The third and final film in a massive scifi saga hits theaters this weekend. Odds are, you don’t care. But... maybe you should?
I get it. It’s fine. If not for the headline, you might not even be sure what franchise I’m referring to. But, yes, The Maze Runner: The Death Cure is out this weekend, the third film in Wes Ball’s trilogy adapting James Dashner’s dystopian YA series. It’s a series you may have forgotten about—especially since the second film, The Scorch Trials, came out way back in 2015. But I don’t think you should dismiss these movies so easily. The scifi franchise is filled with the sort of stuff we all love, and, though I can’t speak to the quality of the third film just yet (the review is coming tomorrow), here are some reasons why I think you should invest some time checking out The Maze Runner series.
Quick note: This is just about the movies, not the books. I’m going to spoil some stuff from the first two movies, though—but I’ll give you fair warning. I want you to watch them, after all.
The whole Maze Runner saga begins with a boy named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) locked in an elevator being lifted into a giant, walled-in outdoor space called the Glade. There, it’s revealed that every month for the past several years, one boy has been deposited the same way. At first they don’t remember their names, and none of them remember their pasts, but over time they’ve learned to co-exist in this strange place.
The Glade is surrounded by a maze, which changes every single night. The boys assume the maze is the only way out, so they task the fastest, strongest boys to be runners. These runners wake up every day and just run the maze, mapping it, and getting back before dark when the doors close. The hope is once a full map of the maze is made, an exit will be found.
Who is sending the boys to this place? What’s the purpose of them being there? What is the purpose of the maze? Why does it change? And is does it actually provide a way out? It’s such a simple but utterly intriguing set-up that it’s easy to become obsessed with finding the answers, much like the boys do. The mysteries and cool conceits continue to layer upon each other throughout the series.
So why do the runners come home every night, instead of spending all their time trying to escape the maze? Because it’s populated with gross, deadly creatures, of course. They’re called Grievers and they basically look like Superman foe Doomsday if he was also a mechanical spider. These things are gruesome, and they love to eat humans.
Things change however when the intrepid Thomas breaks the Glade’s rules and goes into the maze to save a friend. He ends up trapped with a runner named Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and becomes the first person to survive a night in the maze and to kill a Griever.
When Thomas kills it, he discovers it’s been implanted with some kind of tracking device, with a number “7" on it. Minho then reveals to him that the runners have already completed a map of the maze, but never found an exit, so they never told the rest of the boys. But the edges of the maze do have large numbers on the walls, so they take the tracking device into the “7" area, hoping it will unlock something—maybe even the exit.
The mystery deepens. Who created the Grievers? What is the purpose of them? What lies beyond the walls of the maze? What the hell is going on?
Thomas is the main character, but obviously, he’s not the only one trying to escape the Glade or the maze. There’s a whole society of boys who have been living for years in the Glade, doing chores, letting off steam, making weapons—basically, it’s more civilized Lord of the Flies. And they all play a part. Each Glader plays a part in the civilization, which adds an interesting layer to the film. Chuck (Blake Cooper) is an especially interesting character, a kind of younger brother figure to Thomas, while Gally (Will Poulter) becomes an adversary that isn’t wrong in his reasoning.
The battles between Gally and Thomas almost become political. Thomas wants to break the rules and explore, hoping to solve the ultimate problem. Gally wants to remain imprisoned but safe, hoping a solution reveals itself naturally. Their conflict supplies rising tension throughout the film and ultimately results in one of its biggest, most surprising, showdowns.
Note: Here’s where we spoil the ending of the first movie, by the way.
Thomas and several Gladers use the Griever device to escape the maze and ultimately get some answers—and first off, that the maze was just a test. Years ago, the Earth was scorched by the sun, killing almost everyone. Those that survived were infected with a new disease called the Flare. However, the younger generation was immune to the Flare. They were then put into these mazes to test them and see who was able to help save the world.
So the big reveal is that The Maze Runner is set in a post-apocalyptic world and these kids are the solution... although how the experience of the maze makes these kids helpful remains unknown, or why the maze was a necessary creation to separate some children from others. Why couldn’t just any kid who is immune be used? Presumably, whatever mental capacity it takes to escape the maze is actually a hint that the kid in question has the cure in him, but it’s left tantalizingly unexplained. Still, even if it doesn’t exactly line up, the discovery of the real setting is a fun reveal.
Speaking of the Flare, it’s a disease that turns people into ultra-fast killer zombies. They’re not called “zombies,” but, hey, what do you call someone who is infected by a disease that makes them a mindless killer and, if they bite you, turns you into one of those killers? These monsters don’t play a huge role in the first film, but their threat increases greatly in the second, because they’re always out there.
At the end of the first film, Thomas and his friends learn about a company called W.C.K.D, which stands for the “World Catastrophe Killzone Department.” It’s the company that created the maze and put the kids into it, hoping to somehow end up with a cure for the Flare. Right before the second film, The Scorch Trials, it’s revealed that Thomas worked for W.C.K.D (they’re just called “Wicked,” naturally) before being put into the maze. It’s suggested that he betrayed the company, believing them to be evil. (Perhaps their company name tipped him off.)
W.C.K.D. is run by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) who pretends to have been murdered at the end of the first film. Later, we find out that was just a ruse to gain the escapees’ trust. She’s back and she wants their blood—literally.
All the ins and outs of the world are a tad complicated. But, as the movies go along, the idea of this company being evil but also trying to save the world by any means necessary, and the people resisting them, continue to show that the first movie’s maze was just one small part of a very big, very messed-up story. Because there wasn’t just one maze—there were many.
Note: And now here’s where we spoil the second movie.
It’s time to mention Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario. Teresa first appears in The Maze Runner as the first and only female to be deposited in the Glade. For most of that movie, she’s merely Thomas’ love interest. When the group is captured by W.C.K.D in the second movie, Thomas is still smitten enough to make sure to break her out before they all escape again.
This is where Theresa starts to come into her own as an actual character, at least a bit. Like Thomas, Teresa worked for W.C.K.D. before going into the maze, and the two used to be friends, even if they can’t remember why. By the middle of The Scorch Trials, though, Teresa is given her memory back and she ends up selling out her friends to W.C.K.D., who destroy the resistance fighters Thomas and his friend have joined up with. Sure, the whole thing is fairly well telegraphed, but it’s a shocking moment for Thomas, and it’s always compelling when one of the heroes of the story becomes a villain. And it’s an especially strong hook for the third film.
Let’s be clear: For the first movie and a half, there aren’t really any strong female characters, despite the eventual revelation in The Scorch Trials that there were mazes for women, too (which is why the first movie starred almost exclusive male characters). Even Teresa, despite her big twist, isn’t truly essential to the narrative of either movie. Thankfully, this starts to change by the middle of The Scorch Trials, largely in part to a bunch of new characters.
No, you normally wouldn’t be like “Let’s see the new movie starring the kid from Teen Wolf and girl from Pirates 5.” But in addition to O’Brien and Scodelario, the Maze Runner series is filled with awesome supporting characters and recognizable actors.
We’ve already mentioned Will Poulter and Patricia Clarkson, but the first film also stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who you know as Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones. In the second film, things get even bigger with Nathalie Emmanuel (of Game of Thrones and Fast and Furious), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones and The Wire), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan), Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel), and Lili Taylor (The Conjuring). There’s even a brief cameo by Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Rogue One). Together, they give the world a much richer texture.
Look, The Maze Runner isn’t a transcendent franchise. It has some problems and is certainly derivative. But it also happens to be derivative of some of the most enjoyable genre tropes out there, and the blend makes it both intriguing and entertaining. It’s a series that mixes a post-apocalyptic future with zombies, deadly diseases, and cool technology, as well as elements straight out of fantasy, like the maze itself. The cast is charismatic and fun to watch, too.
If you’re still skeptical, I promise there are many, many worse ways to spend your weekend than by sitting down with The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials, then heading to the theater to watch The Death Cure. And if you do give them a chance, I feel confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how fun and enjoyable they are.