The “Maze Runner” films have always been some of the most resoundingly average entries to come out of the young adult boom of the late 2000s, neither as good as the first two “Hunger Games” movies or as bad as the last two “Hunger Games” movies. The characters are nothing special and there’s not really anything to the performances despite the obvious talent of the cast in other projects, but the action is generally thrilling and there’s a sense of a scale that’s missing from other films of this sort. The movies overall just fall into the middle ground of the genre as a result: mostly forgettable but semi-enjoyable in the moment.
On the surface, “The Death Cure” — which finds Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, “American Assassin”) and co. traveling to the last city on Earth to rescue their captured friends from evil organization WCKD — is no different in those regards. It’s underneath that veneer that something different begins to show. It struck me as I was walking out of the theater: “The Death Cure” represents the end of an era. The “Maze Runner” series, despite its middling quality, is the last major young adult franchise from the boom that gave us “The Hunger Games,” “The Divergent Series,” “The Twilight Saga” and even the “Harry Potter” films. It’s almost an ill-advised eulogy in that it represents many of the tropes and storytelling techniques that those familiar with the genre have come to know like the back of their hand.
The script manages to skip the outright lying to the audience that bogged down the second chapter in the trilogy, “The Scorch Trials” — a film that tried so hard to escape its genre that it wound up epitomizing many of its worst aspects — but there’s still a depressing dearth of character development. Thomas, like most YA protagonists, is the most bland part of the movies he’s ostensibly the star of, with no traits besides “the good guy” and “handsome” to make him in any way memorable. Without good writing to form the basis, “The Death Cure” spends most of its runtime manufacturing plot contrivances to shuffle its characters around between set pieces, as they’re not three-dimensional enough to make decisions that would affect the story in interesting ways.
However, actively fighting to help his movie rise above its script is director Wes Ball, who made his feature film debut with the original film and has almost singlehandedly made the series watchable. If there’s one thing to take away from “The Death Cure,” it’s that someone needs to give Ball a script worthy of his talents. The story he works with here may be total nonsense, but the action scenes he weaves in are some of the best the genre has ever seen. From the opening sequence, a thrilling train heist straight out of a “Mad Max”/“Fast and Furious” crossover, Ball handles the scope of the action with seeming ease, and by the nigh-apocalyptic climax that recalls a far more interesting version of “Mockingjay – Part 2,” viewers may find it easy to simply let go and appreciate the insane scope of what he’s crafted.
He isn’t always successful, as “The Death Cure” still eventually succumbs to the bloated exposition and poor pacing that have defined much of his series. This final installment clocks in at almost two and a half hours long, which would be hard to sit through even if it was seemingly intentionally extended. Again, this has more to do with the script and the demands of the genre than anything else. By the time we’ve fallen back into the well-worn plot of another resistance group (of course) helping our heroes take the down the big bad corporation (of course) who has secretly been monitoring their entire lives (of course) for the greater good (of course) because they’re special (of course), there’s not much anyone could have done to save it. Whether its looked at as the finale of its series or the de facto endgame of its genre, “The Death Cure” can’t outrun its own formulaic writing.