Adults are just the absolute worst in “The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” yet another tween-targeting science-fiction film that posits grown-ups as the root cause of adolescents’ every problem. Last year’s franchise-initiating installment was a cut above its subgenre brethren mainly because its story – about a boy named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who wakes up, without a memory, in a glen surrounded by a giant deadly maze – was a self-contained affair, free of the fanciful gobbledygook mythology that defines sagas like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Director Wes Ball’s adaptation of the second book in author James Dashner’s popular series is the exact opposite of its predecessor, presenting a sprawling adventure that, when not liberally cribbing from more illustrious sci-fi forefathers, spends plentiful time fleshing out the dull details of its oppressed-youth scenario.
Picking up where the previous film left off, ‘The Scorch Trials‘ opens with Thomas and his friends being rescued, post-maze completion, by the armed forces of Janson (Aidan Gillen), who runs a militarized shelter in the middle of a desert known as the Scorch. Despite its laughable name, the Scorch is never depicted as being actually hot, but it is dangerous, thanks to its population of crazed zombies known as Cranks. Rampaging beasts created primarily with CG effects, the Cranks resemble a cross between the speedy undead monsters of “28 Days Later” and the howling nocturnal beasts of “I Am Legend.” At least initially, though, Thomas finds himself mostly preoccupied with Janson’s compound, which he quickly deduces is up to human-experimentation, all in an effort to find a cure for the “Flare” virus that’s turned most of mankind into hungry Cranks, and has left civilization in literal ruins.
Janson, it turns out, is working for the aptly named evil organization WCKD (pronounced “wicked”) and its boss Dr. Page (Patricia Clarkson), who believes that the only way to solve the planet’s cataclysmic epidemic is to snatch up those who are immune, and harvest them for their special brain “enzyme” via tubes and mechanical devices. That makes WCKD come across as an abusive parent-style variation on the aliens from “The Matrix,” and turns Thomas – who’s forgotten past includes all sorts of chosen-one derring-do – into this fable’s de facto Neo, tasked with liberating his fellow teens and leading them to a safe-haven promised land. Alas, director Ball is not the Wachowskis. Typified by helter-skelter sequences illuminated by bouncing flashlights, his direction does little to enliven what amounts to a familiar set-up.
From scenes involving characters crawling through vents, to encounters with creatures emerging from gooey organic material stuck to the walls of dark corridors, ‘The Scorch Trials‘ also regularly borrows from “Aliens,” which further turns the proceedings into a training-wheels outing for those not yet ready to cut their teeth on genuine sci-fi classics. Still, such derivation – which also includes nods to “Mad Max,” “The Book of Eli” and other post-apocalyptic works – is almost necessary given the otherwise dreadful dearth of original ideas on display throughout this dystopian odyssey, in which Thomas does lots of running, killing, and standard-issue fighting back against the middle-aged powers-that-be trying to keep him and his uniformly anonymous cohorts down.
Thrown into this haphazard mix is a druggy rave interlude, the appearance of decent actors (Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, Giancarlo Esposito) in trivial roles, and a love triangle between Thomas, bland Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and tough new comrade Brenda (Rosa Salazar). Yet similar to so much young-adult sci-fi, the specific details about ‘The Scorch Trials’ world, its protagonist’s backstory, and its David-vs.-Goliath plot are of little actual consequence. Instead, they’re just window dressing for a tale that ultimately amounts to a destined-for-triumph good guy waging rebellious war against uncool surrogate moms and dads intent on exploiting and/or oppressing innocent kids. The fact that WCKD’s plans, however nefarious, come across as the only viable solution to saving humanity from extinction does, invariably, factor into the drama. Nonetheless, thinking too hard about the ethicality of these heroes and villains’ actions is to pretend that the filmmakers have done likewise, rather than – as is the case here – merely regurgitated stock formulas and conventions for a new generation of moviegoers. [C-]