Movie Review: The Final Destination
By Brett Beach
August 31, 2009

She is not singin' in the rain.

Final Destination, the first film in the horror franchise, came out six weeks before my marriage and subsequent travel to Jamaica for the honeymoon. It was one of the few times I had ever flown, up until then, and only my second time ever leaving the country. Needless to say, watching it a mere 72 hours before I was to take a long flight did nothing for my nerves. But the exploding plane set piece and others in the series are part of Final Destinations's genius in finding a way to ratchet up tension with the everyday. I have since caught the subsequent sequels on opening weekend and count it as one of my favorite film series.

It must be said upfront that I did not shell out the extra cash to see The Final Destination in 3-D. This wasn't for purely fiscal reasons, either. The 3-D glasses do not go well with my regular glasses I wear, and the alternative of having slightly fuzzy images leaping out at me from various angles is not all that appealing. Earlier this year, I watched both My Bloody Valentine and Coraline in this manner. I probably enjoyed My Bloody Valentine less than I might have in 2D — the fuzziness detracted from the old-fashioned scares - whereas Coraline was so rich in imagery and imagination and invention that my eyes stoically endured the burden and strain. To reaffirm my status as Cranky Old Man that I occasionally lapse into during my regular column, I find the current 3D bandwagon to be as ridiculous as the one in the '80s that gave us Amityville 3-D and Jaws 3-D, et. al. (Although if you are going to choose between those two, Amityville is incredibly entertaining as camp and trash, and Jaws is just, well, campy and trashy).

I have no need to feel as if the images are right there in the room with me. A great film is supposed to make me feel as if I am inside it (or at least involved wholly within its world). It may have been fine as a device to get butts into the theaters back in the 1950s when movies needed gimmicks to compete with television. But now that the glasses are bulkier and more expensive and the process is more elaborate and the images can be pristinely, digitally rendered, is 3D supposed to have an air of respectability or seem cool all over again? I'm not buying it.

In this case, I am particularly crankier than normal for two reasons: 1) I would like to think that the FD series doesn't need such gimmicks. It has a brilliant conceit at its core and anything added on top is just extraneous. As cynical as I typically am about franchises and sequels, this is a perpetual motion machine with the possibility for constant reinvention. 2) I was very, very excited for this fourth installment. The writer (Eric Kress) and director (David R. Ellis) of Final Destination 2 were returning, and I was hopeful that lightning would strike twice and they would create another deliriously rude black comedy. I am not prone to overstatement, so when I say that FD2 is one of my favorite horror sequels/sequels/films of this decade, it's with careful consideration. It's probably not even fair to call these horror films anymore as, for the most part, horror is beside the point. People escape dying a horrendous collective death to perish nasty individualized deaths. Repeat.

Perhaps the law of diminishing returns is now being realized. With Final Destination 3, I felt like returning director James Wong (who also did the first film) leavened his Goth gloom and doom tendencies with an ample helping of the second film's joke/punch line structure and went for the sick humor, before a self-defeating, bitter ending. With The Final Destination, Ellis and Kress seem to have crossed the line from mordant ironic humor into cynicism themselves, and the result is disappointing. The film is about 20% new, 80% old and the new material is quite wonderful. It's in the restructuring and revisiting of the old that TFD loses its footing and its way.

A lot of the early reviews have criticized the latest film for being the same collection of bad acting and non-existent characterizations. I agree with a fraction of that sentiment. Looking back on the first three films, they are exceptionally well cast, with the right actors in the right roles doing just enough with a single scene or two (which, let's face it, is all there ever is time for) to give some depth to their character or make them stand out. I think of Seann William Scott in Final Destination, Keegan Connor Tracy in Final Destination 2 and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Final Destination 3. It's true that a lot of the casting is populated with actors coming from (and going back to) the television industry, but up until now the series has made that a strength. Rather than distracting with familiar faces, they find the right people and personalities to play types.

In The Final Destination, there are no nuances or back-story in Kress's script, and the actors and actresses - with a single exception - bring nothing to the underwritten roles. Lead actor Bobby Campo seems like a genial Zach Braff-lite type and Shantel VanSanten is a less emaciated Olsen twin lookalike, but I could tell you nothing about their characters Nick and Lori - except that they happen to be at the speedway, Nick has a vision of disaster that results in him saving the lives of friends and strangers who would otherwise die, and then the people saved start dying anyway. Mykelti Williamson, as a widowed alcoholic security guard, brings gravitas to his part and the proceedings with his presence and he alone makes an impression.

Unlike others in the series, The Final Destination does not begin with an ominous opening credit sequence and a bare bones setup before leading to the disaster. The film opens at the auto race (set to a song by Shinedown that sounds intentionally Rob Zombie-ish) and Nick has his vision shortly thereafter. The opening credits don't come until 15 minutes in (immediately following one of the film's better death-as-a-punch line moments) and when they do arrive, they are indicative of the film's highly self-reflexive humor. Memorable deaths from the first three films are relived as CGI x-ray scans of skulls and body parts. This amusing quirk/game (can you figure out which film quicker than your friends?) is also used to end the film and it reminded me of the moment in The Street Fighter ("starring the incredible Sonny Chiba") when Chiba is about to kill a man by putting his fist through the fellow's head and the film cuts to an x-ray insert of hand going through skull.

The other big change is that the protagonist, Nick, receives not one but two visions of pending disaster, which allows for a second scene of calamitous destruction at the climax, this one set at a movie theater in a mall showing an action film in 3D! This is in addition to multiple visual references to other FD films (the number 180, a sign saying Clear Rivers). Did I mention self-reflexivity yet? Although if I understand the film's logic (and believe me, I do look for loopholes), this one was just a ruse so Death can have the last laugh at the film's no-one-here-gets-out-alive final shot - which does, as previously mentioned, leave a bad taste in my mouth. But perhaps I am asking for too much? I want gory deaths and a sunny ending? To have my blood and wipe it off too?

This time around, the set pieces lack the punch, or perhaps simply the adroit timing of earlier installments (certainly Final Destination 2) and many seem to repeat specific structures of the series' earlier deaths. There is death by unexpected vehicle coming from off screen (Final Destination); multiple near deaths in a business establishment, leading to ironic death just outside said establishment (Final Destination 2); death while in the hospital by someone who had narrowly escaped death once already (Final Destination 2). There are also a lot of unnecessary and ugly racial slurs that just hang in the air after they are uttered. In the end, I would have to rate this the weakest of the series. Perhaps I am only disappointed because I went in with expectations, but as a lover of film, this is what I do. Considering the smashing opening weekend gross for The Final Destination, we certainly have not heard nor seen the last of Death and gory endings. And, perhaps also irrationally, I look forward to seeing what can be done to keep the series fresh. The first question I have is this: what the hell are they going to call the next installment?