Several years ago I joined the young adult novel kick. I became obsessed with “The Hunger Games” (finishing the book only days before the first movie’s release) as well as the “Divergent” series. Then came “The Maze Runner”, a series that I thought too complicated to properly transfer to the big screen. As possibly the last great YA franchise adaptation for cinema for the foreseeable future I couldn’t wait to finally see the long overdue final film in the trilogy, “The Death Cure”. It’s a film that, like its predecessors, strays significantly from the source material while sticking to the same basic plot. As possibly the final nail in the coffin of a once great sub-genre of film, let’s take a closer look at the final “Maze Runner” movie “The Death Cure”. Is it a quality conclusion, or just another failed attempt to cash in on a tired literary franchise?
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Death Cure” takes place several months after the events of “The Scorch Trials” with Gladers Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) teaming with allies Brenda (Rosa Salazar), Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Vince (Barry Pepper) to try and save the remaining Gladers who have been captured by WCKD, specifically their fellow Maze Runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Their mission leads them to the Last City, a stronghold for WCKD behind fortified walls meant to keep out the infected Cranks. As Thomas and his friends work to infiltrate WCKD they encounter new and old friends and enemies, including the devious Janson (Aiden Gillen) and WCKD leader Ava Page (Patricia Clarkson) who have recruited Thomas’ love interest-turned-traitor Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) to help find a cure for the Flare virus which has now gone airborne. What unfolds is a final confrontation between the Gladers and WCKD as the fate of humanity is put in the balance and the lines between right and wrong for the sake of survival become even more blurred.
Truthfully this film is as well acted as you’d expect a young adult adaptation to be and then some. While overall it’s not a magnificent work of art, many of the performers truly own their time on screen and seem to have fully embraced their roles for this final installment. The cast is led by Dylan O’Brien who was actually injured on set necessitating the film’s delayed release. As the leader of both the heroes and the cast in this film O’Brien once again proves to be a force to be reckoned with as a leading man making Thomas a confused but noble young warrior who wants to do the right thing but slowly begins to realize that the right thing may not always be the obvious choice. The final chapter in Thomas’ journey from infiltrator to outright rebel leader feels truly epic and O’Brein makes good use of his character’s young and confused nature portraying him as a man who has grown so much over two films, but has so much more maturing to do even still in this installment including managing his issues with forgiveness and love. As a fan of the book series I feel after three films O’Brein truly did justice to Thomas as a character.
On the other end of that spectrum is Kaya Scodelario’s Teresa whose part in the larger story might be a bit different than it was in the books, but she’s still the same kind of person readers might remember as she joins WCKD with noble goals of finding a death cure and stopping the spread of the Flare virus. Scodelario has matured a lot over the years as an actress, and this role shows she can bring out at least some nuances in her characters. While not as polished as O’Brein’s Thomas, Teresa is still a layered character meant to present the viewer with a middle-of-the-road individual who is neither forgivable nor worthy of crucifixion. She’s a woman trying to do what she feels is right and is clearly impacted by the unfortunate sacrifices made to get to that point. She wants to prove that everything she did and that WCKD did was not in vein and holds on to this perspective that sacrifice for the greater good is a worthy one. This mindset drives her character in the film and Scodelario does a fine job, not a perfect one but a fine one, ironing out all the little details of Teresa’s mindset right to the very end where she even gets a few moments to redeem herself. It’s a complicated performance that may lack a bit of depth, but it does bring out all the aspects I personally loved about Teresa’s character in the books so it deserves some credit.
Hidden within the other performances in the film where actors hold their own and bring their characters to life more than ever before, some much better than others, there is one performance that I found surprisingly mesmerizing and that is Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s continued take on Thomas’ closest friend from the Glade, Newt. Unlike the previous two films where Newt was more of a sidekick, he is upgraded to full on co-star here and finds himself dealing with an unexpected setback that plays into one of the best moments of the film. Without spoiling what that is exactly, it’s a setback that allows Thomas Brodie-Sanger and Dylan O’Brien to fully flesh out just how important their characters have become to each other over their short time as friends. This culminates is some truly moving moments that left me in awe over how intense both actors were. If you read the book you know what’s coming, if you didn’t then be prepared because Thomas Brodie-Sangster turns in a career making performance that actually kind of overshadows even some of the bigger names in this cast over time.
Finally, I want to touch specifically on the villain. The main baddie is really Jenson in this movie, played by Aiden Gillen who I can’t stress enough perfectly fits the rat-faced image readers expected for this WCKD extremist. Janson is truly put center stage for this feature, making him the undoubted antagonist that wants so badly to kill Thomas and find a cure. His motives play a significant part in Teresa’s character development and in the fate of WCKD. Gillen really hams up this role in all the best ways using his facial features and tone to make Jenson a mousy, maniacal man with a plan willing to do anything to accomplish his devious goals. Unlike the previous film “The Scorch Trials”, where Janson made his debut in the bigger story, the character feels more fleshed out and intimidating here as one who is both inherently human and evil in the sense that he lacks remorse. He’s not the MOST memorable villain, but he’s memorable enough to end this series on a high note with as a truly threatening antagonist.
I usually don’t focus on the directing as much in these kinds of films. I tend to save this section of reviews for more artistic films or more iconic directors. But I need to give credit to Wes Ball. This man, along with writer T.S. Nowlin, saw this franchise through to the end and it was Ball’s first directorial efforts. “The Death Cure” is an evolution in Ball’s filmmaking techniques and allows the director to see a story through to the end with great results. “The Maze Runner Series” may not hold up for every fan of the book or for every casual fan, but it’s a series that was easy to get invested in and every film sported a different tone and color pallet making each adventure feel like a natural progression towards something bigger and taking great care to adapt what could be adapted from the books. He also compromised on some of the more complicated aspects of the story where needed and did so in creative and inspired ways. As a fan of the books and, full disclosure, a fan of this film franchise I have to thank him for at least doing a noble, if imperfect, job of taking these books and truly embracing what they’re all about. It’s a fun trilogy and one that Ball should be very proud of even if critics like me might not agree with every creative choice he made.
“The Death Cure” might not be for everyone. This whole franchise might not be for everyone really. But on its own “The Death Cure” feels like the most complete and fleshed out film in the series. We’ve had two films to get to know these characters and “The Death Cure” brings out the best in each one, well at least the main cast members. It plays out as a fitting end to an epic series. It doesn’t follow the book very closely at all, but it does retain some very important elements from the literary series while presenting its own version of events without watering down the emotion, grit and intensity that made this final book so great.
One of the highlights of the film was the atmosphere. While we get to see the devastated Scorch we experienced in the second film we also are introduced to a large, futuristic and very well designed city that was both imaginative and absolutely beautiful for a film of this caliber. We’ve seen some futuristic worlds before, but the Last City is probably among the most stunning and reminded me a bit of “The Blade Runner” on a tighter budget. It serves as a great backdrop for the action to come, accentuating the contrast between the survivors supported by WCKD and the forsaken infected beyond the city’s walls.
I don’t comment on this a lot, but the score is also extremely satisfying. John Paesano provides an epic soundtrack that fully captures the intensity and emotion of every scene, from action packed chases to the inevitable loses both sides of the battle are forced to endure. One of my favorite tracks was the final overlaying tune called “Goodbye” which captured the realization of the final moments of the film that “The Maze Runner Series” led to. The score overall was just fantastic and added a little something to every scene that made this film that much easier to embrace.
Finally, while I already touched on the acting, I have to say the emotional moments of this film where characters are forced to make tough decisions and come to terms with difficult realizations are surprisingly poignant and powerful. The final act of this film is packed with so much suspense, heartbreak, hope and action that I couldn’t look away. For a young adult adaptation “The Death Cure” was delightfully deep in its depictions of human connections and tragedy while offering moments of subtle levity and hope for the future. The third act alone made me want to rewatch this film right away and experience everything in the last 45 minutes all over again.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The second act of “The Death Cure” is its weakest point. Despite one surprise character reveal, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance in the second third. The beginning of the movie starts off with a bang, literally, and the film ends on a emotionally powerful note, but the middle section, the journey from the Scorch to the final battle with WCKD, left a lot to be desired. I won’t say “The Death Cure” is inconsistent. I’ll just say the second act was the only time I felt uninvested in the action on screen. Still, overall the film surpassed the previous two in being an all-around enjoyable experience.
Also, some of the lesser acting is also pretty bland. While his part is small, Barry Pepper proved to be less than impressive despite his years of experience over his younger counterparts. His character Vince, who is the de facto leader of the Right Hand working to save children from WCKD, is overdone. Every time he’s on screen, which unfortunately is more than reasonable, he feels insincere and awkward. He’s not the inspiring leader he wants to be, he’s actually kind of annoying. While none of the roles in this film are 100% perfect, Pepper’s performance is a great example of how corny this story could have been. Thankfully it’s just his over-the-top and unconvincing character that takes this film down a notch in the acting department as the rest of the cast surpassed expectations for the most part, or at least met them.
I felt pacing was also a problem with this final installment too. At times “The Death Cure” tries to do too much too quickly and not enough in a long period of time. This is, again, specifically an issue in the second act where we are introduced to an underdeveloped rebel leader, who may or may not be a villain in his own right, and a plan shapes up to infiltrate WCKD. Once the plan is in motion however things pick back up, but once again the biggest problem with “The Death Cure” isn’t the start or the finish, it’s the journey in between that lacks substance and memorability.
Overall I felt like “The Death Cure” was a worthy end to a fun, if imperfect franchise. As a fan of the books and the films I wasn’t sure what to expect and if I was judging this film on it’s comparison to the book alone I’d say it failed in accurately portraying the literature in a big way. However, as a film and story on its own “The Death Cure” does justice to the source material while also telling its own story with a cast of characters that, for the most part, are easy to invest in and bring out some of the most thrilling and emotional moments I’ve ever seen in films of this kind. The first and third act are amazing entertainment and emotionally driven narratives that make up for the lack of substance the second act suffers from.
You can look at “The Death Cure” a few ways really. If you’re a fan of the book looking for a shot-for-shot interpretation of the story, you’ll be massively disappointed. If you have not invested in the previous two films properly this movie probably won’t help. If you are a fan of the series and are willing to embrace the creative direction Wes Ball chose to go with this series then “The Death Cure” serves as the highlight of an epic trilogy that surpasses its predecessors, amps up the emotional and human aspects of the story and brings the action to a higher level than the first two film’s combined. “The Death Cure” does one thing at least. It shows that there just might still be a place for young adult adaptations in cinema yet. It’s a fitting finale for the series and one I can’t wait to watch again.