MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE. Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Nathalie Emmanuel, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Walton Goggins, Ki Hong Lee, Jacob Lofland, Katherine McNamara, Barry Pepper, Will Poulter, Rosa Salazar, Patricia Clarkson. Directed by Wes Ball. 142 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction themes and violence).
The ‘Maze Runner’ films have always been a strange proposition. The first film, ‘The Maze Runner’, had a terrifically straightforward premise that was blown apart by its curious ending; a teen, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), awoke in a glade populated by other young men and surrounded by an enormous maze, filled with unspeakable horrors. Each day, the self-appointed Gladers would explore the maze, trying to find an escape or unlock the secrets of their imprisonment; after the first girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), is delivered into their ranks, the maze began the change. The big reveal – that they were youths immune to the ‘flare virus’ responsible for decimating humanity, sent into the maze as part of an experimental trial to produce a cure – made much of its plot a thrilling albeit inconsequential set-up. Its sequel, ‘The Scorch Trials’, saw the now-escaped Gladers taking the fight to WCKD, the shadowy organisation led by Ava (Patricia Clarkson) and Janson (Aiden Gillen) that was responsible for their ordeal, and linking up with a Resistance led by Vince (Barry Pepper). This film introduced Cranks, the flare virus’ victims-cum-decaying-zombies, plus also hinted that the Gladers were key in curing the disease when a transfusion of Thomas’ blood halted its progress in his infected friend/love interest Brenda (Rosa Salazar).
The primary thrust of ‘The Death Cure’ is that Thomas wants to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee), his friend and former Glader snatched by WCKD at the end of the second film. The Resistance’s first attempt to recover Minho fails, and he is evacuated to the final stronghold of WCKD’s operations, a walled stronghold aptly labelled the Last City. There, WCKD uses frightening simulations to extract an antiviral serum from their captive charges – kind of like ‘Monsters, Inc.’ use of children’s screams to power their cities but with less whimsy. With surviving Gladers Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), Thomas launches a mission to infiltrate the City, drawing on the support of friends new (Walt Goggin’s mysterious leader Lawrence) and old (Will Poulter’s previously thought-dead Gally).
Plotting aside, one of the most unusual aspects of the trilogy is that it has maintained its creative core throughout, with director Wes Ball, writer T.S. Nowlin, and their main cast staying on through all three films. It seems that creative teams are often hot-swapped in and out of franchises today, fuelled by either the dreaded catchphrase, ‘creative differences’, or better job offers. Taken, then, as a genuine triptych of one director’s vision, ‘Maze Runner’ takes its bleak view of humanity all the way to a suitable conclusion. Adapted from James Dashner’s young-adult novels (Dashner later expanded his trilogy with a couple of prequels), the trilogy started as a refreshing break from the dense world building of other YA films, but quickly turned its attention to dystopian tropes and developing its own dense nomenclature. For this critic, the progression was a backwards slide; admittedly, this finale is roughly on par with the second film, however neither could recapture the energy and intriguing plotting of the first.
When watching ‘The Death Cure’, the bleakness of the trilogy really stands out. Thomas and Co. really don’t catch much of a break. This is not totally unique (indeed, it’s tough to smile when so many additions to the YA genre are set in dystopias), but it highlights how skilfully many blockbusters today manage to juggle their tonal palettes, moving rapidly between epic emotions and laughs. There is a place for grim entertainment (the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy was relatively dour, although their preferred term was “gritty”), but even these need a little humour from time to time.
The action set pieces are one of two sorts – impeccably choreographed, high octane stunts that play like deleted scenes from the last four ‘Fast and Furious’ films, or chaotic and repetitive battles that comprise running and shooting, running and shooting (I imagine the calling it the ‘Maze Runner and Shooter’ trilogy would have been a harder sell). Two sequences fit into the former category, including the opening. This is shot with crystal clear clarity of geography and action, and one almost feels the hours upon hours of careful storyboarding that went into crafting each shot. It’s thrilling and intense, qualities not recaptured by the film until well into its final act (and with the film running almost two-and-a-half hours, this wait feels even more languorous). The run-n-shoot mode is almost the complete opposite, relying on shaky camerawork and choppy editing, perhaps to convince the audience that only one main character sustaining a bullet wound despite the lead storm raging about them is feasible.
The young cast is still mostly solid. O’Brien proves his ability to shoulder drama and action, and Brodie-Sangster remains supremely likable. However, every teen franchise has always bolstered its younger members with a stable of veterans – think the who’s who of British thesps taking supporting roles in ‘Harry Potter’, or Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Harrelson chewing the scenery in ‘The Hunger Games’ – and ‘Maze Runner’ is no different. It’s always nice to see “serious” actors, namely Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper and Aidan Gillen, cut loose a little, whether it be playing through face-deforming effects (Goggins), get in on the action scenes (Esposito, Pepper and Gillen), or even spout absurd dystopian exposition (Clarkson).
‘The Death Cure’ wraps up the ‘Maze Runner’ universe reasonably neatly. It’s a passable exercise in entertainment, although its quality swings wildly throughout its runtime. Should satisfy fans of the first two films, though newcomers will likely be both bamboozled and disappointed.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 18.
20th Century Fox.