Somewhere in the second act of “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” — the second in the Wes Ball-directed adaptation of the James Dashner young adult trilogy — a group of teenagers walks in silhouette along the ridge of a sand dune, having just left behind one of their own who was clawed by a zombie and in the process of “turning.” As they walk, a shot rings out, and the line stops, poignantly, in unison.
It’s not often that YA dystopian novel-turned-films — of which there has been no dearth of late — aspire to that level of emotional and cinematic craftsmanship, and it’s all the more surprising coming from a series by Ball, a first-time director when the franchise began.
Now we have the series’ third and final entry, “The Death Cure” (officially “Maze Runner: The Death Cure,” though the title card drops the prefix), and we can finally take a step back and observe the series in full.
Dashner’s novels were never what one would call excellent: They’re good airport fiction, with a healthy dose of silliness (the bad guys are called “WICKED,” short for “World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department”) and an annoying love triangle here and there.
Surprisingly, Ball took less of a scalpel and more of a chainsaw to the series’ plot, essentially rewriting its middle chapter and streamlining its characters and narrative. More surprisingly, he may even have ended up with an improvement on the source material.
2014’s “The Maze Runner” and 2015’s “The Scorch Trials” were not films that had much in the way of beginnings and endings. But taken all as one, the trilogy paints an arc driven by friendship, loss and the moral grey zone between good and evil. Its characters aren’t very three-dimensional — but damn it, they’re loyal. There are good people out there? Who knew.
True to form, “The Death Cure” dispenses with narrative backstory, jumping straight into the well-orchestrated action of a high-speed train heist/rescue. At this point, the group of boys originally being experimented on in a massive maze have escaped their captors twice, led by the alternatingly recklessly determined and fearfully confused Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). He used to work for WCKD (the movie abbreviates the acronym), but has gone through a Bourne-like loss of memory and change of heart.
Joe Alblas / Twentieth Century Fox / Courtesy
As the plot unfolds, and the wiley group attempts to rescue their friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) from WCKD’s headquarters, we realize that the narrative itself doesn’t much matter — it was always the weakest point of the series. What engages us, instead, is the bond built between the boys, thrown together in the first film and forced to survive.
Where most YA dystopian films languish on the decisions between friendship and “the mission” (see “The Hunger Games”), or engage in those runtime-padding love triangles (see “The Hunger Games,” and “Divergent” et al.), with “The Death Cure,” the friendships are completely unspoken. It’s not a question. Hell or high water, the boys look out for their own. It’s refreshing.
It’s also refreshing to see a villain organization that, for all its silliness, actually has a point. WCKD has been experimenting on kids — several of whom are immune to a virus that has turned much of the world into zombies — to try to find the cure lurking in their blood. As “The Death Cure” wraps up, we discover something interesting: WCKD was right all along, Thomas’s blood does contain a cure, and he’s basically doomed most of the world by aiding in WCKD’s downfall.
And yet: The film concludes on another note, in which Thomas has managed to save hundreds of kids and many, but not all, of his friends, from an organization that was complicit in child torture.
Does Ball really delve into who was right? No. But the question is left open enough to invite some thought on the part of its audience. And for a YA action series, that’s about all we could hope for.
“Maze Runner: The Death Cure” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.