Maze Runner: The Death Cure
Wes Ball (director), Gyula Pados (cinematographer), Paul Harb and Dan Zimmerman (editors), T.S. Nowlin (writer)
Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen (cast)
Based on The Death Cure by James Dashner
Maze Runner: The Death Cure, as with the other films in the Maze Runner franchise, is not a horrible film. It just boggles my mind how much it manages to avoid answering.
The Maze Runner debuted in 2014 between the second and third Hunger Games films, riding the wave of post-apocalyptic, dystopian young adult novel adaptations. It’s premise was intriguing, Lord of the Flies mixed with the tale of “Theseus and the Minotaur”. How the maze came to be, what the monsters within the maze were, and why the boys were even stuck there at all were compelling enough questions to drive audiences to the theaters. The first film made $348 million on just a $34 million budget.
The sequel, The Scorch Trials, had double the budget and made less than the first film, but its relative success ensured that the trilogy would be rounded out. (A considerable feat when one looks at just how many YA adaptations have tanked.)
The plot of these films, though, becomes increasingly hard to parse, and it’s a wonder that the franchise has carried on regardless, likely on the strength of its actors and camerawork alone.
Let’s see if I can get the plot points straight. According to the films—which I’ve been told increasingly diverge from Dashner’s novels—the entire planet has been devastated by solar flares, and then further razed by a zombie-making virus, also confusingly called the Flare. A scientific organization, called WCKD, puts a group of boys, all immune to the Flare virus, in a glade surrounded by the maze to study them for a cure. They are not hooked up to machines, or drawn for blood; they’re just dropped in an open area with no memories and expected to figure out how to live alongside a group of strangers. We’re meant to understand this method somehow contributes to virus research. On top of all that, WCKD sees fit to fill the maze with goopy-looking killer robots, which can and do kill several of the kids in the study. In The Death Cure, assumedly the last film in the franchise, Thomas and his friends finally confront WCKD and get answers about the virus, the maze, and who they all are.
At least, that’s what you would hope The Death Cure would be, but that’s not the movie it actually is.
The film is almost aggressive in it’s refusal to provide real answers—and when I read the plot of the source material, I don’t even think I can blame the filmmakers. Watching The Death Cure, you get the sense that everything is in place for an epic dystopian tale—the actors, the locales, the cinematography—if only the source material could actually keep up. I’ve had people tell me that the films have considerably streamlined and simplified the story found in the books; considering the films are a cipher I’m still struggling to deconstruct, this boggles my mind. In the film, we never learn where the virus came from, why there are killer robots, or what the point of the maze is. In the books, running the maze was meant to mentally stimulate the boys in the same part of the brain that the virus attacked. That idea goes completely unspoken by the films. There is one scene where Minho is tortured via a virtual reality headset, where he’s led to believe he’s back in the maze and being pursued by a Griever. We see some sort of clear-ish liquid seeping out of him, which we’re told may be the cure, but we have no idea what it is. Adrenaline? Sweat? Tears? Are they making a horcrux?
Thinking any more deeply about the plot is an exercise in frustration. The Death Cure seems aware that the logic for the entire story’s foundation simply isn’t there, and instead provides over two hours of non-stop action. The story is truly a mess, but that’s not to say the film isn’t fun. The Death Cure is essentially a heist movie, where the goal is to rescue Ki Hong Lee’s Minho. The opening scene feels like a page out of Fast & the Furious with some Mad Max: Fury Road mixed in. At one point they brave a dilapidated tunnel filled with zombies, in a scene reminiscent of The Walking Dead. The futuristic city that Thomas makes his way towards is shades of Blade Runner, and Hunger Games, and any other sci-fi analogue you want to make of it.
Gyula Pados’ cinematography feels well-suited for this film, and appropriately adapts as the movie hops from genre to genre, locale to locale. The camera gives us tight close-ups during tense moments and then sweeping vistas that show us the barren wastelands and destruction of civilization as a result of the flares. At key moments the camera switches to shaky cam as Thomas and the others start to fight in closer and closer quarters, giving us a sense of anxiety about the well-being of these characters. I hardly know what’s going on in these films, but I do care what happens to these kids.
The actors similarly do as much as they can with what they’re given. The relationship between Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) forms the crux of the film, and their friendship is one of the most compelling threads in the entire series. It’s also hard to overlook the significance of Ki Hong Lee being one of the co-leads of the franchise. There’s a scene where Minho is struggling to break free of the simulation, and I was struck by the thought that I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a YA adaptation focus this closely on any one Asian character. Thomas’ band of friends is also rounded out by Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, and Giancarlo Esposito, making the Maze Runner franchise one of the more diverse YA adaptations we’ve had. I truly enjoyed all of their performances; I just wish the story served them all better.
Even in all its bombastic glory, The Death Cure can’t outrun its own shortcomings. The film ends on an almost awkward cliffhanger, where we’re left with little confidence that Thomas and the others will actually survive long-term. The final shot of the film, Thomas staring pensively at a bottle containing “the cure,” leaves one to think there’s meant to be another film after this. But where could they go with it? I’m not quite sure if the film meant to leave its audiences so confused by the movie’s end. Thomas and company might have gotten out, but it feels as if the franchise left the rest of us behind in the damn maze.