In a 1939 short story by lifelong labyrinth aficionado Jorge Luis Borges, the king of Babylonia attempts to embarrass his guest, the king of the Arabs, by stranding him in a convoluted maze he’s constructed at his palace. Furious, the Arabian king responds by sacking Babylonia, riding the rival king out into the middle of the desert and leaving him to die, saying, “Allow me to show you my labyrinth.” Though lacking in Borges’ ironic symmetry, Wes Ball’s “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” a sequel to last year’s YA adaptation “The Maze Runner,” pulls the exact same switcheroo. Containing no mazes but plenty of running, the film takes the original’s surviving characters and drops them into the middle of an entirely different type of movie, this one a desert-set zombie chase. Generally successful on its own as a strange survival-horror-action film for the pre-college set, but without making much sense at all as part of a larger narrative, “The Scorch Trials” should ensnare a solid 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 series’ premises are asinine, but “Divergent” is quite conscientious about thoroughly explaining its asinine premise right from the start, whereas “Maze Runner” at least sustains a bit of curiosity by leaving its characters and its audience completely in the dark about why anything is happening, and what any of it could possibly mean. (Furthermore, this film makes some rather significant changes to the basic plot of James Dashner’s book, meaning those who did read it will be almost as confused as those who did not.)
“The Scorch Trials” picks up mere minutes after the first film ended, as protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his band of fellow teenage “Gladers” are transported by helicopter to a remote fortified outpost. The group — also comprising Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alexander Flores and Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, the last film’s lone femme — has just escaped from a maze full of monster machines created as a test by the shadowy WCKD organization, which hopes to harness their immunity to “the flare,” a zombie-like virus that, along with an actual 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. On another note, likewise not mentioned in this film, WCKD apparently stands for “World Catastrophe Killzone Department,” which would be a terrible name for a government agency even if its acronym weren’t pronounced like “wicked.”)
Now, however, they’re in the company of Janson (Aidan Gillen), an operative of indistinct accent who claims to be from a rival organization, and they’ve been united with others who escaped similar mazes. You’d think that a bunch of teenagers, all of whom were recently kidnapped and stranded to fight for their lives at the behest of a sinister paramilitary organization, would be at least a little suspicious of a supposedly different paramilitary operation that keeps them in close confinement and takes a handful of kids away each night for some sort 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 discover that Janson is in league with WCKD head honcho Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), and the departed maze runners have been strung up in a laboratory, “Matrix”-style, so 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 group awaken a swarm of vicious zombies — the film calls them “Cranks,” though they’re in no way distinguishable from any of the other zombie hordes that have shuffled across screens over the past decade — who give chase and manage to snag one unlucky 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 zombies and WCKD search helicopters in hot pursuit, the film starts to become a literal slog as they trudge through the desert, until they stumble upon the tumbledown hideout of mincing gang boss Jorge (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 charming 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 film 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 scenes that are so cheekily weird they may as well come from a different film. 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.
Stranger than either of those scenes, however, is the fact that for an incident-packed 131-minute film, “The Scorch Trials” offers virtually no character development and only hints 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 whole thing is headed. The first “Maze Runner” managed to pilfer elements from both “Lord of the Flies” and “Cube” to build a halfway believable teenage hierarchy confronted with a mysterious yet tangible obstacle; here, there’s little real sense of group dynamics, and the primary characters are all purely reactive, simply trudging from one horror to the next waiting for someone to tell them what’s going on.
Of course, they’ll presumably get their answers when the final installment — which has not yet been split into two parts — arrives in 2017. But there’s only so long viewers will keep scurrying around the filmmakers’ little maze before demanding the damn pellet already.