Once during Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure, the all-business Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) consults with a group of power players at WCKD about the organization’s latest, close-to-last-ditch experiment to find a cure for the virus that’s nearly eradicated the human race. But as one woman laments the fact that they’ve all been down this road before and wonders whether WCKD’s resources can be better spent elsewhere, it’s as if the group isn’t so much discussing humanity’s future as it is the redundant means by which the Maze Runner series has arrived at this point.
Like its predecessors, The Death Cure charges out of the gate on its preordained path. The opening sequence, in which the ever-fraught Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his crew put into motion a well-executed plan to free a group of Immunes from a curiously outdated train, is like most things in this series just a setup for another setup. (In this case, the sequence anticipates a later rescue mission that culminates in an effectively unexpected gag involving a bus’s “Out of Service” light.) As Minho (Ki Hong Lee) isn’t on the train, Thomas charges recklessly toward the Last City, where WCKD experiments on Immunes inside a steely tower located behind a wall that, per the dictates of Dystopia 101, keeps the haves away from the have nots.
That sort of class division isn’t of any real concern to The Death Cure, which is three parts action and one part robotically delivered platitudes. Even the obligatory Big Bad’s spiel that Janson (an unembarrassed Aidan Gillen) delivers near the film’s end doesn’t illuminate whatever insidious logic went into deciding who got to live on which side of the wall. At one point, Thomas and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) marvel at the Last City’s steely infrastructure, which is so different from anything they’ve ever seen before. Their astonishment is understandable, yet there’s no curiosity in their eyes. As the film doesn’t give a sense of how this world—where people appear to dress only in suits and walk from jobs unknown to homes unseen—fundamentally sustains itself, it’s impossible for Thomas’s ostensible desire to build a future in opposition to the Last City’s ideals to resonate with moral purpose.
But The Death Cure isn’t even concerned with seriously grappling with the belief that WCKD’s experiments might be necessary by virtue of potentially being life-giving. The film is quick to get to the Last City just so it can rub would-be messiah Thomas up against two old friends turned rivals turned allies again, Aris (Jacob Lofland) and Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), for the express purpose of yoking doubt to an exhausting string of climaxes. These scenes should be emotionally fraught, but even those familiar with the series will still struggle to get a sense of these characters’ emotional pasts.
In The Scorch Trials, Brenda (Rosa Salazar) expresses her feelings for Thomas, but only a few passive-aggressive platitudes that she delivers in this film remotely hint at those feelings. She spends the better part of The Death Cure flitting around in the sidelines with Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) performing rescue missions, conveniently allowing Thomas to go through the motions of figuring out what he thinks of Theresa with as little interruption as possible. But emotional complication is what this film, so abundant in last-minute getaways, fake-outs, and half-hearted nods to the franchise’s greatest hits, needed to elevate it out of its programmatic torpor.