Part of the triumph of Maze Runner: The Death Cure is that it exists at all. The final installment in a YA dystopia franchise which launched four years ago in the wake of Hunger Games, Death Cure’s production and release was derailed a full year by a more-serious-than-we-were-led-to-believe injury to star Dylan O’Brien, putting into doubt whether the film would ever be finished, which would have been a fitting end to a dying genre. Similar wannabe Hunger Games franchises like Mortal Instruments and Divergent already morphed into TV shows or simply stopped without resolution. Others were DOA. Hollywood’s YA dystopia gold rush, the halcyon days of, um, literally just 6 years ago when studios bought up book rights like they were going out of business and aimed to have a new franchise installment ready every year, went away as quickly as it began.
Yet here’s Death Cure, three years removed from its predecessor, The Scorch Trials, putting the period at the end of the sentence and completing its story, that is if we even care anymore or remember the specifics.
So, what are these movies even about?
An evil corporation’s complicated plan to find a cure for a virus which has wiped out something like 90% of the world’s population by turning them into rage zombies, called “cranks.”
Wait. What? Rage zombies?
Eat your heart out, 28 Days Later. Death Cure, in particular, has two standout horror sequence featuring the zombies, one played for pure horror (the cinematic equivalent of yelling “Boo!”) and the other for dramatic horror (it aims to both scare you and break your heart).
And all the corporation wants to do is find a cure?
That doesn’t exactly sound like an evil goal.
It’s not so much their goal, more their methods that offend. Plus, the corporation is called WCKD. So, ya know, that’s not good.
Just go with it. WCKD rounds up the world’s only immune people (who just naturally happen to all be kids), strips them of their memories, and puts them through an intricate series of tests, the first of which involves a maze, hence the franchise’s main title. We put mice through mazes and weird trials as part of our medical research; these future scientists are doing the same thing on a much larger scale with a bunch of telegenic teens with marvelous skin.
By the end of the first film, the teens, led by O’Brien’s Thomas and Kaya Scodelario’s Teresa, escape the maze only to be sucked into yet another trap, which they quickly escape out of in the sequel before wandering the desolate Earth and falling in with a group of rebels.
So, this really just boils down to research ethics? End of the world or not, HIPAA rights still matter, dammit.
Kind of. It more boils down to rebels (called The Right Hand, primarily made up of teenagers) versus the corporation (primarily made up of adults) trying to tell them what to do and wall them off from vital resources. Scorch Trials and Death Cure pivot more specifically to the following question: when faced with the unfolding apocalypse, do you try everything you possibly can, regardless of morality, to prevent it, or do you simply focus on surviving it? Scorch Trials uses this ethical divide to drive a wedge between the characters, ending on a cliffhanger featuring Teresa betraying Thomas and all of her friends to WCKD in the belief that the larger goal of finding a cure should trump all.
Death Cure picks up several months later and opens with Thomas and the members of his crew – Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rose Salazar) – who evaded capture executing a train heist to rescue their friends. This also opens up the somewhat macabre game of watching Death Cure and trying to guess which scene sent O’Brien to the hospital for months of recovery. My best guess would be this heist sequence since it culminates with Thomas and his crew riding atop a delinked train car as it is airlifted by the Maze Runner equivalent of an Avengers quinjet. Normally, you’d simply look at it and marvel at the cool practical effect of it; here, you have a heightened awareness of just how dangerous it looks.
In fact, that has never been truer of a Maze Runner movie than it is here. Maybe it’s the inevitable result of being the final installment in the trilogy. Maybe it simply reflects the source material (James Dashner’s novels). Maybe it reflects a bigger investment on the part of the studio, 20th Century Fox (actually, the official Scorch Trials and Death Cure budgets are almost exactly the same). Whatever the reason, Death Cure is the biggest and most straight-up action movie of the bunch. The action doesn’t quite reach Mad Max: Fury Road, another post-apocalyptic movie, levels of persistence and B-movie craziness, but it’s still damn near non-stop, at least more so than usual for the franchise.
As a result, the narrative feels comparatively undercooked and reaches some rather stupid conclusions. Shit blows up real nice. A villain mustache twirls and lays out an evil plan entirely reliant on one of the hero’s continued survival only to then spend 10 minutes trying to kill that hero. Plus, the titular cure turns out to have been so obvious that it more or less negates the entire purpose of the Maze Runner trials to begin with.
Before we get to all of that, the plot plays out as one long rescue mission that then turns into an all-out war with our heroes caught behind enemy lines at WCKD headquarters. Spoiler, Thomas and pals do come into contact with Teresa, and they all treat her like some kind of monster when, in fact, her goals and methods are perhaps more sympathetic than theirs. She is at least afforded some inner-conflict, repeatedly voicing her regret but also belief in the larger cause. The rest of the characters are comparatively one-note, with even Thomas’ resolute heroism turning into a giant bore. To be fair, Newt eventually gets something interesting to do, but I won’t spoil what. The hinted Thomas-Teresa-Brenda love triangle of Scorch Trials remains surprisingly restrained here, the film wisely deciding the stakes are too high to get overly sidelined with romance.
That mostly leaves us with a lot of action scenes, running the gamut from cops chasing a bus full of children through a deserted city to a corporate heist that would make Ant-Man proud. We have seen far, far worse action movies released in January before. By comparison, Death Cure is a frequently thrilling, technically well-made adrenaline rush of a movie; it just also happens to lean a little more heavily toward the “stupid” part of the stupid-fun category.
THE BOTTOM LINE
EW described this as being “a B-movie with an A+ budget,” and that sounds about right. The inherent problem in that formula is how seriously Death Cure takes itself and how it ultimately lets down the two films that preceded it. But at least the Maze Runner got a proper finale full of edge-of-your-seat action and “oh, so that’s how this all played out” revelations. That’s more than we can say for some of the other also-rans in the post-Hunger Games era.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Kaya Scodelario is the true star of this movie. During the finale, she perfectly channels Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver in back-to-back action scenes which alternate between Terminator and Aliens.
- If you’ve never seen the first two Maze Runner movies or if it’s been a while these two YouTube videos will take up just 8 minutes of your time and leave you fully prepared for Death Cure: