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Non-Review Review: Final Destination

I am actually quite fond of the original Final Destination. Don’t get me wrong, it has its flaws (and some very fundamental ones at that) and the sequels drove the concept into the ground, but it actually has a fairly original premise for a teen horror movie. I’m fond of horror as a genre, and I’ll freely admit that I’m quite exhausted by the perpetual cycle of slasher movies or ghost stories or ghost story slasher movies. Instead of adhering rigidly to the conventions of the teen horror film, Final Destination feels like something of a breath of fresh air. It’s a well-constructed teen horror movie, even if it does fall into many of the same traps and issues.

Ali onboard…

At this stage, after four sequels, everyone is familiar with the concept of the film. However, watching it for the first time back in 2000, I was actually quite struck by own (relatively) imaginative it was. I won’t pretend that it’s the most original idea ever, but it allowed the film to stand out amid a genre that was rapidly reverting to form after the radical success of Scream. Rather than taking on board the clever deconstruction and sophisticated wit of Wes Craven’s film, many of the clones simply opted to show teenagers getting brutally murdered.

The principle of the Final Destination films is straight-forward: death doesn’t like to be cheated. It operates by taking one of the core principles of horror cinema (the world is an inherently cruel and sinister place) and actually developed a movie around it. Other horror films treat contrived coincidence as a necessary by-product of the horror film. Of course they can’t get mobile phone signal here, because then the authorities could arrive and the film would be over! Of course there’s not another human being around for miles to hear their screams! (And, if there is, that person is stupid enough to investigate before alerting the authorities!)

Not an earth-shattering horror, to be fair…

It often seems that the world of horror movies is not subject to the laws of physics, but the laws of metaphysics. What happens next is not dictated by the rules of probability or any other scientific reality – what happens next is determined by the level of suspense and horror involved. If it allows for a cheap scare if the killer is in the wardrobe, then the killer will be in the wardrobe, regardless of where he was two minutes ago. Final Destination takes this concept and – rather than treating these coincidences as awkward plot contrivance – explicitly makes them dynamic plot points.

“You’d have to be a &#!$ed up God to take down this plane,” one character notes when he sees a baby on board his flight. Then he spots a handicapped individual, “A really &#!$ed up God.” It’s very clear that reality here is controlled by some sinister force compelling our teenagers to die in surreal and almost absurd ways. It’s the scriptwriter, some might cynically suggest. And, of course, they’d be correct – but Final Destination is built around the idea that the world itself is almost self-ware and subject to whims far greater than the will of the characters trapped inside.

He’s dead right…

Of course the piping leaks, it’s all part of death’s plan! Of course that rogue bit of shrapnel will hit precisely there, because it’s really being controlled by death incarnate! I think it’s actually a very clever basis for a film, and Final Destination actually executes it quite well. There’s none of the excessive exposition that would burden the later films, no strange additional rules added to the mix in order to extend the franchise to another film. There is, it seems, one caveat to death’s decision to settle its score with these teens, but it’s a remarkably logical and straightforward one. And the final scene does an excellent job subverting our expectations – death doesn’t necessarily play by the rules that the characters dictate, as much as they might want it to.

Okay, the film’s relatively clever premise aside, I’ll concede that it is an excuse for a series of overly elaborate death sequences. However, even here, the film doesn’t share the same fascination with gore that its sequels would. There is a healthy amount of blood on display, but the film seems positively restrained when measured against the carnage sewn in the sequels. Instead, a large amount of the movie works on suspense, as we try to figure out exactly how each little environmental variable plays into a given character’s fate. It seems that surviving a brush with mortality only serves to turn the world into a Rube Goldberg machine… of death.

Locked into a pattern…

Indeed, it seems that Glen Morgan and James Wong seem to favour suspense over graphic violence. I won’t pretend that the death sequences are executed with exceptional skill, but it seems that the pair had the master of suspense on their brain while writing the script. One of the survivors of the original disaster is named Hitchcock, and we’re told that the memorial for the thirty-nine dead students takes place thirty-nine days after the disaster, perhaps a reference to The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Okay, there are problems, of course. Final Destination is far from perfect. Some of the foreshadowing, especially of the original disaster, is so heavy-handed that it almost becomes hilarious rather than ominous. “Live it up, Alex,” our lead’s father tells him in the opening scene, “you got your whole life ahead of you.” I can’t help but wonder if death in this universe isn’t just a malicious force, but a vindictive one – it’s hard to believe that Alex wasn’t supposed to pick up on all those somewhat awkward elements of foreshadowing.

Just plane trouble…

And the kids are… well, typical horror movie kids. They are actually quite stupid, driven by angst and occasionally quite irritating. Many horror films feature the same types of shallow protagonists, and Final Destination is sadly a little bit too typical in this regard. “I hope you don’t think Browning, because my name ain’t on this wall that I owe you anything,” one douchebag tells our hero. “All I owe these people is to live my life to the fullest.” Cue the Greenday already. Our hero’s inevitable love interest is even into abstract sculpture. It doesn’t help that Final Destination’s somewhat shallow and one-dimensional teens are played by actors who don’t seem to be especially skilled anyway.

That said, the script does have a healthy dose of black comedy that makes all these more conventional aspects a bit more bearable. I know that there’s a special level in hell reserved for me, but I think that Seann William Scott is actually a fairly decent actor given the right material (which sadly happens all too rarely), and he does the best work of any of the teens here as the resident comic relief. While other characters are concerned and disturbed by our protagonist’s precognitive skills, our plucky comic relief has more practical concerns. “If I ask out Cynthia Pastor, will she say no?”

A morbid sense of humour?

Indeed, Final Destination is actually, despite its grim subject matter, quite fun. It never takes itself entirely seriously and – given the premise and the conventions of the genre it finds itself a part of – that is a smart decision. One pretty entertaining sequence sees our lead locked in what seems like a one-on-one duel with death. Sellotaping the room, refusing to cook his food, and not using electricity, our lead is remarkably wary. At one point, he almost steps on a fishhook. “Rusted? Tetanus. Nice one. I overlooked it. You tried to capitalise, but I caught you, you &#!$. I can beat you. Not forever, but I’ve got this cabin rigged to beat you now!” Any film which spares time for a man staging a man-to-man fight with death itself is immediately more watchable.

Plus, there’s Tony Todd. The man needs more work, even if he’s typecast in scary roles. Of course, being incredibly tall and having a creepily smooth soft-spoken voice will do that to you, as will starring in Candyman. Todd has one scene here, but he owns the movie, and it’s a shame that his role in later films would feel so watered down. Here he manages to provide both exposition and atmosphere, refusing to sacrifice one for the other.

He’s got high hopes of surviving this film…

Final Destination isn’t the perfect horror. In fact, it’s far from it. However, it is a well put together little thriller with a unique little premise. It’s not brilliant or radical, but it is original enough to be vastly more interesting than most teen horror films out there.

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4 Responses

  1. When this movie came out, I really looked forward to seeing it because it was such a fresh and original idea, plus I was a fan of Morgan and Wong’s writing on “The X-Files.” However, two things killed the movie for me–the overly elaborate deaths, which made no sense, and the fact that the entire story was pointless. There was a supernatural cause for the premonition that saved the lives of those who left the plane, so some force of good was at work opposing death. As death was reclaiming his victims, there should have been a good cause for why the kids were saved in the first place. Unfortunately, this is not developed and undermines the entire plot. I wish the film had more thought put into it and forgot the Rube Goldberg deaths, which come off as silly and nonsensical. Did the guy in the shower really have to end up strangling himself on the pantyhose wire as opposed to just hitting his head on the faucet? And the water retreats back into the toilet why? It hurts my brain.

    • I don’t know, I felt like that Rube Goldberg machine of death stuff got a pass because of the concept – “because Death wants it to” is a slightly more creative way of saying “because the writers need it to.” I liked the suspense of “will he choke or will he bang his head?” As for the retreating water, you have a point… it’s not as if a faulty water piper is unexplainable. It’s like death doing a crime scene clean-up. 🙂

      And you have a point about the fruitlessness of it all. That never, to my knowledge, got explained throughout the series. Although, with Final Destination 5, I just chalked it up to Death being massively incompetent. After all, that movie ends with death using a rocket launcher to swat a fly. (And there’s some other stuff as well that I don’t want to spoil.) I don’t know, I guess I just figured that Death wasn’t strong enough to stop the mysterious visions, or they were “ripples” due to the aforementioned fly-with-rocket-launcher results-orientated approach to death. It is suggested later on in the series that this isn’t the first time death has had to do this, and I could imagine a chain of events stretching back to the dawn of time.

      But yes, it’s all nonsense and my own admittedly silly rationalisation. But I do think it at least tries something a bit different than the other teen horror movies that were (and arguably still are) flooding the market.

      • The concept is great, but the execution is horrible. I’m usually against the whole “let’s reboot this series” trend, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a serious take on this idea with really well-thought out rules and a story that actually makes sense. Build the suspense as to who is going to die, make the deaths logical and meaningful, and give some explanation as to what exactly is going on. As it stands, the movies just serve as excuses to create gruesome and over the top deaths rather than offer something truly though-provoking and original.

      • Very fair point. And I can understand. And I will openly concede that the movies following this were increasingly lifeless. Still, and I admit this is a personal thing as a reviewer, I tend to like and appreciate relatively original ideas even if the execution is – as you rather skilfully argue – isn’t up to par.

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