On the conclusion of the Maze Runner trilogy, Wes Ball's legit tentpole bonafides, and the short-circuited legacy of YA franchises
Maze Runner: The Death Cure 20th Century Fox
Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Will Poulter, Barry Pepper and Walton Goggins
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 21 minutes / 2.39:1
January 26, 2018
(out of four)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure - the third and final installment of the series - is an adolescent movie in a grown-up movie's body. That should be taken as more of a compliment of the latter than a complaint about the former. The source material is what it is - nothing to be done about that.
The trend of young-adult franchise adaptations has largely come and gone, at least for now. Or more to the point, it never really caught on the way studios would have hoped. Lightning struck a couple of times, but false starts and diminishing returns have been more the norm. The list of pilots opening chapters to would-be franchises produced over the last few years makes for a fascinating survey course in modern studio failure. Remember I Am Number Four? The 5th Wave? The Host? Me neither. The Mortal Instruments pivoted from failed movie to ignored TV series. Divergent got through three movies and then never even bothered making its final installment.
At least The Maze Runner made it to the finish line, concluding its trilogy even after fate tried to deal a blow to its chances, when star Dylan O'Brien suffered a severe head injury during the shoot, forcing a months-long shutdown. An unintended side effect of the finale's delayed release is that, an extra year removed from the pop-culture trend from which it sprung, The Death Cure's maturity as a piece of filmmaking stands out even more next to its perpetually stunted subgenre peers. As eyeballs and studio aspirations have drifted away from this business model, what's gone largely unnoticed is what a damn fine director Wes Ball has proven himself to be.
The young filmmaker - and former film-school classmate of two of our best young auteurs, Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), as well as prolific multihyphenate Amy Seimetz (star of Upstream Color, writer/director of Sun Don't Shine and Starz's The Girlfriend Experience) - helmed the entire trilogy, a rare distinction, especially for a YA franchise. That he's provided the series with a certain technical precision and sophistication - with each entry coming out of the gates with increased confidence and a greater sense of spectacle and ambition - is one thing. But more telling is the way Ball's impulses have progressively trended toward more adult sensibilities (even as the narrative still fundamentally revolves around teens rebelling against adult baddies).
One scene stuck out for me in particular: It involves the reuniting of our hero Thomas (O'Brien) and former ally/flame Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who previously betrayed him and the rest of the gang to go help the sinister-but-not-actually-evil WCKD lab in its hunt for a cure. Thomas has been presumed dead - or rather, she has been strategically led to believe so. Having smuggled himself into the city (one of this world's only remnants of actual civilization), he re-emerges from a distance, drawing Teresa through and away from the bustling city crowd - across clogged streets and an emptying-out transport station - until they're all alone. The way the whole sequence is staged, cut and scored, it feels like something altogether more serious and mature than expected, right down to the world-weary melancholy of the piano running through John Paesano's distinctly Thomas Newman-esque score. His notes hint at unanswered grief, the passage of time, a certain disillusioned awareness. The images are chilly and grey. You might think this was scene was from a cryptic mystery about an unexplained disappearance. A character drama about a dissolving marriage. A slow-burn corporate thriller. In her dark trenchcoat, Teresa is even dressed for it. In commanding the mood of the scene, Ball never panders to the segment of the audience still shipping Thomas and Teresa - never makes it about the longful glances between pretty young people - but sees them as adults in an adult world with adult stakes.
In structuring the cat-and-mouse, stealth-and-subterfuge narrative around action beats and setpieces, Ball shows equal sophistication. The terrific opening sequence - a rescue mission in which our heroes chase down a train in a makeshift four-wheeler - seems to take its cues both from Mad Max: Fury Road and Justin Lin's Fast Five. Certain moments even reminded me of Death Proof, with Gyula Pados's camera lurching, leaning, pulling back in eager, nervous anticipation. A much later scene explicitly recalls the most famous moment from Andrew Davis's The Fugitive, and more or less earns the comparison. Various other sequences call to mind such heavyweights as Cameron, McTiernan and Nolan.
If you'll forgive my unfortunate inclination to caveat things to death, I am not saying Ball is on the level of those filmmakers, nor that The Death Cure is close to equal to their work. What I'm saying is he seems to have learned his lessons well, and from the right people. There's a lot of expensive, action-oriented studio product out there, and not enough good action directors to go around. Ball is very clearly one of the good ones and, likely as a result of his entire feature filmography being a YA franchise that's modestly known but far from a cultural phenomenon, his craftsmanship has dropped under the radar. In speculative newshound circles, there's near-constant discussion of who could or should land directing duties for high-profile franchise gigs. Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Fast/Furious and 007 and Mission: Impossible. I rarely, if ever, see his name listed in those conversations, but he has loads more technical skill than many of the directors who've landed those gigs and/or get mentioned most frequently. That he cut his directorial teeth on a studio trilogy suggests he aspires to work on large-scale projects and, whatever his ceiling might be (I honestly can't gauge it), his floor seems to be "solid craftsman." At least he can direct a coherent action scene, which is more than I can say for a lot of tentpole directors over the last couple decades.
With The Death Cure, he elevates a routine, fundamentally simplistic postapocalyptic YA story into a muscular, often-thrilling dramatic spectacle that never rests on its laurels or sleepwalks through perfunctory plot beats. Even a lot of simple point-A-to-point-B moments are staged with real cleverness. The film finds the right balance with its cast, which features primary characters who aren't all that interesting on the page but are elevated by a talented young cast. Even Thomas, our trilogy-spanning protagonist and the "key to everything," isn't much as written, but O'Brien is such a sturdy presence that the character works anyway. And surrounding O'Brien and impressive rising stars like Scodelario and Rosa Salazar is an absolute murderer's row of character-actor talent. This time the already-stout supporting cast of Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper and Aidan Gillen is joined by the great Walton Goggins - his face shredded by the virus that has claimed most of civilization already - as the fiendish, charismatic leader of an underground rebellion group lying in wait along the perimeter of the city.
It's good that the Maze Runner franchise is coming to a close. It's been a surprisingly solid run (the two sequels being genuinely good movies), but everyone has quickly aged out of the material. Perhaps the most telling thing is that all the folks most visibly responsible for the trilogy - its entire cast and its director - are unmistakably here to stay.