We look back at the first two ‘Maze Runner’ films, wildly entertaining mashups of dystopian and post-apocalyptic cinema.
This isn’t your typical weekend for January releases. On the one hand, you have Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, a profound postwar Western that was expected to contend for multiple Oscars as recently as a few months ago. On the other hand, you have Wes Ball‘s Maze Runner: The Death Cure, the delayed conclusion to Fox’s wildly successful Maze Runner franchise.
Given the two-and-a-half-year gap between the second and third installments in the Maze Runner trilogy — not to mention the diminishing returns of YA adaptations overall — people have been joking about the decision to follow through with the final chapter of the franchise. And in light of my recent defense of Hostiles, I thought it was only fair that I also defend the decision-making behind a third Maze Runner movie, especially given the sheer entertainment to be found in the first two.
Typically, when a film’s production is pushed back by a calendar year, fans have a right to be anxious. Maze Runner: The Death Cure is an exception to this rule. Dylan O’Brien‘s now-infamous accident on the set of the film raised questions as to whether the franchise would ever be completed. In an interview with Vulture last year, O’Brien admitted that he had even considered walking away from acting entirely as he recovered from his injuries.
What was originally supposed to be a February 2017 release eventually became a January 2018 release, pushing The Death Cure into a month not typically known for high-octane films. Only 14 January movies have ever opened to more than $30 million, the baseline for each of the previous Maze Runner installments’ debuts. For some, this seemed proof that Fox was simply playing out the string.
Then again, disregard the January numbers and a third Maze Runner starts to make a whole lot of financial sense. The Maze Runner films are often lumped into the same category as the Divergent and Hunger Games series, each of which saw diminishing returns at the box office over the years. But making the comparison to those movies ignores how much Ball and his team have been able to accomplish on a mid-tier budget.
The Maze Runner and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials cost a combined $95 million to produce and together grossed $660 million at the global box office, a 594% return on Fox’s investment. Compare this to the returns delivered by the Divergent (150%) and Hunger Games (501%) films and it’s clear which post-apocalyptic YA franchise is the safest bet, delays be damned. With a budget of only $62 million, even a somewhat diminished return would still make The Death Cure a box office success.
Oh, and there’s another reason why a third Maze Runner movie makes sense: the first two are actually pretty damn good. They have their flaws, of course. The Maze Runner tries to be a little too clever in its final act, offering multiple twists on a dystopian ending while backloading some important plot points to the sequels. Similarly, The Scorch Trials opens with the most unconvincing bit of false security ever committed to screen — no actor is less believable in the role of benevolent savior than Aidan Gillen — before muddling its way through a half-dozen twists and reveals. There may be solid book logic behind W.C.K.D.’s death mazes and penchant for pageantry, but that logic never quite makes its way from the page to the screen. Whether you compare the Maze Runner films against other YA adaptations or post-apocalyptic novels, its storyline comes out looking particularly full of gibberish.
But move beyond the convoluted storytelling and you’ll be treated to a franchise with a rock-solid cast and an eye for action. At their best, the Maze Runner movies serve as a mashup of science fiction and horror films that have come before them: take a dash of Total Recall, a few pinches of Cube, and a whole handful of Resident Evil, and you’ve got the recipe for entertainment.
O’Brien anchors the film as Thomas, the franchise’s conscientious objector turned resistance leader, but it’s the supporting casts that really make the films stand out. Actors like Ki Hong Lee aren’t typically given an opportunity to be action stars, but Maze Runner cares not for your teenage stereotypes, assembling a stellar cast of diverse young actors and letting them kick ass to their hearts’ content. Throw in a few veterans like Gillen and Giancarlo Esposito, who seems to be relishing his opportunity to play the post-apocalyptic version of the dashing space pirate, and you can see what happens when a studio angles for an arresting cast over recognizable names.
Finally, there’s the visuals. If there is any counter to the argument that Hollywood puts too much faith in neophyte directors for tentpole productions, it may come in the form of Wes Ball. As noted by Deadline in 2012, Ball was given the reins to Maze Runner based on the success of Ruin, his 2012 animated post-apocalyptic short. No one who has seen Ruin (you can do so here) would deny that Ball’s greatest strength is his knack for smashing different genres together. There are elements of true horror in Ball’s take on the Maze Runner series, between the fusion of metal and flesh that is the Grievers and the seeping wounds of the infected, the director leans into elements of the grotesque typically reserved for January horror releases.
And that is nothing compared to Ball’s fluidity on The Scorch Trials, which pivots effortlessly between dystopian fiction, apocalyptic horror, and post-apocalyptic world-building, all while building out some of the larger world missing from the franchise’s first installment. With all due respect to Paul W.S. Anderson, it is Maze Runner, not Resident Evil, that truly demonstrates how to make exciting post-apocalyptic cheese without breaking the bank.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure doesn’t seem to be setting critics afire, but negative reviews aren’t anything new for the franchise. The fans will be happy to see their beloved trilogy concluded in blockbuster fashion while the rest of us can enjoy a well-deserved end to one of the more entertaining YA series of the last decade. Whatever the outcome, it’s enough to know the final film earned its seat at the table on merit and merit alone.