Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. Directed by Wes Ball. Starring Dylan O'Brien, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson. Rating: 5 (out of 10)
If last year's hit The Maze Runner was the first child in the family - ambitious, concise - bridge film Maze Runner: Scorch Trials is very much the middle sibling in that it is changeable, desperate to please and generally all over the map.
The film opens with a current-issue flight of people from their homes, fleeing not only violence and government persecution but a mysterious virus.
As we learned in the first film, an agency with the acronym WCKD - and a paradoxical mantra "WCKD is good" - has been experimenting on children to develop an antibody to the virus.
The strongest in the pack were sent to the Glade, a Lord of the Flies social experiment surrounded by a giant and deadly maze. Our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) emerges with a small pack of survivors and is put in a detention centre of sorts, full of other teen Darwin winners safe from the scorched desert wasteland that has covered the earth.
But are they safe? Mr. Jansen (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones), the man in charge, looks pretty weaselly and has an illdefined accent. And teens keep disappearing, talking excitedly about being sent to "some kind of farm". Yep, Holocaust overtones everywhere.
Thomas and friends (played by Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alexander Flores, Dexter Darden, Jacob Loffland) realize that they've traded one prison for another and set off to find a resistance group known as "the Right Arm".
"If the elements don't kill you, the Cranks will," warns Jansen.
Ah yes. The virus known as "the Flare" turns people into zombies, necessitating a big shift in tone and a big bump in the special effects makeup budget from the first movie. These aren't your shuffling, Walking Dead-variety zombies but incredibly fast undeads with killer parkour skills.
Scorch Trials veers into horror movie territory here, with plenty of jump scares plus gore and goo and monstrous things poking out of abdomens. Things get a little darker, too, when one former Glader decides he'd rather commit suicide than turn into a Crank.
There's impressive urban carnage outside of the facility; calamity on a much larger scope than in the last film, sand storms and epic lightning. One fantastic chase sequence sees members of the group pursued by dead things through a toppled, leaning skyscraper. They find their way to a gang hideout presided over by Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his surrogate daughter Brenda (Rosa Salazar) who view the teens as their ticket to a better place. These latter characters bring much-needed energy to the proceedings and a humour that feels like they walked on from another film set.
Entire cities have been swallowed up by sand, skyscraper tops and bridge spans poking through the dunes. Miraculously, the road to the mountains and the Right Arm is not only passable but completely sand free.
What seems like a whole other movie, again, starts here, with newcomers Barry Pepper and Lili Taylor gathering what valuable virus-free kids still exist and moving on, to where, we don't know. Nor do we have an answer as to why the mazes - turns out there were others - were even there in the first place. Patricia Clarkson is back, in a thankless role as the head baddie, with uncertain motivation. It's all very vague.
It's one futuristic Odyssean trial after another, with Thomas insisting that he go it alone and his friends agreeing to tag along, despite the fact that someone other than Thomas always dies along the way.
No resolution here, just a bridge to the final instalment (or two) where we hope all will be answered. "I'm tired of running," someone finally, mercifully, says. After more than two hours of chase sequences but not a footstep of character development, so are we.