Like the original, “Scorch Trials” is surprisingly thrilling, beautifully shot, and directed with hyper-real rigor. Also like the original, it’s derivative of many other Young Adult sagas, but not in egregious or aggressively noticeable ways. Those cheesy nicknames (“cranks”) still stand out amid the higher stakes and perilous obstacles, but you get over it when the scale is so stunning for a $60 million budget and the set pieces so intense for a series aimed at tweens and teens . Dylan O’Brien, that fresh face from the first movie, improves on his previous performance as Thomas with maturity and grace, instantly owning all past protagonists from this genre save for Jennifer Lawrence. He leads an impressive cast featuring his comrades from before as well as a slew of new characters, both friend and foe. Littlefing-erm-Aidan Gillen is typically smarmy as the W.C.K.D. operative tasked with making these kids believe they’re free from the clutches of that nasty organization that trapped them in the “Glade” (there it is again) last time. Giancarlo Esposito and Rosa Salazar are a father and daughter team of gang leaders clinging to survivalist snark until Thomas and company come along, the latter in particular is luminous as a badass potential love interest for the stoic hero. Underrated greats Barry Pepper and Lily Taylor class up the desert as resistance leaders holed up in the mountains, the source of everyone’s hopes in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the always entertaining Alan Tudyk pops up as a squirrelly owner of a palace preying on drifters seeking sex, drugs, and rave n’ roll, a scene that immediately separates this franchise from the safely mediocre. Kaya Scodelario returns as Thomas’ old friend Theresa, a character once again under-utilized and underwritten, only this time to the point of stupid. Her murky motivations regarding a decision at the halfway point throw into question not only her sanity but the writers’ priorities. Whether it’s a part of the book or not, the choice she makes is too contrived to be all that compelling, at least based on what we know of her, which is very little. But hey, perhaps it’ll lead boy scout Thomas into the arms of a badass woman named Brenda who…I guess…I’m shipping? Goodness, I’m officially of one of those people. Anyways, the love triangle so ceremoniously absent from the original “Maze Runner” is now in progress. Fortunately, director Wes Ball is adept at assuaging any fears of a corny romance as he actually develops these characters first. They talk first, kiss later, not the other way around. Plus, when action sequences carry a sense of legitimate danger, as they do here, it’s easier to root for these boys and girls as they run from all manner of things we’ve seen before.