Starring Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Patricia Clarkson, Ki Hong Lee; directed by Wes Ball; 141 minutes; PG-13 for blood and gore, gun battles and coarse language. 141 minutes.
The third time isn't quite the charm for "Maze Runner: The Death Cure," the third installment in the movie franchise based on author James Dashner's sci-fi trilogy for young adults.
Despite a strong cast, striking locations and slick digital effects, the overlong movie lurches from chase to battle to soul-searching quietude - and then back again - in frustratingly generic action-movie style. It's just one darn thing after another.
Director Wes Ball, who also worked on the first two films, brings a strong continuity of vision, testifying to his respect for the books. But "The Maze Runner" and its follow-up, "The Scorch Trials," conjured unique worlds and situations. "The Death Cure," by contrast, offers a whole tasting menu of dystopian spectacle borrowed from such films as "World War Z." Somehow, that makes it less special.
Still, critical quibbles may seem petty to teenage fans of the books and movies. For them, this finale is not likely to disappoint. The protagonists and villains who have survived into the final chapter remain complex characters, with varying motivations. The one exception is the steadfast hero, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), who, over the series, never has given up the fight or betrayed a trust.
For those who missed the earlier films, a recap is in order: We meet Thomas after he has been dropped into a mysterious, verdant prison yard called the Glade - home to a band of teenage boys and one late-arriving girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who wins Thomas' heart. High walls surround the Glade, and beyond them is a deadly mechanical maze, through which Thomas leads a group to a desert, known as the Scorch, to their apparent rescue.
But in the second film, their rescuers were revealed to be the same fascistic organization, World Catastrophe Killzone Department, or WCKD, that had walled up the kids in the first place. That group's top scientist, Ava (Patricia Clarkson, in a delicately shaded portrait of depravity), explains that a virus nearly wiped out humankind, turning people into zombies. Thomas and others with immunity were to be guinea pigs in her search for a cure.
This brings us to "The Death Cure," in which Thomas - his heart still broken by Teresa's betrayal at the end of the second film - joins with the resistance group that he and his friends met in the desert, taking on WCKD in its walled citadel of skyscrapers and black-clad troopers.
Outside those walls, the city is ringed by angry, starving people and underground bands of zombies. Revolution looms, but before that, Thomas, with the help of some unlikely new allies, must rescue a friend from the first two films (Ki Hong Lee), who's being subjected to experiments that amount to torture in Ava's lab.
Triumphs and tragedies collide, along with idealism and disillusionment - and zombies - in a climactic battle, replete with explosions and collapsing buildings. Despite the weight of its moral stakes and all that came before it, the saga's resolution - only partly mitigated by a life-affirming epilogue that tries to sweep away some of the emotional debris - feels not just derivative, but sadly pedestrian.