Maze Runner: The Death Cure doesn’t necessarily aim for the heights of its first entry, an enjoyable mystery adventure that might’ve been better off self-contained. But at least this underdog franchise is trying to have a little fun on its way out.
By late 2014, all signs pointed to a winding down of the young adult book movie adaptation craze heralded by the long-running Harry Potter franchise, reformed culturally a la Twilight, and financially peaked by The Hunger Games. There weren’t a lot of avid filmgoers that excited about the prospects of The Maze Runner, based on a well-liked trilogy of YA books by James Dashner.
The first film managed to defy expectations and turned out pretty good by the genre’s standards, to the point where many still recommend it, today. After the abysmal failure of the Divergent series (which failed to even complete itself after, ahem, diverging its final two films into the dreaded two-part system), and a slew of other lackluster entries capped off with an impossibly ho-hum finisher for the once-daunting Hunger Games franchise, it became increasingly less clear whether or not The Maze Runner would ever finish its own run.
It didn’t help that its sequel, The Scorch Trials, came out less than a year later in 2015, made with about double the budget, but not quite as much box office as the first film. And after getting seriously injured on set just three days into filming the third entry, leading man Dylan O’Brien (the main reason these movies have been decent so far) found himself unable to finish the last film in time for a 2016 release.
So here we welcome The Death Cure in January of 2018, four years after it was already feeling a bit too late for this genre of films and in a month typically used by studios as a dumping ground for mediocre movies. It’s no wonder most folks are walking into The Death Cure expecting the worse, and they’re unfortunately justified.
Set just a few months after the events of The Scorch Trials you’ve likely forgotten all about, our hero Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien) has set off on a new mission with his friends to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee), one of the original “Gladers” captured by WCKD, a paint-by-numbers government-corporation mashup bent on curing a worldwide virus by capturing immune kids and exploiting their minds and bodies. Along the way, Thomas wrestles with his conflicted feelings for Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), who betrayed the Gladers in the last film and now works for the heads of WCKD, played by Patricia Clarkson and Aidan Gillen.
The first film was a puzzle by design, albeit a simple one. The central mystery of the maze kept viewers hooked on finding out more about this strange, new world filled with fresh, likable faces. The second film was a survival action film trying to be Mad Max, a cinematic chase scene extended for a bit too long, but with some nice surprises in the form of Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), still two of the more interesting characters occupying space in this franchise. Another strong addition includes Walter Goggins in a memorable role with enough Fallout vibes to take you out of the movie for the right reasons.
The Death Cure is decidedly a heist film mixed with horror and light sci-fi (diet-Bioshock, if you will). And to the film’s credit, it’s far more complete than expected, with enough cohesive storytelling to keep viewers who still care grounded in workmanlike effects and watchable action scenes. It’s certainly a big improvement from The Scorch Trials, for whatever that’s worth.
A few frames even pop and catch the eye, harkening to returning director Wes Ball’s distinctive point of view, which unfortunately feels all over the place by the end credits. Too much of Death Cure feels like a rip of too many other movies and genres, rather than becoming its own thing, and the sad part is that it truly goes for some big, impactful moments that never quite hit home.
If not for its late release, the mix of plot contrivances, hit-or-miss dialogue, underdeveloped character arcs (seriously, Rosa Salazar is robbed in this film), and a running time about 30 minutes past its welcome, The Death Cure would have been an easy recommend for anyone who mostly enjoyed the first two films. But at this point, only a handful of hardcore fans will have good reason to run back into the maze for thirds.