by Philip Price
As it goes with these adaptations of popular dystopian YA franchises it is best to know from which perspective a review is coming and how passionate the (re)viewer is about the source material they have just witnessed adapted for the big screen. Warning: I have not read James Dashner's version of the "chosen one" narrative so, for me, ‘The Maze Runner’ series sits somewhere comfortably in between the gold standard that is ‘The Hunger Games’ and the deplorable ‘Divergent’ series that couldn't even muster enough fandom for Lionsgate to follow all the way through on it (I guess the first one was fine). ‘Maze Runner’ is nestled comfortably in between these two opposite ends of the spectrum though, because it is more or less a different take on the exact same story ‘Divergent’ tried to pull, but done so in a much more enthusiastic manner (which is saying something as these ‘Maze’ sequels have lacked the energy of that initial flick) as well as being much less convoluted with the main detractor being they have failed to create anywhere near the emotional investment on the part of the audience in these characters; sorry, Tommy, Teresa, and Brenda, but you are no Katniss, Peeta and Gale. That said-there are A LOT of characters in these movies as tends to be the case in each of the examples cited thus far and by virtue of this requirement there is ample opportunity for solid talent to enlist themselves as part of a guaranteed series of jobs and to that point it is nice to see the likes of Barry Pepper, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen and Walton Goggins in supporting roles where they are hamming it up the best each of them can even if at least three of them are playing the same type of ringleader role. To this end and to the end that I'm thankful 20th Century Fox decided against splitting this finale into two movies “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” is a well-made and well-executed action thriller that is comprised of the same sequence of events again and again until our gang of ragtag heroes reaches the last standing city and faces the bad guys down once and for all. That may be a bit harsh as there are shades of honor on both sides of the line that make things more complicated than one might expect from such a film and there is a clear theme of loyalty that screenwriter T.S. Nowlin and franchise director Wes Ball have never strayed from, but much like WCKD, the evil corporate enemy in these movies, ‘The Death Cure’ delays the inevitable conclusion we all know is coming due to our genre conditioning just a little too long.
‘The Death Cure’ picks up about six months or so after the events of the previous installment, ‘The Scorch Trials,’ where our fearless leader Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his friends that include Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar) as well as Pepper's Vince and Esposito's Jorge attempt to rescue a group of their friends from a train taking them to WCKD headquarters. That this train includes the likes of Minho (Ki Hong Lee) as well as Aris (Jacob Lofland) only motivates Thomas and friends even more. Not to mention, all involved from the original film are still reeling from the betrayal of Kaya Scodelario's Teresa as she's decided to go the way of WCKD and in the process exposed Thomas, their friends, and Vince's established community that took a nasty blow at the end of that previous film. You see, Thomas and his side of things are looking out for themselves and the ones around them that are immune from this sickness that has wiped out much of the planet while WCKD is searching to try and find a cure so that humanity no longer must deal with what has become known as the "The Flare" virus. Wait...who are we supposed to be rooting for here? Yeah, so neither side might have thought this thing out as well as they could have, but that they each genuinely believe they are doing the right thing makes the conflict at least somewhat engaging despite the fact Nowlin's script takes us from this high-stakes opening train sequence where our protagonists only accomplish part of what they desired to another series of action sequences where, in each one of them, a new character shows up at the last minute to *surprisingly* save their ass becomes obvious and predictable long before the two hour and twenty minute film even reaches its third act. ‘Scorch Trials’ traded in this same kind of repetitive storytelling, but the difference there was, as opposed to the limited scope of the first film, it dealt in a bigger and more wide-open canvas. And so, while the narrative was something of a journeyman-like story it was different enough from the first movie that it felt progressive if not actually moving the pendulum that much further. In ‘The Death Cure,’ it's as if Ball had maybe two to three actual sets with the remainder of the film either being shot on green screen or most of the frame being filled in with digital creations. Except for that opening train sequence none of this feels as if it were taking place in a tangible location and because of that the visual style that was so vibrant in the rich greens of the first film and so expansive in the tan-tinged look of the second is rendered flat and uninspired by the dingy darkness where much of this third film takes place.
It is somewhat disappointing that a series that began with so much promise would only, ultimately devolve into everything that it seemed it was trying to avoid in the beginning. ‘The Maze Runner’ deviated from the formula of the female lead surviving a failing dystopian societal structure and was instead little more than a stripped down, human survival story with plenty of mystery surrounding the circumstances to keep audiences intrigued. Thomas was the lead protagonist, sure, but there were a whole host of characters to allow our surrogate to slowly pull back the layers of whatever secrets might be hiding within the walls of the titular maze. This was that initial film's single greatest strength in that, while it had all the seeming components of the YA fad, it didn't force those components to adhere to any story beats. With the reveal at the end of the first film and the evolving big picture that included the zombie-like "Cranks" brought to us courtesy of ‘Scorch Trials’ it became more evident that ‘Death Cure’ would simply follow through on which side would eventually out-muscle the other and prevail in their method of ensuring humanity's survival. And for 143-minutes that is exactly what this movie does. It works its ass off to convince us that Clarkson's Ava Page is in fact the evil one in this scenario when there is a scene in a boardroom that features Page and Teresa arguing with a group of financiers stating their method is for the better as the idea of building bigger walls to protect themselves (which they've also tried) is only delaying the inevitable. In that instance, we are convinced that WCKD may in fact be the way to go even if their methods aren't exactly friendly to those immune to the virus. I mean, draining healthy kids of their blood to find a cure is arguably sacrificing a few for the greater good, but it is in this execution of their ideals where WCKD gets into trouble. Page is aware of this, but still sincere in her want to help people whereas Gillen's Janson is simply brought in to be a more sinister face of WCKD that allows the screenplay to justify Thomas's gang to act out in the way they see fit-which is, "leave our friends alone and let us go be healthy on an island alone." Again, I haven't read Dashner's series of novels and so these narrative shortcomings could very well come from the source material, but these are things that should have been ironed out in the adaptation process or even beefed up to make the moral conflict more relevant. Instead, ‘The Death Cure’ feels mostly like it's going through the motions with its blatant competency. No matter the fact almost everything about it screams ambition, what it wants to be and the actual product itself feel worlds apart. The drawback is that while it is indeed capable and can make a suitable enough film for fans of the novel (I assume), this isn't anything that reinvents the YA wheel, but more feels like the final nail in the coffin of a brand that has long since expired.