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Review: 'The Maze Runner' ★★★

'Runner's' a bright spot in dark-and-scary-world lineup.

Forever indebted to H.G. Wells, William Golding and other cranky visionaries, the hardy, cockroach-like "Hunger Games"/"Divergent" genre has a nickname: "dyslit," after the dystopian best-sellers in which young adult protagonists must prove their physical and mental prowess and lead the revolution to save what's left of their crummy old world.

The first "Hunger Games" movie came out in 2012. (Has it really only been two years?) Because that film was so successful, the green lights lit up Hollywood, and suddenly everybody and their creative partners were charging ahead with related material, full of trials by fire, ridiculous life-or-death challenges and weirdly coiffed authority figures murmuring about the necessity of totalitarian control.

And just when you think you've had it with this stuff, along comes an exciting, unpretentious film version of yet another dyslit franchise.

First-time feature director Wes Ball's version of "The Maze Runner" makes the cliches smell daisy-fresh. The movie comes from the first in James Dashner's trilogy, published in 2009. Its story components are spare.

There is a boy, Thomas (played by Dylan O'Brien). At the outset he's sent up in an elevator, his memory wiped nearly clean. He is the latest arrival to the Glade, which is like an open-air Montessori school walled off by immense concrete slabs.

Every morning the doors to the Maze open and the maze runners scramble to learn the route to freedom while avoiding giant, deadly robot spiders with nasty big pointy teeth. These are known as Grievers. And that concludes the paragraph known as Plot.

Ball was hired for "The Maze Runner" largely on the strength of his impressive seven-minute short film "Ruin," widely available online. The world he creates in his feature debut resembles places we've visited in "The Giver," "The Hunger Games," "Divergent" and other pictures. But the story, and Ball's visualization of it, has a disarming simplicity and directness, and when Thomas' fractured memory flashes images of his previous existence — a lab, some experiments, some semblance of the world as Thomas knew it — it's sharp and vivid.

Unseen forces, eventually seen, have created the Glade for supersecret reasons. When a young woman (Kaya Scodelario), allegedly the last of her kind, arrives to the previously all-male enclave, it's like a thunderclap.

The heart of "The Maze Runner" is the action, and Ball seamlessly blends computer-generated mecha-spiders with the actors, with everyone and everything moving very quickly.

Aml Ameen plays Alby, the leader of the Glade; Will Poulter, he of the perma-raised eyebrows and recently seen in "We're the Millers," is by-the-book Gally, who becomes Thomas' nemesis. Patricia Clarkson, purring vaguely sinister orders by way of computer screens, portrays the adult, so you know she can't be fully trusted.

I'd like to see a spinoff movie wherein Clarkson teams up with Meryl Streep in "The Giver," Kate Winslet in "Divergent" and Donald Sutherland in "The Hunger Games" and they all open an acting school and give lessons in smiling through their teeth.

Meantime, at least what we're seeing in "The Maze Runner" works; the movie may be about confinement, but it moves, and Ball has a genuine career ahead of him. The script by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin may be about 10 minutes longer than needed, but it's treated well by the designers and the director, who create a plausible, textured atmosphere of dread. O'Brien, Scodelario and company should help extend the Henley undershirt's popularity well into the next post-apocalyptic millennium.

Are audiences weary of dyslit screen adaptations? "The Maze Runner," already a success in many overseas markets, suggests otherwise. I'm not dreading Part 2.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"The Maze Runner" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images)

Running time: 1:53

Opens: Thursday evening

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