As young-adult franchises go, The Maze Runner has always had a grab-bag, bargain-bin quality to it. There’s a little bit of something for everyone—a wicked corporation (that’s conveniently named “WCKD”); a post-apocalyptic society choked with hordes of roving zombies; a futuristic city housing the elite; a love triangle; and a cornucopia of middle-aged character actors surrounding our teenaged heroes. As its final edition, The Death Cure, rolls into theaters, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer amount of content packed into The Maze Runner trilogy, if by nothing else.
We’re only six years removed from the release of the first entry in The Hunger Games, the film franchise based on a series of dystopian young-adult books that inspired a slew of Hollywood imitators—including the Divergent movies and the spiffed-up take on Lois Lowry’s The Giver. But in 2018, The Maze Runner seems almost charmingly outdated, a veritable throwback in today’s accelerated Hollywood climate. Plucky kids defying their futuristic corporate overlords might be yesterday’s news, but there’s one last maze for our heroes to solve.
The first Maze Runner, released in 2014, was set entirely within—you might want to sit down for this—a huge maze, populated by a coterie of athletic young male amnesiacs. The protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) was dumped into the labyrinth without his memory, and bonded with fellow “runners” like Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as they tried to solve the mystery of their giant prison and did battle with horrifying techno-organic monsters. It turned out (spoiler alert) that the maze was a gigantic science experiment run by WCKD, a company searching for the cure to a world-ending plague.
In the second film, 2015’s The Scorch Trials, things got appreciably bonkers. The real world outside the maze was an Earth ruined by a solar flare, crawling with mutants (called “Cranks”) infected by the so-called Flare virus and governed by WCKD, a bunch of finely coiffed scientists who wear white smocks (never a good sign). Despite being the second entry in a mid-budget young-adult trilogy, The Scorch Trials was a surprisingly good piece of cinema, a high-octane, two-hour chase scene through deserts, ruined cities, and eerie laboratories. The film saw Thomas and his pals try to escape WCKD and ally with resistance fighters led by Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito).
Now that you’re all caught up, we can delve into The Death Cure, which has arrived three years later, after O’Brien suffered a severe injury on set that delayed production. At a hefty two hours and 22 minutes long, The Death Cure isn’t quite as propulsive as its predecessors—like any franchise finale, it has a lot of wrapping up to do. It’s also not quite as inventive with its set pieces as The Scorch Trials, which used its apocalyptic environments in surprising ways. But if you’re looking for a tale of morally ambiguous teen triumph, you could certainly do worse.
One of the appeals of the world of The Maze Runner, based on books by James Dashner and brought to the big screen by the director Wes Ball, is that the dystopia is not entirely man-made. Unlike The Hunger Games or Divergent, a monstrous autocracy is not responsible for all the world’s ills. WCKD is a nasty bunch, doing its creepy social experiments on teens, but its goals—trying to cure a global disease—are noble, even if its means are anything but. So as Thomas and his friends attempt to break into WCKD headquarters in The Death Cure to get to the bottom to things once and for all, ethical gray areas abound.
Three movies in, Thomas remains an irritatingly blank slate, a generic hero-type for viewers to project themselves onto. The women around him are much more interesting—there’s Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a steely former ally who is now back in the WCKD fold hunting for a cure, and there’s Brenda (Rosa Salazar), a spirited resistance fighter who amounts to the Han Solo of the series, equal parts spunky and sarcastic. The veteran actors around them—Esposito and Barry Pepper (as rebel heroes) and Patricia Clarkson and Aidan Gillen (as WCKD scientists)—are more than up to the task of injecting a little gravitas.
Still, while I appreciate many of the details of the Maze Runner universe, I cannot really recommend The Death Cure to anyone not already heavily invested in this series (a dwindling number, if box-office returns are to be believed). Ball, a visual-effects artist who helmed the first Maze Runner, remains a smart action director who will certainly get a well-deserved crack at a comic-book movie sometime in the future.
But so much of The Death Cure’s plot is invested in tying up loose narrative ends (who pairs up with whom, etc.) rather than digging into the deeper implications of WCKD’s fight against the Flare. Some of The Death Cure’s set pieces—including a subterranean chase scene with a group of zombies and an extended heist that takes place on a moving train—stand out amid the chaos. And yet as the final act succumbed to dull, apocalyptic formula, I saw an entire sub-genre slip away with it: The Death Cure is a grim, half-hearted farewell to this wave of young-adult dystopias.