Welcome (back) to the Scorch!
Picking up where 2015’s “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” left off — and bringing the best and most kinetic of the post-apocalyptic YA sagas to an exhausting finish — “The Death Cure” reintroduces us to a fallen world where a killer virus has decimated most of the population. In the trilogy’s first installment, a handful of twentysomethings with flawless skin escaped from a deadly labyrinth and opened the secret door at the end only to discover (dun dun dunn!!!) Patricia Clarkson! The sequel found our photogenic heroes learning that they are immune to the pathogen that continues to shred our species, and had been used as glorified lab rats by the shady government agency hoping to repurpose their bodily fluids into some kind of cure.
That shady government agent’s name: WCKD (short for World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department, and pronounced “wicked”). Because no matter how adult this series may pretend to be, it’s ultimately still young at heart.
That adolescent streak is more evident than ever in this climactic chapter, which doubles down on the posturing violence that these films have always performed so well, while also propping itself up with an idealistic logic that might be lost on older viewers. Case in point: The crux of “The Death Cure” is that WCKD have captured 28 immune kids and locked them in a laboratory somewhere in a gleaming metropolis referred to as The Last City (imagine a cross between downtown Vancouver and Midgar from “Final Fantasy VII”). Thomas (Dylan O’Brien as the saga’s blank hero) and his pals Newt (“Love Actually” peewee Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) decide to break into the walled fortress and free the children from the evil clutches of the people who are trying to… uh… save what’s left of the human race. Those bastards.
Yes, this is a movie in which the good guys are prioritizing the lives of 28 millennials (or whatever the “Maze Runner” equivalent of a millennial might be) over literally everyone else. Yeah, that’s some pretty grim math if you happen to be or be in love with one of the chosen few, but it may not be too steep a price for the continued existence of humanity. Even if your opinion of humanity isn’t particularly high at the moment, that’s still a solid deal. In fairness to T.S. Nowlin’s script — adapted from James Dashner’s YA phenomenon — Clarkson’s character is more nuanced than she first appeared to be. Nevertheless, none of the film’s daring heroes ever really grapple with the morality of their mission; they’re too busy running from one surprisingly muscular setpiece to the next, dodging zombies and jumping out of buildings in a desperate bid to cram nine movies’ worth of plot into 142 hectic minutes.
It’s all a bit of a jumble, but it’s best not to get hung up on the details — truth be told, the most fun thing about the story is how it invites you to retrace how we got here, the series’ tight and mysterious first installment giving way to a decrepit jubilee of YA tropes and a world so expansive that it eventually dwarfs anything seen in “Divergent” or “The Hunger Games.” It doesn’t really matter if nothing ever comes of Thomas’ fraught romance with the turncoat Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), or if you never figure out why Walton Goggins is missing half his face, as the characters are really just engines to propel this adventure forward. These films have always aligned with WCKD in that way, exploiting the kids for their ability to keep the great world spinning.
To that end, it’s director Wes Ball who emerges as the real hero here, the former visual effects supervisor proving himself to be the rare filmmaker who can force some genuine vigor into one of these banal modern blockbusters. “Maze Runner” and “The Scorch Trials” indicated that Ball had the kind of action chops that many “bigger” directors would kill for, and “The Death Cure” finds him triple-underlining that takeaway. The film’s ass-kicker of an option sequence finds Ball straight up humiliating anything from the last three “Fast & Furious” movies (and even evoking “Fury Road” during its finest moments), as a wild-haired Barry Pepper leads Thomas on a high-speed train robbery with a neat final twist.
From there, Ball uses the gruel-like material he’s given to cut together a demo reel for his skill, impressively riffing on everything from the tunnel chase in “28 Days Later” to the flying bus from “Speed.” While “The Death Cure” is hamstrung by the resolution it’s hellbent on achieving (brace for long and numbing sequences of fires raging across generic cityscapes), it still moves like none of the other films in its weight class. The violence connects, and the sheer velocity of the storytelling ensures that the stakes are clear enough to power through the faulty reasoning behind them. No matter how lost you might get, you’re only ever a few minutes away from another scene with “Battle Angel Alita” star Rosa Salazar, whose go-for-broke charisma as a rebel fighter elevates her subplot into the movie’s most consistently entertaining thread.
It doesn’t really matter that the movie has no interest in catching you up even though everyone has definitely forgotten what happened in the previous chapters (O’Brien suffered a terrible injury on set, which explains the unusually long gap since “The Scorch Trials”). There’s almost enough momentum here to ensure that even newbies who wandered into the wrong theater will be able to follow along well enough and amuse themselves by filling in the blanks. “The Death Cure” may not be able to fully overcome its fundamental childishness, but its director grows up right before our eyes. Here’s hoping that his next trilogy is more worthy of his talents.
“Maze Runner: The Death Cure” opens in theaters on January 26.