Why would an organization committed to the survival of humanity call themselves W.C.K.D.? It’s almost as if author James Dashner, in all his subtlety, said “Well, readers need to know the good guys from the bad guys, so I found a synonym for ‘evil’ and used it to name the antagonistic organization at the center of my plot.”
It’s this type of ham-fisted story construction that made The Maze Runner books such chores to read and, up until now, the films weren’t much different. The first outing, while superior to its sequel, felt like another watery YA adventure with nothing worthwhile to say. The final film in the franchise, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, doesn’t necessarily change this as much as it just does the same thing with more inspiration and more deftness.
Director Wes Ball has perfected the art of disguising mediocrity as well-made movies bolstered by strong casts but hindered by an even stronger grasp on ways to dissuade general audiences from ever seeing a YA adaptation again. This threequel is a tiring film that tests viewers in ways it certainly didn’t intend; because of this, it likely won’t stick with even the most ardent fans and it absolutely won’t do much for casual audiences, either.
All snark aside, The Maze Runner builds from a brilliant concept. In a post-apocalyptic society, hapless children are thrown into a high-walled maze by an organization bent on finding a cure for the disease that wiped out humanity. It forgoes the preachiness of a cautionary tale and instead delves into the cruelty and desperation humanity would resort to if on the brink of extinction.
Dashner’s imagination is one plagued by questions, questions he asks but never truly explores. These same questions are raised in the films before being lost amidst a barrage of bullets, and by the time series capper circles back to these mysteries, it’s far too late. At this point, the franchise perseverates less on mystery and more on what it can do to become a big, fun, memorable war story. The result? A big, fun, mostly forgettable war story.
With The Death Cure, Ball brings to the franchise a passion that many YA adaptations criminally lack. His interest in the source material has never been in question. Rather, it’s Dashner’s foundation that crumbles, not Ball’s direction. The guy makes great-looking movies, making it easy to get caught up in the beauty of his visuals and forget that what we’re getting is bangs and bombast packaged as something meaningful and important. It’s not manipulative. It’s misguided.
There’s no room for Ball to play; the story is hyper-focused on the characters and their quest and invests little to no time or interest in what studio executives probably deemed impertinent context. It’s clear that the director wants to jump in that sandbox and play until his hands bleed and his eyes are sunken craters in his head, but the studio won’t let him. His restraint becomes clearer as the movie progresses, and it’s a damn shame.
This won’t be a popular argument, but The Maze Runner films present the property better than the books. Lead Dylan O’Brien and his motley supporting cast transcend the cut-outs that their characters are based upon, distancing the films from their weaker, more hollow source material. Their inspired takes on Thomas and company help elevate a story that inherently lacks the DNA shared by all great dystopian novels.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure remains caught between two very different, even conflicting, approaches to its genre. Waffling between thoughtful dystopian fare and action-packed romp, the film never commits to one or the other, which is strange considering its entire message revolves around the power of decision. This series capper won’t change the game for future YA adaptations, but that doesn’t mean the film is without merit. There are moments of genuine surprise and suspense here, particularly in its bullet-riddled latter half.
Still, The Death Cure convolutes rather than conveys, muddying its story with twists and turns that feel both unnecessary and unwanted. Luckily, the franchise spent two movies slogging through expositional slush so that the path could be cleared for payoffs. Now, the series can wrap up in explosive fashion, without the filler and fumbling that characterized the first two installments. Absence of fluff aside, though, the film still plods, it still stumbles and it still fails. Even O’Brien, a surprisingly capable lead, can’t save The Death Cure from the tropes and traps that plague the genre. It’s a mighty effort on his part, and he (and Ball) are fortunate to have a solid enough cast to help push the story towards its conclusion, but it’s not enough.
As a trilogy capper, Maze Runner: The Death Cure is both tonally and thematically symmetrical to its predecessors, giving the series a sense of cohesion that few expected. As a film, however, it’s lacking, and it’s best if the studio leaves this franchise alone going forward.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure convolutes rather than conveys, muddying its story with twists and turns that feel both unnecessary and unwanted.