The Maze Runner was a surprisingly solid YA action-adventure movie that made the most of its unique setting and endearing characters. But as Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials showed, outside of the maze, the series lost a clear direction, instead becoming a hodgepodge of disaster movies and dystopian tropes without ever really serving the characters. The trilogy’s conclusion, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, rights the ship somewhat by putting a heavy emphasis on the character relationships, but never quite manages to tap into a strong personality. Rather than leaving a mark on the YA genre, The Death Cure shows the Maze Runner franchise to be nothing more than an also-ran.
Picking up six months after The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure kicks off with a train heist where Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Brenda (Rosa Salazar), Vince (Barry Pepper) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) try to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from WCKD. However, they make a discovery that forces them to try and break into the fabled “Last City”, which is also where Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who betrayed the group in The Scorch Trials, is currently working with Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and the nefarious Janson (Aidan Gillen) to find a cure to the virus that turns people into rage zombies.
Where the Maze Runner movies really shine is on the camaraderie between the characters. You really believe that Thomas, Newt, Frypan, and Minho are friends who would risk everything to save each other, and so when the movie keeps the focus on that bond, it works wonderfully and makes you wish the rest of the story pulled back on the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, nonsense abounds as we have rebel leader with shifting motives (the always welcome Walton Goggins wasted in a role that doesn’t make full use of his talents), Janson being nothing more than Littlefinger with a gun, and a non-existent “romance” between Thomas and Teresa that doesn’t benefit either character.
When you look at Teresa’s storyline, you get a far more interesting movie where the story is willing to take some chances. The brotherhood stuff between the former Gladers is good, but there’s no chance to upset the status quo. Teresa, meanwhile, is in an interesting moral conundrum where she’s willing to look at the bigger picture and realizes that WCKD, despite their authoritarian means, are working to preserve the future of mankind. While I like the brotherhood stuff, Teresa would ultimately be a stronger protagonist than Thomas who never has to question his actions or his place in the world.
Because Thomas is so bland (it’s weird to look at other YA movies that really challenge the emotional endurance of their protagonists and Thomas just runs around and shoots guns), he can’t really carry the whole story, so The Death Cure, despite its stronger aspects, devolves into explosions, getaways, and gunfights. Director Wes Ball uses the geography of the Last City to provide a neat kind of dystopian claustrophobia, and he does well at the heist aspects of his narrative, but the script can’t do much with characters who keep running in circles and motivations that seem to change at the drop of a hat.
The lack of tight plotting and a sprawling narrative that rarely challenges expectations leaves The Death Cure as a bloated, meandering mess that shows why the YA genre, at least in terms of dystopian futures, has died off. It doesn’t move the ball forward in a significant way, it doesn’t consistently play to its strengths, and even relies on tired plot points like a character who has special blood. Rather than carving out a space in the YA genre to call its own, The Death Cure showed that the Maze Runner series peaked in its first installment, and could never find its way to the finish line.