While never the biggest YA series on the block, The Maze Runner has proven to be popular enough to receive a conclusion. It’s been a couple of years since the previous installment, due to injuries star Dylan O’Brien sustained while filming, but thanks to his strength and confidence to jump back on the saddle, Maze Runner: The Death Cure has been completed, and it’s quite enjoyable. While it riffs on a few notable sci-fi/action films and traffics in storylines audiences have seen in other YA adaptations, there is a sense of urgency that doesn’t let up, a lot of well-constructed action, and propulsion to a film series fitting of the title Maze Runner.
2014’s The Maze Runner was a bit of a surprise. While it was the latest YA novel adaptation at a time when they seemed to be arriving on a regularly scheduled basis, having a film so stripped down and primal made it more worthwhile as an action-horror hybrid than a world-building first chapter of a more extensive series. 2015’s sequel, The Scorch Trials, ended up disappointing, as the series suddenly became a familiar YA adaptation complete with evil corporations, romantic melodrama, and the further building up of a chosen one narrative. Through all of this, however, director Wes Ball continued to show a sharp eye for action and visual scope.
The Death Cure should not work as well as it does, but thanks to a good amount of focus and a few subversions of what we tend to see in these types of films, there is a lot to appreciate. The film also has the benefit of not being a final feature split into two parts. It picks up on the cliffhanger the previous movie ended on and works towards a fitting conclusion that will be enough for the fans that have stuck around, as well as anyone that happens to walk in and hope for a decent action flick. Given how I didn’t go out of my way to revisit the previous two films, I was happy to find myself satisfied enough with how standalone the film felt, even if there is an obvious benefit of being completely caught up with who certain characters are and why they matter.
O’Brien stars as Thomas, a former captive of the giant maze he and his fellow “Gladers” had escaped from. The film’s opening finds Thomas and his pals Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) working to rescue their friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from the capture of WCKD. This is the evil corporation conducting experiments on teenagers to find a cure for the disease that’s wiped out much of the world’s population by turning them into zombie-like beings referred to as “Cranks.” The rescue mission doesn’t go as planned and the rest of the film becomes a race against time, as Thomas and his team head into a protected city to retrieve their friend.
Having a rescue mission as the central element of this story goes a long way into making the film not feel overwhelming. A lesser movie or at least one less interesting would have the focus on the direct connections between Thomas and WCKD and what it means for him to be attacking them. While the actions of WCKD are a part of this film, it is ultimately a side story, as is another story involving the band of rebels led by a decease-riddled Walton Goggins. It is hard to ignore their parts of the story, but because it is of little concern to the main characters, compared to their ultimate goal of rescuing Minho and getting as far away as they can from everything, the film didn’t feel bogged down by this aspect either.
By handling the story this way, it also means The Death Cure can sidestep the confines of making Thomas a traditional chosen one. Now, there are still issues concerning just how convenient specific developments are, one of those being the choice to make Aidan Gillen into a very one-dimensional villain, but a few not-so-expected turns in a film delivering a sense of finality to these characters was welcome. Not hurting is the work of the cast powering through all this story material.
Gillen may be fairly one-note, but he’s effectively sinister. Other older cast members include Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, and Giancarlo Esposito, who all bring enough credibility to their roles. As for the younger cast, O’Brien goes all in with emotion for this final chapter and continues to prove why he was a solid choice to lead this series. Brodie-Sangster gets some good work to do as well. The two main female characters played by Kaya Scodelario and Rosa Salazar are not exactly put into the best positions for the film, offering mainly exposition and pep talks. However, Salazar is at least involved in two or three of the action highlights.
That’s really the most praiseworthy part of this movie, the action. Ball has acquitted himself well with this series and will hopefully find himself on a shortlist when it comes to other action films in need of a particular directorial eye (The Flash almost makes too much sense, but that spot is apparently taken…for now). Thanks to a background in visual effects, Ball uses a reasonably modest budget (as far as dystopian sci-fi blockbusters go) to create a film that feels quite large in scope and exciting as far as the chases, gunplay, and fights.
There’s more than a little influence by the Mad Max series, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 28 Days Later and others, but if you’re going to rip-off something, rip off from the best. Obviously, The Death Cure is no Mad Max: Fury Road, but seeing a car/train chase/heist sequence utilizing practical cars and real stunts is a worthwhile viewing experience for a film like this. The rescue sequence that runs right into the explosive climax is also welcome, as the stakes are clear for the characters, even if I was left wondering what the rebels’ ultimate goal was supposed to be.
I would not be surprised if James Dashner’s novels have a bit more insight, but Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin have done a fine job here of minimizing the grandness of a film like this and keeping the focus clear. That has led to a fun action film, with a good number of moments that payoff on an emotional level, especially when it comes to those who must have found something to root for with this series. I wouldn’t say The Maze Runner franchise is one I’ve been incredibly invested in, but seeing how it ended, I felt good enough about how most of these characters managed to reach the end of their maze.