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'Maze Runner' Strikes Back with Solid Second Installment 

Trial by Sequel

Enough already with all this dystopian garbage, right? With the gorgeous twentysomethings playing teenagers; with the socially regimented peril; with the coordinated Urban Oufitters ensembles harvested from rebel outposts; with the cookie-cutter trilogy structures; with the lazy melding of genres ... because you know what makes a sci-fi adventure even more marketable these days? Zombies.

If, like me, you're no longer entertained by or even interested in any of the above, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials has seven or eight strikes against it at the outset. The film opens Friday at theaters everywhere and will no doubt be understood as a low-caloric snack between the star-laden Insurgent  (3/20/15) and the hotly anticipated Hunger Games finale, Mockingjay Part II (11/20/15).

And the first 30 or 40 minutes of the movie bear out these sentiments: They're as bad as any entry in the YA-dystopian-adaptation subgenre. The dialogue is relentlessly and unnaturally expository. Unlike, for example, the heart-stopping Mad Max, The Scorch Trials' world-building developments seem to have been plucked at random from an online catalog, with zero obligation to justify things like outfits or advanced technology. You can neither make sense of the story, its central characters and conflicts, or what any of it has to do with running in mazes (what I always gathered as the series' hook).

The youngsters, led by a brawny Captain Kirk-type named Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), are quarantined in a huge fortress in a desert after they've conquered the maze of the first film. They are told by a manager dude (Aiden Gillen, one of three Game of Thrones' actors in the film) that in due time they will be whisked away to paradise. But Thomas, along with anyone who's read either The Maze Runner or The Golden Compass, sees through that crock of shit. Through some sleuthing, he discovers that the fortress is actually a medical facility, run by the sciencey corporate overlords of W.I.C.K.E.D. — see if you can guess if they're good guys or bad guys — and that young people's essential brain fluids are being drained and preserved to combat the terrible "Flare," which has turned huge portions of the world's population into zombies. Thus informed, Thomas engineers a ballsy escape for his requisite love interest (Kaya Scodelario) and his buddies. They must then fend for themselves in the surrounding "Scorch," the desert and urban ruins infested with the undead.

Much, if not most, of the script is composed of the word "Go," as in, "Go go go go!" when our heroes are sprinting from armed guards; or later, "Go go GO!" when dashing from zombies through a deserted mall; or, better still, "Go go go go go GO GO!" when they are running from an approaching storm.    

All that running, which leads to Thomas' pivotal line (an earned cliche!), "I'm tired of running," must have sufficiently pumped up the young performers in the film. At some point around its halfway mark, you realize that you're rooting for them, that you're on their side, that dammit, they're giving it 110 percent up there and they deserve our cheers. Plus, the stakes have never been higher. A bizarrely satisfying romance emerges, and pretty soon you're on board with everything; not least of which is the army of peripheral steampunks (Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Tudyk, Lily Taylor, Barry Pepper) and the occasionally breathtaking action sequences.

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