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Non-Review Review: Maze Runner – The Death Cure

Maze Runner: The Death Cure feels like a movie that has arrived several years too late, a belated epilogue to the young adult boom.

The Death Cure is the last in the trilogy, the culmination of a journey that began with The Maze Runner in 2014. By that point, the young adult adaptation boom was already winding down. The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn, Part II had been released two years earlier, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II had been released the year before that. There was a clear sense that The Maze Runner was starting when everybody else was ending.

“So, it turns out that the Death Cure is… not dying. Whudda thunk it?”

Of course, there were still faint signs of life in the genre when the series began, but those sparks have largely been extinguished. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II was released the year after The Maze Runner. One year later, The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed to such a degree that it has been suggested that the series might be resolved on television. Even in the context of The Death Cure, there is a sense that the production team understand the fatigue; there is no over-extended duology to bring the series to a close; no lingering Part II.

The Death Cure is mostly an efficient film, one that keeps moving well enough for the bulk of its two-hour-and-twenty-two-minute runtime, although the bloat eventually becomes too much in the final act. There is something very functional about The Death Cure, a sense that everybody involved the film – and every character within the film – has adopted a “let’s get stuff done” attitude towards the production. There is all the expected angst, betrayal, insecurity and hesitation expected of a young adult novel, but surprisingly little wallowing in those emotions.

After initial trials proved unsuccessful and disappointing third quarter returns, WCKD moved on to producing “The Death Treatment.”

The result is something of a mixed blessing. Very few young adult adaptations had the benefits and strengths that defined the Harry Potter or Hunger Games franchises. Those two heavy-weight franchises had the luxury of several built-in advantages denied to many of their imitators; the strong ensemble cast, the compelling source material and the distinctive-within-limits voice. The Death Cure seems cognisant of its limitations, and so structures itself in a way to avoid exposing them too readily and too often.

However, this efficiency hinders The Death Cure. The film only rarely stumbles, and never falls flat on its face. However, it never manages to soar either.

Runner, runner.

As the Maze Runner series progressed, it found itself moving away from mazes. As such, directory Wes Ball doubled down on the “running” aspect of the franchise title. Ball can certainly move, in terms of shooting and in terms of editting. The characters and the cameras in The Death Cure are constantly whizzing and running, whirling through the same spaces and barely missing one another. There is something dizzying in the way that Ball keeps the film in motion, as if the audience is running in their seats.

This works quite well in action scenes and to create a sense of urgency. Repeatedly, Ball constructs scenes so that there are several objects moving at different speeds and in different directions in order to create a fluid sense of momentum: a camera flies over a desert landscape, then a car accelerates past, chasing to catch up with a train moving towards the horizon; the camera glides through a sterile facility, running faster than the human character trapped in this industrial maze, but moving slower that the monster that seems to be stalking in parallel.

Baby, I’m a-maze-d by you.

The Death Cure is dizzying and disorienting, especially when viewed in 3D. This movement creates a sense of propulsion that pushes the movie forward, ensuring that its first hour-and-forty-minutes move much quicker than they might otherwise. Ball deserves a great deal of credit for this, with a reasonably tight edit and a strong sense that the movie knows where it is going for the first two acts; in particular, the first act covers a lot of ground in terms of setting up the plot and providing exposition.

However, there are limits to this approach. This reliance on the whirling and shaking camera means that The Death Cure stops dead whenever the camera does. There are a number of awkward dialogue-driven scenes in the film that just stop the momentum dead. Ball seems to struggle with how best to approach these scenes of two characters talking to one another, often falling back on handheld camera work that provides just enough movement with the occasional jerk or tremor that the stationary nature of these scenes quickly becomes clear.

“Dammit, we’re not prepared for this. There isn’t even a tiny maze.”

This is particularly obvious in the third act, in which the film takes a narrative that was sprawling and global, and tries to condense it down to a compelling grudge match between a set of familiar characters. The Death Cure defines its heroes and villains so clearly that there is never any doubt about the two characters that must square off at the climax of the tale, but the narrative struggles both to manoeuvre those characters into position and to maintain some sense of movement once they arrive there.

The Death Cure arguably also brushes up against some of the limitations in these types of stories. To its blessing and its detriment, The Death Cure at least commits to its aesthetic. The film is a surprisingly bleak and bitter story about characters caught under the weight of a collapsing world, with several plot developments that feel almost mean-spirited. There is a cynical and almost nihilistic aesthetic to The Death Cure, in some ways an attempt to create a franchise-friendly spin on the apocalyptic endings of stories like Ex Machina or The Girl with all the Gifts.

The city on the hill. Or… next to it, anyway.

Unfortunately, The Death Cure lacks the mastery of tone that made the endings of Ex Machina and The Girl with all the Gifts so effective and so memorable. In some respects, the conclusion of The Death Cure feels like a strange compromise between the sort of fan-rewarding endings of series like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, but with a much grimmer tone. The Death Cure is almost subversive in some of its smaller third act plot beats, showing a commitment to the premise of the story. However, the follow-through on these brutal twists is only half-hearted.

Similarly, The Death Cure embraces the concept of child-soldiers that runs through so many modern young adult stories, perhaps a reflection on millennial culture. Popular film and literature are saturated with teenage characters who find themselves drawn into literal apocalyptic wars. It is no longer enough to set these young characters a task and to watch them accomplish it, these young heroes must serve on the front line. Frodo and Sam no longer get their own side-quest; they now charge into battle ahead of Aragorn and Legolas.

“How do we get in?”
“What do I look like, Giancarlo Exposition?”

Harry Potter and his friends wave their wands in epic battle with Death Eaters and the Dark Lord. Katniss Everdeen leads a bloody revolution against tyranny. However, there is always something uncomfortable and sanitised about these portrayals of child warfare, about the carnage that we expect teenage characters to serve up in order to be the protagonists of their own stories. In some ways, the directness of The Death Cure is almost refreshing.

The child soldiers in The Death Cure dress and conduct themselves like soldiers. They wear military uniforms. They carry pistols and knives. They use explosives. They turn vehicles into weapons, ready to grind their opponents under wheel. The Death Cure does not hide the carnage wrought be its teenage protagonists, instead embracing it. The film repeatedly features rifles that serve as stun guns, shocking a foe into submission in a non-lethal manner. Our heroes eschew these non-lethal weapons for conventional sidearms.

“C’mon. This is the third movie. You always knew you’d have to break back INTO a maze, right?”

Of course, this violence is unsettling in its attention to detail. There is no blood, but there are bullets and groans. There is no visual on the bodies beneath a weaponised bus, but there is a thump and a bump. While the violence in The Death Cure is not as visceral as that in The Dark Knight, it is still much more candid than the horrors masked in fantasy by Harry Potter or concealed through sleight of hand in The Hunger Games. After all, The Hunger Games was a movie about children killing children, but which refused to acknowledge that simple fact.

It is tempting to wonder why this violence feels so unpalatable in this context, when it is so readily accepted in others. After all, violence is something of a right of passage in teenage action films, and arguably always has been; from Red Dawn to Hook. Perhaps it is a change in broader culture, in the increasingly unavoidable discussions about gun violence. Perhaps it is the creeping verisimilitude of violence in modern films, which more accurately recreates carnage and horror even in a PG-13 setting. Perhaps it is the more visceral shooting and editing styles.

All fired up.

Whatever the reason, the child soldiers in The Death Cure are more provocative and more unsettling than those seen in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. There is an honesty in this, a willingness to acknowledge a facet of the genre that is often artfully obscured. The Death Cure feels almost refreshing in its candid embrace of this subtext, much like the way in which it embraces the bleak aspects of its constructed world towards the climax. There is no denying what The Death Cure is about, and it is interesting to see that laid so bare.

However, The Death Cure suffers from a lack of commitment to this grim deconstructive tone. The film seems to want the best of all worlds. On the one hand, the movie subverts certain expectations and candidly embraces aspects that other stories try to downplay. On the other hand, the film still tries to hit all the expected and requisite plot beats for a young adult saga. These elements do not mesh, often resulting in a tonal whiplash as sharp as any created by the camera.

WCKD smart.

The Death Cure is a surprisingly efficient film, for a movie of its length. That is perhaps the best and worst that might be said of it.

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