Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the second film based on author James Dashner's young-adult adventure series, picks up right where the first movie ended: Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his fellow Gladers, having escaped from the deadly labyrinth of the first story, are taken via helicopter to a fortified WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department) compound, where they are promised safety and a new life. But once inside, Thomas learns that WCKD is up to some very wicked things indeed. The shadowy organization, led by the mysterious Ava Paige (an underused Patricia Clarkson), want to drain their blood, since they are immune to a nasty virus called "the flare" that turns humans into zombie-like creatures known as "cranks." Paige's ultimate goal, or so she claims, is to find a cure for the flare, and she believes that Thomas in particular might be the key. But he doesn't want anything to do with her blood-sucking research, and persuades his friends to escape once again. When they do, they discover that the outside world is a barren, apocalyptic landscape that has been scorched by solar flares. The gang then spend the rest of the movie running from WCKD soldiers and fighting off terrorizing cranks -- along with an interlude in which they are captured by a mercenary leader (the always reliable Giancarlo Esposito) and must persuade him not to sell them back to WCKD -- as they attempt to reach a distant mountain safe haven where the Right Arm, a resistance group also working on a cure, are located.
And that's about it. Unfortunately, The Scorch Trials doesn't do much to advance its dystopian tale. It offers very little in the way of character development, answers zero questions about the flare and the deadly virus it spawned, and its plot ends up pretty much where it started. Worst of all, the story plays out in sluggish fashion, with long dry spells between the action set pieces (the best one takes place in an abandoned mall populated with menacing, fast-moving cranks). Its bloated running time (131 minutes) also doesn't help. Fortunately, O'Brien, who is in nearly every scene, is immensely watchable as Thomas. We always cheer for him and fear for him, although we know nothing bad is really going to happen to the movie's protagonist. Kaya Scodelario is equally good as Teresa, the lone female who escaped the maze. She is the one character we do get to know better, and her questionable actions propel the story into its next (and presumably) final installment, The Death Cure, in which Thomas plans to bring down WCKD and exact revenge on his persecutors.
The Scorch Trials isn't a disaster, but it is a disappointment. Director Wes Ball manages to stage a couple of impressive action scenes, but it's all to little effect. Sadly, the movie feels like a placeholder, and it suffers from the problem of many middle films in a trilogy: It isn't nearly as good as the original, and it serves as little more than a bridge to what one hopes is a rousing finale. Mostly, though, The Scorch Trials is just a trial to sit through.