MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS (3.5 out of 10) Directed by Wes Ball; Written by T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner; Starring Dylan O'BrienKaya ScodelarioThomas Brodie-SangsterKi Hong LeeDexter DardenAlexander FloresJacob LoflandRosa SalazarGiancarlo EspositoPatricia ClarksonAidan GillenKathryn Smith-McGlynnLili TaylorBarry Pepper; Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language; Running time 131 minutes; In wide release September 18, 2015.

The second chapter of the Maze Runner series tries its best to establish itself as the serious, dark second chapter of the franchise. But it spends so much time trying to ape "The Empire Strikes Back", "The Two Towers", "Dawn of the Dead" and other films that it doesn't do any of it terribly well. The film ends up being a hodge podge of various motifs and homages while utterly failing to differentiate itself or make its own artistic statement. So the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of listening to a Creed album:  you get what they're going for, but it is just so unoriginal and insipid that it's more annoying than enjoyable.

The film picks up where the first Maze Runner left off: our heroic group of Gladers made it through the maze only to be picked up by a mysterious outside force. We're quickly introduced to Janson (Aiden Gillan from Game of Thrones), who is running a facility for others who have survived their mazes. It seems the mazes were an attempt to find a cure for the plague, known as The Flare, that turns people into zombies.

But something seems wrong about the whole situation, and so Thomas, Minho, Newt, Winston, Frypan and new friends like Aris must rescue Teresa  and then escape into the scorch. Pursued by WCKD, they are trying to make it to the mountains to find The Right Arm, a resistance army. Along their way they have to fight their way through infected zombies, other surviving groups and gangs living in the ruins of the cities, and so on.

It's a lot of plot, and a lot of action. And while it feels like an improvement from the first movie, it is just unsatisfying. There's a lot of build-up, but ultimately no payoff, as we are just teased into an inevitable sequel. 

All that being said, the cast sure seems to be having fun here and making the most of this script. But even that, including an all-too-brief cameo by Alan Tudyk isn't enough to make this good, although when he is on screen the film gets about twenty times more interesting. The same is true of Giancarlo Esposito, who also brings us one of the best scenes of the film and the best use of Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight" in recent pop culture history

Despite these occasional moments, the film telegraphs its every move, leaving few surprises. While this movie is aimed at fans of the popular YA novels, it's unclear how this builds on or offers anything new, especially for people not familiar with the source material.

3.5 out of 10

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Tags: Maze Runner