The filmmaking in the Maze Runner franchise keeps getting better and better with every new entry. So it's a damn shame that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is the last one, because maybe by the time they hit, like, number 12 there'd finally be a movie worth watching.

Still, let's not go all-in on the negativity all at once. The Death Cure is, after all, kind of better than 2014's The Maze Runner and 2015's Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, and at least that's something. It has some - I might even go so far as to say it has several - images that are well-framed and beautifully-lit by director Wes Ball and cinematographer Gyula Pados, and which provide substantial, tangible aesthetic pleasure in the act of perceiving them. It also has what is, by a landslide, the series' best action setpiece: an opening car chase that involves no mean amount of devilishly fast choreography and a racing camera. It is also, by no coincidence whatsoever, a train chase that primarily demonstrates that the filmmakers for sure saw Fast Five and learned the right things from it. But I will happily take it, if it's the best I'm going to get. Which it is.

Besides, what conceivably could be the benefit of kicking The Death Cure? Circumstances wholly beyond the control of the filmmakers - lead Dylan O'Brien got seriously injured doing one of the stunts, and the studio delayed the shoot to give him plenty of time to fully recuperate, which is of course something we should praise the studio for, not mock it - mean that the film has come out a full year after it was initially scheduled. And that full year has witnessed a massive sea-change in the film ecosystem, one that leaves The Death Cure looking like a peculiar throwback, a veritable cinematic coelacanth swimming up from the deaths to remind us of the foggy past when post-apocalyptic anti-authoritarian stories adapted from young adult novels were all set to be The Next Big Thing. As I write these words, it's been only a little more than two years since The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, which at one and the same time seems like it couldn't have possibly been so long ago, but also like it was several eons in the past. Rather substantially more to the point, it hasn't quite yet been two years since The Divergent Series: Allegiant, which I'd imagine is the single most proximate reason that the post-apocalypse anti-authoritarian YA trend died so quickly.

Either way, whatever time The Death Cure had, it's not our time. And still, here The Death Cure is, so I suppose we might as well deal with it. Adroitly assuming that this was going to be a fans-only proposition, the film doesn't explain anything, not even how long it's been since the end of The Scorch Trials. Instead, we just hit the ground running (we hit the ground maze running, I might say, if I wanted to lose every single reader I have picked up during my twelve and a half years as a critic), not really getting reminders of who Thomas (O'Brien) is, or what he's done to inspire such loyalty from Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden), why they are all miserable over the betrayal of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), how this involves Brenda (Rosa Salazar), Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), and their resistance group the Right Arm, and what in God's green and growing Earth Patricia Clarkson is doing as a mad scientist bad guy in a franchise whose primary claim to fame will be that, unlike the Divergents, they were able to finish out the plot with these.

It both matters and doesn't. It matters, because really the only thing that The Death Cure cares about is buttoning up the plot, resolving the whole plague thing that was brought up in the previous films (death, you may be stunned to learn, is cured), giving us a tragic death to bring home how the Stakes Are Higher Now Than Ever Before, and providing a melancholic but beautiful setting for the survivors to regroup and stare into the dwindling sun as they ponder how to go about restoring the human race. It doesn't matter, because this is really just an action movie about staying ahead of the baddies with guns, who can be distinguished because they look like they've washed their clothes recently (I almost said, "they look like they've showered in the last two weeks", which is partially true, but the Maze Runner universe is one of those post-apocalypses where all of the unreasonably beautiful survivors have pooled their meager resources to have an unending supply of hair product). Most of the film consists of the good characters yelling variations of "go go go!" and "come on!" as they race through deserts, office-buildings, and futuristic cities that look like Blade Runner if they discovered the morning of shooting that the budget had been cut by 80%. For at least the Runner part of the series title remains a key aspect of the concept, even if the Maze part is almost entirely ignored, yet again.

At any rate, the film's story is a bloated mess - The Death Cure unfathomably manages to drag itself all the way to two hours and 21 minutes, despite having almost no deeper plot than "infiltrate, then escape, the villain's lab" - full of barely-defined characters having simulacrums of relationships with each other; but, again, at least it's a looker. The sleek interiors of the wicked totalitarian organisation WCKD ("EvilCo" presumably being too difficult to turn into a backronym) have a sickly-sterile blue; the hard sun of the desert wasteland feels genuinely hot and draining; the city has a certain austere charm. Hallways are used as pretty swell compositional elements throughout. And the action is certainly more coherent and exciting than in the other two movies combined, though I'd like to stress the important work "more... than" is doing in that sentence. It's a polished movie, not infused with much in the way of interest, but this easily could have been worse, and I frankly don't know that it had much if any chance of being any better.

Reviews in this series
The Maze Runner (Ball, 2014)
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Ball, 2015)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Ball, 2018)