“The Maze Runner” did a surprising, adrenalizing job of separating itself from a crowded field of YA dystopian fare when it was released in 2014. This adaptation of novelist James Dashner’s bestseller had a lot going for it: a potent lost-boys aesthetic, “Alien”-aspiring bursts of legit creature-feature intensity, and Dylan O’Brien’s Paul Walker-channeling dudely valor as the story’s lead amnesiac lab rat. Rookie director Wes Ball delivered a movie that brought to mind “Lord of the Flies” as much as “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” or “The Giver.”
This distinctiveness faded in the 2015 follow-up, “The Scorch Trials,” in which O’Brien’s Thomas and friends (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, etc.) trek across a zombie-infested wasteland to escape the scientists who’d deposited them in the maze. Yet unlike the “Divergent” series, which was undone by an increasingly generic vibe — hope you haven’t been holding your breath for the scuttled feature resolution, “Ascendant” — O’Brien and the gang get a shot at redeeming their franchise.
Disappointingly, “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” plays more like “Scorch Trials: The Death Cure.” Where we hoped for a narrative rebound, we get instead another pedestrian, overlong post-apocalyptic entry that fails to capitalize on some decent character dynamics.
There’s reason for hope initially, as we open on an old-fashioned train robbery — actually a rescue involving Lee’s abductee — that’s like some lost episode of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” in its fusion of sci-fi and western action. The mission leaves Thomas more determined than ever to confront frostily clinical Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) and the rest of the oppressive biotech outfit that’s been exploiting the zombidemic-immune maze kids. Cue a major, trilogy-culminating move to the sole surviving city on the planet, the scientists’ elitist, walled-off metropolis. But the scene shift feels uninspired no matter how it might thematically bookend the maze, and despite some pointed Trump-and-Mexico commentary.
If only the story line and setting were equal to the more compelling bits of character interplay. There’s some good, thorny moral debate to Thomas’s dealings with his wistfully treacherous sweetheart, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). And Walton Goggins (“Justified”) commands the intended train-wreck fascination as a decaying virus victim — so gnarly! — fiercely charging the wall with an army of have-nots. Only Aidan Gillen, again featured as Clarkson’s sneering Mr. Fixit, goes too far over the top, as if he’s single-handedly trying to justify the bio-giant’s YA-cornball WCKD acronym. Could they maybe have rebranded, just for the finale?
MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE
Directed by Wes Ball. Written by T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner. Starring Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Rosa Salazar. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 142 mins. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, some thematic elements).