges, the king of Babylonia tries to make fun of his guest, the king of the Arabs, by stranding him in a convoluted maze he’s built at his palace. Furious, the Arabian king paybacks by sacking Babylonia, leading the rival king out into the middle of the desert and leaving him to die, quote: “Allow me to show you my labyrinth.” Despite lacking in Borges’ ironic symmetry, Maze Runner The Scorch Trials a sequel by Wes Ball to last year’s YA adaptation The Maze Runner, does the exact same switcheroo.
Containing no labyrinth but lots of running, the movie takes the original’s surviving characters and drops them into the middle of a whole different type of film, this one a desert-set zombie chase. Generally successful on its own as an odd survival-horror-action movie for the teenage set, but without making much sense at all as part of a wider narrative, The Scorch Trials should ensnare a huge chunk of its predecessor’s $340 million worldwide haul.
With the all-conquering Hunger Games series nearing its final stretch, fellow dystopian teenage sci-fi sagas Maze Runner and Divergent seem equally poised to succeed it, but the former has one key advantage. Both franchises’ premises are asinine, but Divergent is very conscientious about thoroughly explaining its asinine premise right from the beginning, whereas Maze Runner at least sustains a bit of curiosity by leaving its characters and its viewers completely in the dark about why anything is happening, and what any of it could possibly mean. (Moreover, this movie makes some rather major changes to the basic plot of James Dashner’s novel, meaning those who did read it will be almost as confused as those who did not.)
The Scorch Trials follows the events just minutes after the first movie ended, as the lead Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his gang of fellow teenage “Gladers” are transported by helicopter to a remote fortified outpost. The gang — also consisting of Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alexander Flores and Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, the last picture’s sole girl — has just escaped from a maze full of monster machines created as a test by the shady WCKD organization, which hopes to harness their immunity to “the flare,” a zombie-like virus that, along with a real solar flare, has left the world barren and inhospitable.
(Not explained in this film: exactly how the previous film’s maze was supposed to benefit anyone. Furthermore, likewise not mentioned in this movie, WCKD apparently means “World Catastrophe Killzone Department,” which would be a bad name for a government agency even if its acronym weren’t pronounced like “wicked.”)
But now, they’re in the company of Janson (played by Aidan Gillen), an operative of indistinct accent who claims to be from a rival organization, and they have been meeting with others who escaped similar mazes. You would think that a bunch of young kids, all of whom were recently kidnapped and stranded to fight for their lives at the behest of a shady paramilitary organization, would be at least a little suspicious of a seemingly different paramilitary operation that keeps them in close confinement and takes a bunch of kids away each night for some kind of “promotion,” never to be seen again. But the promise of hot showers and cafeteria food pacifies everyone except Thomas and Aris (Jacob Lofland), a jittery, solitary type who’s been at the facility longer than anyone else.
After some sleuthing through airshafts, the two realize that Janson is in league with WCKD head honcho Ava Paige (played by Patricia Clarkson), and the departed maze runners have been strung up in a laboratory, “Matrix”-style, thus WCKD can slowly drain them of their precious immunity fluids. The Gladers and Aris stage a daring jailbreak and escape into the Scorch, the sun-baked desert landscape that has overtaken the world’s cities.
Taking shelter from the elements in a buried shopping mall, the gang awaken a hoard of deadly zombies — The Scorch Trials free movies calls them “Cranks,” though they’re in no way distinguishable from any of the other zombie hordes that have popped up across screens over the past decade — who give chase and manage to snag one unfortunate Glader. (The septet learns the hard way that not all of them are immune to the contagion, and the infected member’s tearful, lonely suicide is the first of several surprisingly brutal moments here.) With no other option, the group decides to head to the far-off mountains, where a mythical resistance group called the Right Hand may or may not offer sanctuary.
Even with the threat of the undeads and WCKD search helicopters in narrow pursuit, the movie begins to become a literal slog as they trudge through the desert, until they stumble upon the tumbledown hideout of mincing gang boss Jorge (played by Giancarlo Esposito) and his rifle-toting surrogate daughter, Brenda (Rosa Salazar). Evidently the only humans left on earth with a sense of humor, the pair may be just the guides to take the group to the Right Hand, or they may sell them back to WCKD for a finder’s fee. (Esposito is his usual charismatic self here, while the swaggering, sarcastic Salazar — whose head-turning 2015 also includes stints in “Insurgent” and SXSW standout “Night Owls” — almost single-handedly shakes the movie out of its solemn self-seriousness.)
Despite an overreliance on shaky-cam quick cuts, Ball stages a number of effective sequences, particularly a zombie pursuit up through a toppled skyscraper that relies more on ace production design than CGI to build believability. He also makes time for a few sequences that are so cheekily strange they may as well come from a different picture. In one, Jorge plays the entirety of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” over a loudspeaker during a firefight; in another, Thomas and Brenda take some sort of hallucinogen and stumble around a decadent post-apocalyptic rave.
Weirder than either of those sequences, yet, is the fact that for an incident-packed 131-minute free movie, The Scorch Trials offers virtually no character development and only suggestions of plot advancement, mostly just functioning to move a group of obliquely motivated characters from one place to another without giving much clue where the entire thing is headed. The original Maze Runner managed to pilfer elements from both “Lord of the Flies” and “Cube” to create a halfway believable teenage hierarchy faced with a mysterious yet tangible obstacle; here, there’s little actual sense of group dynamics, and the main characters are all purely reactive, simply trudging from one horror to the next waiting for someone to tell them what’s happening.