Maze Runner: The Death Cure provides a satisfactory concluding chapter to the YA dystopian trilogy, and little else beyond action spectacle.
When The Maze Runner first arrived in theaters in 2014, it was amid the heyday of sci-fi dystopian action films based on young adult novels. The Hunger Games had found a great deal of success with its second installment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Divergent had just launched a film franchise that was expected to be the next hit. However, as The Hunger Games film series ran its course, and Divergent tanked before it could receive a final installment, The Maze Runner was originally set to debut its trilogy capper amid a dying – and incredibly narrow – genre of movies. However, as a result of an on set injury for the film’s biggest star, the third and final chapter was delayed, which didn’t help the movie. Maze Runner: The Death Cure provides a satisfactory concluding chapter to the YA dystopian trilogy, and little else beyond action spectacle.
The Death Cure picks up six months after the conclusion of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, which left Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and their friend from the Glade, Frypan (Dexter Darden), with a group who is trying to escape the reach of WCKD by fleeing to an island paradise. While Thomas and his friends are able to free some teenagers from a WCKD transport, the one they were looking for – their fellow Glader Minho (Ki Hong Lee) – is still in the hands of their enemy. Splintering off from the main group led by Vince (Barry Pepper), Thomas, Newt, Frypan and their allies Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) head to the Last City in order to save Minho.
Once they arrive at the city, they find that WCKD has built walls to keep out those infected with the Flare virus. While wading through on the outskirts of the city filled with Cranks who haven’t descended into the rage-filled madness of the virus, Thomas and his allies come across an old friend – of sorts. They’re taken to Lawrence (Walton Goggins), who helps Thomas sneak into the city so he and his friends can set about rescuing Minho. However, part of their plan hinges on trusting someone who betrayed the group in The Scorch Trials: Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). She’s been working with WCKD’s Ava Page (Patricia Clarkson) and Janson (Aidan Gillen) to find a cure that will save humanity from extinction via the Flare virus. Facing innumerable obstacles, it’s up to Thomas and his allies to save their friends and finally escape from WCKD once and for all.
The Death Cure arriving roughly two and a half years after the previous installment in The Maze Runner series does the film no favors. To their credit, director Wes Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin – having worked on the entire franchise together – are able to deliver a trilogy capper that is thematically and tonally in line with the overall series. The pacing and momentum of the film also work to its benefit. The Death Cure jumps right into the action, and keeps up a breakneck pace of major plot beats interspersed with plenty of action spectacle. It’s a recipe that provides an entertaining experience, but the dramatic moments depend perhaps too much on character and plot from previous films, so that they lose a great deal of punch if viewers haven’t seen The Maze Runner or The Scorch Trials in some time – or at all.
The story of The Death Cure, while relatively simple on paper since it’s essentially a rescue mission, is overcomplicated by a number of other plot threads – most of which don’t payoff. There is a half-baked uprising against WCKD that is only tangentially related to the main characters and serves little purpose other than to paint an explosive background to what’s meant to be the true emotional stakes of the movie: Thomas saving his friends. However, The Death Cure doesn’t really dive deeper into the conflict between Thomas and WCKD. Rather, it relies heavily on context set up in previous films and little or poor worldbuilding. The motivations of Ava Paige and Janson aren’t even remotely interrogated by the film or the characters – they’re simply evil for survival’s sake.
Exploring the theme of what lengths humans will go to in order to survive, and what that means for their humanity, is common among the dystopian sci-fi genre. Unfortunately, The Death Cure only provides a surface-level examination of this theme among its main characters. Thomas epitomizes humanity in his need to save everyone from WCKD, even when it puts him in immediate danger. Meanwhile, Janson and Ava are on the opposite end of the spectrum, rationalizing that the ends justify the means, so long as the end is their survival. Teresa receives the most depth of those on the “evil” side of the narrative, and while the film attempts a redemption arc, it pays off in an exceptionally cliche way. Certainly, there may have been a thoughtful examination of humanity in The Death Cure, but it’s bogged down by an overcomplicated futuristic world – one that’s never clearly laid out, even after three movies – and sacrificed for action spectacle.
For their parts, the young cast of The Death Cure bring as much heart to the film as is possible. O’Brien is charismatic enough as the hero-with-a-heart-of-gold, but a little flat – though that’s largely because Thomas isn’t given much emotional range beyond concern for his friends and anger at those who have wronged him. Brodie-Sangster gets a more dynamic arc in The Death Cure and shines brighter. Scodelario, Salazar and Lee round out the young cast well enough, getting their moments to shine. Clarkson and Esposito turn out serviceable performances as their characters, while Gillen delivers an unsurprising villain. But The Death Cure actor who is done the biggest disservice by sharing the screen with so many others is Goggins, who gives a brief but truly memorable performance as Lawrence.
All told, The Death Cure provides a satisfying conclusion to The Maze Runner trilogy that will likely appease fans of the film franchise, and the book series written by James Dashner (who appears with a brief cameo early on in the movie). There is a great deal of spectacle, though, that makes The Death Cure an enjoyable enough experience for fans or those with low expectations – but perhaps a bit too much handheld camerawork in certain sequences to see this film in 3D or IMAX. However, as The Death Cure effectively concludes the last film franchise that was born of the popularity of The Hunger Games, it doesn’t provide any real incentive to revive the narrow genre of dystopian YA-based sci-fi that has a future as bleak as the apocalyptic landscapes they depict.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 141 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements.
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