If we were to start off by directly comparing Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials to 2014's The Maze Runner - and why shouldn't we? For here we are, with Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials just dropped there right in front of us with all its petulant awfulness, like something the dog did on the carpet, and we have to do fucking something with it - perhaps we might put in terms about like this: The Scorch Trials is a better-made, worse movie than its none-too-involving predecessor. By this I primarily mean that graphic designer/VFX artist Wes Ball must have learned quite a bit from making his feature directorial debut with the last movie, because he's a whole lot better at it now: scenes of tension are turned up more slowly and insidiously, and instead of being content to frame his cast of vanilla-pretty young people like sweaty models, he's willing here to push them to be more roughed-up and bedraggled and desperate.

With cinematographer Pados Gyula (who hasn't done anything in 12 years that recalls his career-making work in 2003's Kontroll nearly as much as this film's crushing black metallic interiors do), Ball crafts a deeply unpleasant and choked vision of the ruined places in a post-apocalyptic desert. It's impressive: not, like, GREAT, and definitely not anything the habituΓ© of the post-apocalypse film hasn't seen before (there's a lot of Resident Evil: Extinction in here, visually, and that's not even an insult), but enough to put the movie over, aesthetically. Not narratively. Nothing could put this over narratively: T.S. Nowlin's screenplay adapting the second of James Dashner's YA trilogy-plus-prequels (somewhat loosely, I am made to understand) is a giant pack of stupid boring bullshit, undermined by a uniformly aimless collection of young actors breathing the opposite of life into their characters, who are anyway given nothing interesting to do. At least, in the great battle to be the next Hunger Games, Scorch Trials clearly and decisively wins the 2015 round against the awful, just awful The Divergent Series: Insurgent. Absolutely nobody should feel good about that achievement.

Beginning seconds after a version of The Maze Runner that ended in a slightly different way than last year's movie actually ended, The Scorch Trials concerns what happens when the extraordinary awesome chosen special one Maze Runner (Dylan O'Brien) escapes from a grim technological horror maze with his friends Girl (Kaya Scodelario), Asian (Ki Hong Lee), Black (Dexter Darden), British (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Hispanic (Alexander Flores). And some others, but they're all gone after the first act. In that first act, the teens arrive in a bunker run by Janson (Aiden Gillen), who oozes so much insincerity that it's less of a twist than a confirmation when he turns out to be taking the kids, one at a time, to his evil lab where he puts them in vats of blue liquid and drains all the juices out of them, leaving just hideous blobs of body and muscle behind. And worse still, he's working for the mysterious evil corporation WCKD, pronounced "Wicked", because obviously.

With this horrifying discovery in hand, Maze Runner and his friends manage to escape from Janson by fleeing from the bunker to go out into the Scorch, in the hope of finding the Right Arm, as long as they can stay away from the Cranks. But luckily, they are all Immunes. And even in dialogue, especially when that dialogue is delivered by Gillen, you can absolutely hear all of that capitalisation. This is the kind of film that tries to insist upon the epic grandeur of its internal mythology by using more capital nouns than the German language. The Scorch turns out to be nothing more or less than a desert where there used to be a major city: the film is conspicuously anxious not to imply which city, but individual buildings strongly resemble Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. So let's assume this is post-apocalyptic Toronto. The Cranks are stock-issue biozombies, the sort who remain absolutely quiet in a dark room by the dozens right up until one of the heroes flashes a light over one of them, and then they all start snarling and grabbing, even though they presumably could have done this already when it was still dark. But it wouldn't do to rob us of a jump scare

The developments in the plot are practically nil - WCKD is trying to use teenagers' bodies as breeding grounds for an anti-Crank vaccine, and Maze Runner is even more special of a special than we thought in the first movie - and nothing is particularly clarified about the world. The Right Arm is a resistance group, but how their resistance works when they're not safeguarding chosen ones is anyone's guess; the fragments of civilization that crop up in the back half are just kind of posited to be there because it would be hard to keep having a plot if it was only desert. Even so, the actual meat and potatoes of the plot is nothing more than the most generic kind of kinetic energy: the rag-tag band runs to one place, it turns out to be unsafe, so they run to another. And they talk, exhaustively, about the running that they do. If you were to take the words "Move", "Go", and "Come on" from Nowlin's vocabulary, you would cut the length of the screenplay by something like 60 percent.

Very little within the film makes any of this pleasurable: the cast of pretty young people have absolutely no personalities, while among the grown-ups, Lili Taylor gives a murmuring, airy performance that telegraphs with incredible clarity how much she regrets the choices that put her in that set, and Alan Tudyk plays an unexpectedly straightforward "devious queer" riff. The one saving grace, which I do not like to say because it implies that The Scorch Trials is saved, is that every so often Ball and Pados and production designer Daniel T. Dorrance give us a real treat: the shot of WCKD's horrifying lab, the splendid rot of the decaying city (and the film's solitary action setpiece that works, works largely on the basis of the set in which it takes place), a silhouette shot on a sand dune that's still breathtaking no matter how overtly it's a lift from The Seventh Seal. None of this is uniquely great, and none of it adds up to anything beyond "there are, like, a dozen moments that are actually really good", but it perhaps is enough to give one the cautious hope that when the inevitable third movie rolls around, they'll have figured out a way to make it actually worth looking at. Probably not worth watching, but maybe worth looking at.

Reviews in this series
The Maze Runner (Ball, 2014)
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Ball, 2015)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Ball, 2018)