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, with an appealingly energetic star in Dylan O’Brien. The third and ostensibly final film, “The Death Cure,” pushes the action so far it hits the edge of unpleasant.
The franchise brings an impish energy to the teen apocalypse genre. As as we discovered in the second film, “The Scorch Trials,” this apocalyptic tale is actually a zombie movie, which gives the enterprise that much more bite.
“Maze Runner” was task-oriented — a bunch of teens dropped into a mysterious glade had to escape through a maze every day — and the series never lost 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 an evil corporation called Wicked. Thomas and his cohorts have found themselves Wicked’s test subjects, as they’re immune to the Flare disease that’s turning humans into bloodthirsty “cranks.”
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All Thomas can do is run, and run he does, often without thinking. His goal to get all of his friends out alive proves to be difficult when they hijack the wrong train car, leaving his friend, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), to withstand torturous trials while Wicked scientists try to develop a virus-fighting serum. When Thomas sets off on a rescue mission, things become complicated when he discovers that his former flame, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), is one of the scientists working on the cure.
The 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 keeps a tight grip on the tone and the relentless pace, but he often backs 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 a bit contrived.
As the film pushes past the two-hour 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 and some thematic elements. 2:20. AMC Classic, Fayette, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.