Jan 15, 2020
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure is the third and final installment in the Maze Runner trilogy based on the young adult novels by John Dashner. The movie was delayed for a year after star Dylan O’Brien got seriously injured in a stunt gone wrong, but he fortunately made a full recovery and the film picks up right where the last one left off without missing a beat.
It’s apparent that an attempt was made by director Wes Ball (who also directed the previous two Maze Runner films… and nothing else) to step things up for the series’ final entry, with more grandiose stunts and flashier CGI effects and higher stakes. But despite greater aspirations, Death Cure fails to transcend the bland and generic post-apocalyptic YA formula that pervades this franchise. It’s an inoffensive and sometimes entertaining movie that will most likely vanish from your memory shortly after seeing it.
The first two films may have already escaped your memory, so here’s a quick refresher: In 2014’s The Maze Runner, Thomas (O’Brien) becomes the latest member of a group of boys to awake in a walled-in patch of wilderness called the Glade, surrounded by a large maze protected by mechanical creatures called Reavers. Every night the Maze Runners, led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee) venture out into the maze to search for a way out. None of the boys have any memory of why they were put here, until Thomas begins to have scattered recollections of working for an organization called WCKD which turns out to be responsible for their current predicament. This gets him bullied by a fellow Glader named Gally (Will Poulter) but other boys like Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) rise to his defense.
And then the first and only girl is delivered to the Glade in the form of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who has some sort of history with Thomas that neither can piece together. Eventually, Thomas and Teresa and the rest of the gang (minus Gally, who receives a spear through the chest courtesy of Minho) defeat the Reavers and solve the maze, only to encounter a recorded message from WCKD head honcho Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) informing them that things are about to get much worse, because the world outside is on the brink of collapse.
In 2015’s Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, we learn humanity has been devastated by a plague known as the Flare, which causes people to transform into mindless zombies known as Cranks. The Gladers all have a natural immunity to the Flare, and they were sent to the Glade to help create a cure… somehow.
And while the Gladers think they’ve escaped WCKD’s clutches, Thomas discovers that their new caretaker Janson (Aidan Gillen) is working for WCKD after all, and they’re only here to have their precious bodily fluids drained in an attempt to produce a cure for the Flare. The Gladers escape and seek out an anti-WCKD resistance group called the Right Arm, led by Vince (Barry Pepper), Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), and Jorge’s daughter Brenda (Rosa Salazar).
But as they’re hiding out in the Right Arm’s camp, Teresa betrays their location to WCKD, leading to a cliffhanger wherein Minho is captured, several of the Gladers and Right Arm-ians are killed, and Teresa willingly goes off with Ava.
And that brings us to The Death Cure, which opens with Thomas and the surviving resistance members attempting to rescue Minho and a train full of kids destined to be slaughtered by WCKD. This is accomplished via lifting up an entire train car by helicopter and carrying it to their secret encampment.
But Minho has disappeared somewhere along the way, and we learn he’s been taken to a WCKD facility where Janson subjects him to hallucinations of being back inside the Glade and chased by Reavers. In some way, this causes his body to form more “antibodies”, which makes Ava (and Teresa, now working closely beside Ava) optimistic that this might at last be the cure they’re looking for.
Back at the Right Arm’s camp, Vince promises the new teenage refugees that they’ll be taken to an island where they’ll all be safe, but Thomas learns from some of them that WCKD was in the process of transferring them to a city. Jorge confirms that they were heading for the “Last City”, apparently humanity’s last remaining stronghold against a planet full of Cranks. Thomas decides Minho must be there, and gathers together the remaining Gladers to go on a rescue mission. Of course, Thomas has additional, ulterior motives here; he also wants to get to Teresa, who he’s still in love with despite her treasonous behavior in the previous film.
Over in the Last City, Teresa and Ava have their hopes dashed when it turns out those Minho-generated antibodies don’t work after all. Ava tells Janson that it’s time for the older generation to give up and call it a day; there’s nothing they can do to stop the virus, so they might as well just leave those kids alone to start civilization anew. Janson, of course, isn’t about to go out without a fight.
Thomas and company reach the Last City, a massive megalopolis surrounded by giant walls to keep out the Cranks, as well as the impoverished masses who live in shantytowns around the perimeter. Janson spots Thomas and crew trying to enter the city and orders his soldiers to open fire on them, but they’re saved by a familiar face: Gally somehow survived that spear to the chest, and despite his grudge against Thomas and the rest of the guys, he agrees to help them get inside the city.
He introduces them to Lawrence (Walton Goggins), a man severely disfigured by… something… who has apparently become king of the poor people. He helps them sneak inside the city’s walls, where they kidnap Teresa and use her to infiltrate WCKD’s massive fortress-like complex.
Once inside, they rescue Minho along with a few dozen other youths, which involves some silliness where a bus full of kids gets hooked to a construction crane and is literally hurled over the walls of the city, somehow leaving everyone inside unharmed in the process.
Meanwhile, Teresa is stunned to see that Brenda is still alive. You may recall, but most likely not, that Brenda was bitten by a Crank during The Scorch Trials, but a transfusion of Thomas’ blood saved her. She’s still in perfect health, which prompts Teresa to steal a sample of Thomas’s blood and learn that he’s the key to this whole thing (naturally) and his body actually contains the death cure.
But then Lawrence decides now is the time for the 99% to launch a full-on assault on the Last City. Bombs and bullets fly as entire skyscrapers are demolished and the forces of WCKD fight against the dregs of society. Thomas and the gang try to escape the carnage, which is complicated by Newt revealing that he’s infected with the Flare, and he kills himself before he fully turns into a Crank. And then Teresa broadcasts a message to the entire city, informing Thomas that the Flare is the disease, and he’s the cure.
So Thomas returns to the WCKD complex, and just so happens to run into Ava. After some suitably poignant dialogue, Janson shoots and kills Ava, and then takes Thomas hostage so Teresa can drain his blood. You see, Janson himself has also been infected with the Flare, explaining his single-minded quest for the cure.
Thomas breaks free, and in the ensuing fight, Janson gets eaten by Cranks. Thomas and Teresa make their way to the roof, where the rest of gang have commandeered one of WCKD’s Skynet-looking hovercraft. Thomas is able to jump off the roof and into the aircraft, but no such luck for Teresa: The building collapses beneath her and she falls to her death in slow motion.
In the aftermath, Thomas wakes up on that island where all the kids have been taken to start society all over again. Vince names this place “Safe Haven” while everybody carves up a rock with the names of the numerous people who died over the course of the trilogy. Thomas discovers a goodbye note from Newt, and we hear Newt read it in voiceover as Thomas looks at a vial of the Death Cure in his pocket and then stares at the beach. Maybe this was to set up a possible continuation where Thomas uses the cure to try to save what’s left of the human race? It doesn’t matter, because that’s the end of the series.
As stated before, this final entry tries to deliver a lot more than the two prior films, complete with several over-the-top, completely implausible action scenes. But at least this time around, a couple of the action scenes are actually memorable.
Unfortunately, this is also a film that thinks “better” means “longer”; Death Cure is 2 hours and 23 minutes, and there is absolutely no reason on earth a movie based on a young adult novel that’s not Harry Potter needs to be more than 120 minutes (including credits). This is one of those films where the pace grows slower and slower the longer it goes on, as the filmmakers try to convince us they’re giving us a meaningful ending to the whole trilogy.
Also, it’s strange that this third installment’s plot is almost entirely driven by everyone’s desire to save Minho, a character I barely remember from the previous two movies. I doubt he had more than a dozen lines total in the entire series, and yet we’re supposed to believe the whole gang would risk their lives to save him. Making matter worse is it doesn’t seem Ki Hong Lee really has the acting chops necessary for the expanded role he gets this time around.
There’s no denying Death Cure is a better, weightier film than the previous two Maze Runner entries, but it still doesn’t give us any idea what the point of all this was. After three films, I can’t recall one truly noteworthy scene or one compelling character. The first entry was somewhat intriguing due to a high concept wherein a group of teens are mysteriously thrown together in the wilderness and forced to solve a puzzle to survive, but none of the subsequent films ever provides justification for this premise. The closest it ever comes is in Death Cure where it’s suggested that the time spent in the Glade running from Reavers caused the boys to generate more “antibodies” and made them more resistant to the disease, but this feels like something added as an afterthought to address criticism of the previous movies.
This is essentially the biggest problem of the Maze Runner series: it takes an abrupt turn after the first film, and the whole “maze” high concept is completely tossed away for a couple of generic zombie chase movies along the lines of 28 Days/Weeks Later or World War Z or the Resident Evil movies. Even the Hunger Games films had the good sense to at least keep up the “games” motif throughout all four films; the latter two Maze Runner movies might as well be part of another franchise.
As I’ve said elsewhere, it seems likely that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is the last gasp of the dystopian young adult movie adaptation craze. Films will be continue to be made from dystopian YA novels to be sure, but I doubt anyone’s going to be deluded enough to expect Hunger Games box office the next time around. And most likely they’ll wait to see if the first film does decent business before plotting out the rest of the trilogy. Which means that, in this genre at least, we’ll likely go back to each film having to prove itself as a worthy standalone before earning a sequel; if only that were the case for every potential ready-made franchise.