The original Maze Runner didn’t make much sense as a movie, but its teenage jailbreak did provide a pretty great metaphor for adolescence: trapped in a baffling labyrinth of emotions; whipsawed by ever-shifting alliances; subject to the obscure whims of grownups, at least until you find your own way out. It also made an obscene amount of money, and so the first film — released in 2014 and based on James Dashner’s best-selling book series — was followed almost exactly one year later by an equally bleak sequel, The Scorch Trials.
In the interim, the public’s appetite for YA dystopia seems to have cooled (maybe because reality has become so adept at delivering its own scorches), but the late arrival of the third installment isn’t merely a reflection of market trends: Star Dylan O’Brien suffered serious injuries while shooting an early stunt scene, halting production for six months. It’s almost impossible not to think of that incident while watching all the young bodies flinging themselves into The Death Cure‘s fiery, bullet-riddled peril on screen — or to wonder whether it had anything to do with the movie’s newly stripped-down aesthetic, too; in his third and final outing, director Wes Ball has sidelined the murky mythology of the first two films almost entirely. Whatever landed these kids in the Maze in the first place — it has something to do with a solar flare, a deadly plague, and the evil machinations of a black-ops corporation called, in a true stroke of subtlety, WCKD — now they’re strictly fighting for their lives: Escape From New York meets Mad Max, with lab serums.
Like the others, Death Cure begins without preamble or explanation, all blank adrenaline. Where there’s a train car full of precious plague-immune human cargo waiting to be rescued, an explosive action set piece involving helicopters, white sparks, and grappling hooks must follow. But their commando raid doesn’t yield the one person whom ringleader Thomas (O’Brien) and his fellow Maze runaways are looking for: their old comrade Minho (Ki Hong Lee). All they know is that he’s trapped somewhere inside the walls of the Last City, the concrete fortress built to protect the planet’s few remaining survivors from the virus-infected Cranks who lurk in the shadows like Walking Dead extras, longing for fresh brains and daylight. And getting to him will involve a multipronged attack — befriending Crank overlord Lawrence (Walton Goggins, looking like an angry octopus metastasized on his face); breaking through the city’s dense security protocols; and confronting the series’ seemingly unkillable villains, the chilly Dr. Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and her turtlenecked henchman Janson (Aidan Gillen). It’s also where Thomas’ onetime love-turned-traitor to the cause Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) now toils for the enemy.
There’s a pleasing sort of B-movie-on-an-A+-budget simplicity to Death Cure (if not its running time; it’s nearly two and a half hours, which seems like a lot to ask of Snapchat attention spans). With the mystery of why they’re all trapped in this hellscape in the first place mostly resolved, the main players actually get to breathe and relate, at least when they’re not busy gasping and running. It’s too bad the dialogue they’re given is so template-standard, especially the adults’. (Is there a secret blood vow that all respected character actors over 40 take saying they’ll participate in at least one major YA franchise? In addition to Clarkson, Goggins, and Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito and a man-bunned Barry Pepper both show up briefly for their paychecks.) As easy as it is to criticize the script’s broad strokes and improbable getaway schemes, it’s hard to argue with the lessons it imparts: Be loyal, be brave, leave no friend behind. And when things get too scary, there’s no shame in a greenscreen. B