Of all the dystopian young adult franchises that “The Hunger Games” hath wrought, “The Maze Runner” series has always been the one of the most forthrightly entertaining — and the sweatiest. But that sweat is evidence of what makes the trilogy work. As directed by Wes Ball, it takes off at a full sprint and never slows down. It can be a pleasantly pummeling experience, an adrenaline-drenched ride delivered by the capable hands of Ball, with the appealingly energetic star Dylan O’Brien. In the third and ostensibly final film, “The Death Cure,” pushes the action so far it hits the edge of unpleasant.
The franchise brings a boyish, impish energy to the teen apocalypse genre. “The Hunger Games” was nakedly emotional, each tragedy channeled through the primal scream of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss. “Divergent” was always too fastidious, cold and remote to connect. “Maze Runner” brings the grime and grit to the race for survival in a dystopian post-civilization that’s eating its own young. And as we discovered in the second film, “The Scorch Trials,” this apocalyptic tale is actually a zombie movie, which gives the whole enterprise that much more bite.
“The Maze Runner” was plainly task-oriented — a bunch of teens dropped into a mysterious glade have to try and escape through a maze every day — and the series never loses sight of the ethos. The maze is metaphorical rather than physical now, as Thomas (O’Brien) tries to escape the maze of a crumbling civilization and the evil corporation WICKED. Thomas and his young cohort have found themselves WICKED’s test subjects, as they’re immune to the Flare disease that’s turning humans into bloodthirsty “cranks.”
All Thomas can do is run, and run he does, often without thinking the whole thing through. His goal to simply get out with all his friends alive proves to be difficult when he and his team of rebels hijack the wrong train car, leaving his friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee) to withstand torturous trials at WICKED headquarters while scientists try to develop a virus-fighting serum. When Thomas sets off on a rescue mission to grab Minho from the last standing city, things are complicated when he discovers his former flame Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is one of the scientists working on the serum (the “death cure” if you will).
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The overall plot itself isn’t all that complex, though the path is riddled with obstacles, including a leprous Walton Goggins, leading an uprising at the walls of the city, old friends from the Glade popping up left and right and an army of cranks and super-soldiers bearing down in all directions. Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin keep a tight grip on the tone and the relentless pace, but they often back the story and characters into corners that only a deus ex machina can fix. By the time the third or fourth savior swoops out of the sky, it gets to be a bit contrived.
Ball embraces the maximalist approach, and as the film pushes the two-hour, 20-minute mark, it devolves into a seizure-inducing mass of strobe lighting and noise, all gunshots, crunching bone, explosions and crumbling buildings. It’s overwhelming, numbing and exhausting. In “The Death Cure,” the “Maze Runner” pushes it to the limit and ultimately ends up spent.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some thematic elements. Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario. Director: Wes Ball. Running time: 140 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.