If The Maze Runner: The Death Cure was a standalone movie, devoid of mythology and history, it would be pretty damn good. The set pieces are epic, the performances emotional, and the triumphs exciting. In a way, it feels like a post-apocalyptic spin on Ocean’s 11. However, The Death Cure isn’t just that. It’s the final film in an established trilogy, and on that level, it doesn’t perform nearly as well.
The film picks up a few months after the end of the second film, The Scorch Trials, with our heroes, led by Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), attempting to break their kidnapped friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) out of a moving train. The rescue necessitates several people pulling off very specific roles with absolute precision. It’s an awesome scene, almost straight out of Fast Five, featuring dune buggies, planes, daring leaps, and lots of bullets. Director Wes Ball uses it to set the tone for what’s to come: A lot of big, boisterous set pieces with nods to Speed, Ocean’s 13, Mad Max, Jurassic Park and more.
At the same time, the evil corporation known as WCKD, a.k.a. “Wicked,” is still attempting to find a cure for the Flare disease, which has wiped out much of the world. Kids like Thomas and Minho are the key to this, so after the train heist, the next target for the group is the last city in the world, home of WCKD’s headquarters.
And so The Death Cure becomes about breaking into that city. Then breaking into the WCKD building. Then breaking out of that building. It’s all entertaining on a straight action-movie level. But that’s not the movie we paid to see. We paid to see a Maze Runner movie, not Die Hard 9 or Ocean’s 15. Almost everything that made The Maze Runner franchise distinct and noteworthy is left on the fringes. The idea of the cure, the Flare, the mazes—all of that is mentioned occasionally, but never fully explored.
The main characters in The Death Cure are completely over all these mysteries, even if we, the audience, are not. They’re interested in two things: Their own self-preservation and saving Minho. On one hand, those goals give the film personal stakes, which are easy to key into.
But the characters and the audience are left at an impasse. We want answers, but the characters want something else. The most we get is a semi-big revelation at the end of the film that should be shocking but actually undercuts everything that came before. If moments like that were better balanced with the huge set-pieces, maybe things would’ve gelled together nicely. Instead, the film leaves you scratching your head, maybe satisfied on an action movie level, but not as a fan.
When compared to those other action films, though, The Death Cure certainly holds its own. It’s by far the most impressive entry in the Maze Runner franchise in terms of filmmaking. It looks great. The stunts are incredible. And again, the emotions drawn out of the actors eclipse the previous two films. That’s probably because director Wes Ball, who made his directorial debut with the first film and has only made Maze Runner features in his career so far, just gets better. If The Death Cure has any lasting legacy, it’s as a calling card for Ball to do other things in the future, and spread his wings beyond a franchise that ultimately never lived up to its potential.
Go into The Death Cure blissfully ignorant of the mythology of The Maze Runner, and there’s a good change you’ll enjoy it. But, as a fan of the franchise, I was disappointed. Yesterday, I recommended that people give the franchise a chance, but honestly, now I’m not so sure. The first two films are still great and have their merits, but I didn’t expect The Death Cure to make the trilogy less than the sum of its parts. I am sure, however, the franchise deserved better—as did its fans.
The Maze Runner: The Death Cure is now in theaters.