The Maze Runner: The Death Cure is a movie coming out a good few years behind the Young Adult dystopia trend. This makes sense. It’s the straggling third film in a franchise, an installment that suffered delays following the serious injury of star Dylan O’Brien during filming. If The Death Cure had been released when it was originally slated, back in February 2017, it would have felt dated, contrived, and derivative. It still does, but only a year later, it’s far enough behind the trend that you almost feel sorry for it.
Watching The Death Cure brings out a nostalgic feeling for an era decidedly past, rather than simply an irritation at the formulas of the young adult dystopia. It’s not good, but its earnest in its engagement with its source material, giving the franchise’s fans a satisfying conclusion to the series and non-fans (if any of them see this) almost two and a half hours of action-packed, wistful YA nonsense. We’re probably never going to get that final Divergent installment; we might as well enjoy this last, gasping breath of the Young Adult dystopia genre. As far as franchise-ending installments go, it’s one of the better ones.
The Death Cure picks up shortly after the events of The Scorch Trials. Thomas (O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Frypan (Dexter Darden) have survived with The Right Arm, a group actively resisting WCKD and its desperate search for a cure to the Flare virus, a pestilence that has wiped out most of humanity. In an effort to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from WCKD’s clutches, Thomas and friends hatch a plan to break into the Last City, humanity’s final bastion against the Cranks, those who have been zombified by the Flare virus.
The task won’t be easy. Not only is the Last City surrounded by a massive wall, but WCKD’s CEO Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and chief security officer Janson (Aidan Gillen) are actively looking for Thomas. On the emotionally challenged side, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is one of the scientists conducting the experiments on Minho, and Thomas has not yet worked through his issues surrounding her betrayal.
It’s characters like Teresa who point towards The Death Cure‘s wasted thematic potential. Teresa’s decision to betray her Glader friends in service of finding a cure is treated as an unforgivable crime both by the remaining Gladers and the movie itself. The Death Cure puts a lot of effort into making Thomas seem like the unshakeable hero, a protagonist whom we should unreservedly throw our support behind. However, he is ultimately a narrow-minded character. Thomas wants to save his friends; Teresa wants to save humanity.
The Death Cure is much more interested in giving us non-stop action scenes—including not one, but two airlift escape set-pieces—than exploring complex moral dilemmas (not that these two things are mutually exclusive). The movie delivers on that action front, from the train shootout in the film’s opening minutes to a zombie chase sequence to plenty of hand-to-hand combat. (Though watching Aidan Gillen beat up an actor we’ve been trained to think of as a teen is a tough sell.)
If you spend any time whatsoever thinking about the logistics, motivations, or world-building of The Death Cure, it all starts to fall apart. This franchise has still not convincingly explained why WCKD needed to allocate its resources into putting a bunch of kids in a rather expensive looking maze in order to cure a virus. It’s also unclear why both The First Arm and WCKD are almost exclusively populated by teens and young adults, giving the impression that the interns are running everything. This is the Millennial dream, as imagined by a non-Millennial.
It’s also unclear why The First Arm would choose to follow Thomas, to the detriment of their larger cause. At one point, resistance fighters Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) have an open discussion wondering why they are helping these “strangers” they just met. They probably shouldn’t have had the chat—they’re not allowed to say “because he’s this movie’s protagonist,” which is the true reason.
That being said, The Death Cure mostly avoids lingering on any of these questions, streamlining the plot from the much-weaker Scorch Trials into an explosive break-in movie and letting these young actors give it their all. The cast steps up, selling their teen angst and relationship drama even when you can’t quite remember who knows who from where and why some characters are so pissed at other characters. It doesn’t matter. When Dylan O’Brien tears up, you care.
The movie gets better as it goes along, hitting its stride once we are able to peer inside the walls of the Last City. The aerial shots of the gleaming city and the polished interior of WCKD headquarters serve as an ominous calm before the storm, and boy does director Wes Ball go all out in this film’s final act, which sees the Last City falling to pieces as Thomas fights to save his friends. It’s the kind of epic background showdown I would have liked to see in the final Hunger Games installment, as Katniss made her way through the falling Capitol.
The Death Cure probably won’t attract many new converts, but those who give this film a chance will be rewarded with a nonsensical yet surprisingly competent action film. Fans of the series have been given a concluding installment that takes its source material seriously, while emphasizing the aspects of this story that translate best to blockbuster film formula. The Death Cure won’t make you hungry for a resurgence in the YA dystopia genre, but it will make you appreciate it happened.