The best scene in Maze Runner: The Death Cure occurs before we even get a look at the title. The pre-credits train rescue sequence is a meticulously constructed action set piece where conflict is gradually introduced with well-paced precision, proving once again how a balanced combination of slow-boiling suspense and clarity of stakes is sometimes all that’s needed to immediately engage the audience. The last entry in the Maze Runner franchise, The Scorch Trials, based on a series of young adult post-apocalyptic action novels by James Dashner, bluntly ended in a blatant “Next time on Maze Runner” cliffhanger, where the dashing yet fairly bland protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brian) promised to come up with a brilliant plan to save his BFF Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from the dastardly claws of WCKD, a health research organization that, besides not paying enough attention to its acronym, is determined to sacrifice the lives of kids who are immune to a world-destroying virus in order to find a cure.
Unfortunately for Thomas, Minho and his gang of WB network Mad Max reboot rejects, they are those immune kids, so The Death Cure immediately hits the ground running with this previously teased rescue mission and knocks it out of the park. The gang save a bunch of the immune children, but Minho isn’t among them, which propels Thomas and a small group of his besties to rescue him from the last functioning city on Earth, which also happens to be surrounded by those “impossible to crack” security measures found in every sci-fi/action and heist movie. Unfortunately, The Death Cure pulls a Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and gets the most intriguing and engaging sequence out of the way before lazily settling into the strictest baseline expectations from its genre.
In many ways, The Death Cure represents the death knell of the YA dystopian sci-fi/adventure/romance book series adaptation craze kick-started by The Hunger Games and Twilight. Even though the specific genre may vary, the formula is always the same: A chosen one archetype, the one who can balance the conflict between warring fantasy/sci-fi factions, is propelled into becoming the central figure in whatever resistance is going on, realizing the simplest teenage fantasy fulfillment of both attention-seeking and rebellion. While fighting those pesky adults who fear change, the protagonist also becomes stuck in a love triangle between two hunks/babes, depending on the gender being exploited. The love triangle in The Maze Runner is a bit subtler, but the formula is there to a tee.
There are occasional sparks of ingenuity and genre-bending bravado found across the series, though not enough to merit any fresh seal of approval. The first film was a self-contained sci-fi/horror/mystery about Thomas and his new buds being thrown into a giant maze full of deadly spider robots, without any information about why they’re there and their purpose in it. It’s one of those Twilight Zone premises where the mystery is infinitely more interesting than the reveal, which looks even stupider when we find out in The Death Cure just how much cheaper and easier WCKD could have achieved their goals in the first place. The second entry, The Scorch Trials, was straightforward post-apocalyptic YA fare, but did its job satisfactorily. The central location of The Death Cure, a spiffy modern metropolis surrounded by a wall where the outside world is a decrepit hellhole of disease and violence could have something to say about income inequality the way Hunger Games did, but The Maze Runner films are always more interested in the external conflict than the internal.
There are some good performances here that could have resulted in characters with some depth, but for director Wes Ball, true north is empty spectacle. One of the legs of the love triangle is the tough-as-nails resistance fighter named Brenda, played with some natural presence by Rosa Salazar, but she ends up a fairly underdeveloped character. The great character actor Walton Goggins is completely wasted in an otherwise juicy role as the mangled leader of the resistance. I appreciate the series’ attempt at pitting both sides into a grayer-than-usual-for-YA moral standing, where we can sympathize with WCKD’s determination to find a cure at all costs. Unfortunately, the execution presents yet another black-and-white worldview where our heroes are the only ones to root for, despite the idea that they might be condemning millions to die horribly because they prioritize their own well being.
As a January release that quietly passes by without much fanfare, just like the previous two films did, The Death Cure’s disinterest in saying anything unique and original about its genre’s tropes matches perfectly with the obvious low expectations from its release schedule. Chances are that if you’re a big fan of the book series, you’ll be satisfied with this halfway competent but way overlong resolution to the saga. If you’re a casual observer of the movies, it will provide you with a generic YA adventure ending you’ll forget by the time you’ll leave the theater. And if you’re jumping into The Death Cure fresh, get ready to be utterly confused for its punishingly long two hours and twenty minutes, since this finale has absolutely no interest in welcoming newcomers with some catchup exposition.
Director: Wes Ball
Writer: T.S. Nowlin (based on James Dashner’s novel)
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Katherine McNamara, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Rosa Salazar, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Giancarlo Esposito, Aiden Gillen, Walton Goggins
Release Date: January 26, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.