Friday, February 05, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Final Destination (2009)

Truth be told, I've often enjoyed the Final Destination horror franchise.

For one thing, I appreciate the idea of Death as a formless, relentless predator...and one with an aggressive quota to meet.

Even more than that, I enjoy the conceit of Death as a kind of cosmic Rube Goldberg machine: murdering unlucky people in an indirect, convoluted and labyrinthine manner.


In other words, one accident leads to another accident. And as the last domino falls, the result is that an unlucky character dies. The Final Destination film series has always been at its morbid best when talented directors stretch their imaginations to carefully stage the escalation of the accidents, creating in the process an accelerating aura of inevitability.

Watching a death scene unfold in the original Final Destination (2000) is like watching God play Ideal Toy's classic board game, Mouse Trap. With people.

And heavy machinery.

I admire this approach because, in some odd way, I believe it actually reflects the shape of life (and death). Case in point, and I've told this story before: In 1989, I was driving to Richmond from New Jersey with my parents. We made a last minute decision to take the family van and not our smaller sedan. About half-way to Richmond, we became positioned on 1-95 behind a car carrying a surfboard on its roof. In short order, the surfboard became unloosed from the top of the car, and -- like a guided missile -- flew backwards into our van's grill. It bounced off and did minimal damage.
But had we been driving in the sedan, the surfboard would have smashed right through our windshield and probably decapitated everyone in the car. I've never forgotten this incident (which is probably why I've brought it up on the blog more than once.)

I remember the feeling of inevitability -- the impression of my life in slow-motion -- like it was yesterday. I remember seeing the board's restraints break; I remember seeing the surfboard shake and shimmy on the roof-top of the car ahead. I remember the wind lifting it up like a plane on ascent. And I remember the surfboard gliding right at us and thinking, finally, "This is it...I'm gonna die." And what a weird, unexpected way to go...


The Final Destination (in 3-D no less) is perfectly positioned to thrive on that very brand of feeling: on the inevitability of death; on the relief at miraculously evading it; on the thought "There but for the Grace of God go I."

And the opening credits indicate that the director, David Ellis, is out to have some fun in that regard too. There's one shot in the credits of a human spinal column (seen in X-ray vision), and the camera actually rides down it like a roller-coaster car. That's the movie's central metaphor: The Final Destination is a roller-coaster ride. Nothing more. It's not a deep horror tract about social or political ideas...just a 3-D amusement park ride.

In theory, I have no problem with that. I like a roller coaster ride as much as the next guy.

Anyway, the film opens at a quasi-Nascar race, the Megatech 3000, with cars zooming about the track loudly...and I quickly felt that pit in my stomach...realizing disaster was around the corner. But my feelings of queasy (and delighted...) anticipation didn't last long.

That's because we are soon introduced to the four insipid, interchangeable leads, Nick (Bobby Campo), his girlfriend Lori (Shantel Van Santen), and their buddies Janet (Haley Webb) and Hunt (Nick Zano). Nick experiences a premonition of disaster and gets his friends away from the race track just before there is a gory, over-the-top accident or truly apocalyptic proportions. Afterwards, Nick concludes that Death is stalking all the survivors of the accident because, well, it was cheated on that mortality quota.

Nick comes up with this theory by reading old newspaper accounts of the previous Final Destination movies. We don't actually see him doing the research; we just see him announcing his conclusions.

This is an early indicator that something feels rote and by-the-numbers here. The exposition about Death, for instance -- and about the way to break the chain of Death's checklist -- actually seems lifted word-for-word from earlier franchise entries, making this screenplay feel like a rerun. Thus we're not riding a roller coaster for the first time; we're really riding it for the fourth time. And that's a lot less fun.

More troublesome, all these characters here are literally as dumb as stumps. The lead character, Nick tells his girlfriend, Lori that he's had another vision of disaster...and she's dumbstruck, baffled. Like she's never heard the word "vision" before. A vision, what's that? I couldn't tell if it's the stupid writing at fault, or if Van Santen was hired not for her acting ability but because she looks good (very good indeed ) in her green panties. Other characters are pure stereotypes: the drunk redneck (whistling Dixie...) who has it coming, for instance.

All of these characters soon do stupid, stupid things in The Final Destination. For instance, Nick and Lori explain to Hunt and Janet in detail their theory about Death's pursuit. So what do Hunt and Janet do? They storm off!! They go their separate ways and totally ignore the warning. No, wait: Janet is even dumber that. She barely survives being drowned in her Scion XB in a malfunctioning car wash, and then -- when informed again that death is stalking her (in a movie theater this time...) -- she ignores the warning a second time.

Some people are just too stupid to live, I guess. The movie also forgets to let Janet grieve over the fact that her buddy Hunt has been killed. The very next day, she and Lori are out buying sneakers at the mall.

Again, a roller coaster ride is fine. But to really enjoy one, you should like the people who are riding in the car beside you. That doesn't happen here. The characters are off-the-shelf cliches, and you never really like or get to know any of them. They don't behave realistically, given the situation, and that kills the movie's verisimilitude.

The specifics of this roller coaster ride are kind of disappointing in other regards. The death scenes are not nearly as elaborate or as creative as in the previous entries. The scenes don't build and build the way they did in the original film. And remember the roadway pile-up in Final Destination 2 (2003)? There's absolutely nothing here that can compete with that bravura sequence.

At the moment, I'm an agnostic on the use of 3-D as a film technique. I think it was deployed brilliantly in Avatar (2009), but here, I believe it just made everybody lazy as hell. Why arrange spectacular, snowballing death sequences of real ingenuity when can you just point a sharp stick in our eyes? And I have to acknowledge, for the record, that the myriad 3-D objects hurled at the camera during these 82 minutes look artificial; very CGI-ish. They just don't appear real, and that fact makes this roller-coaster less fun than it should be as well.

Without characters to identify with; without death scenes that really rattle you or get your blood going, The Final Destination degenerates into a movie about one thing: people dying in really bad industrial accidents.

And -- sorry -- there's really nothing much fun about that. The narrative is so loose here, you wonder why they bothered at all. The filmmakers could have just named this movie Death By Tools & Gears (and Bad Luck!) and filmed a series of unconnected vignettes in 3-D. Yeah, it would have been a Geek Show, but The Final Destination is already a Geek Show; only with only the most modest trappings of a real story.

In one of The Final Destination's more absurd sequences, coffee spills on a newspaper and obligingly highlights the message "break the chain." That's also my advice to the makers of the franchise, but I'll type it out with my keyboard instead of creating it by dropping a hot beverage:

Give this movie franchise a rest. Break the chain.

4 comments:

  1. I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed this! I saw it the same weekend Halloween 2, during that whole big weekend when they both came out. And little did I ever suspect that I'd like FD about 10 times better than H2!

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  2. Hey B-Sol,

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.

    I actually liked the much-maligned Halloween 2 more than TFD because -- even though H2 was hateful, disrespectful of the franchinse and totally in your face -- I felt it was at least trying to do something new and different. It felt like a complete vision -- even if I didn't like that vision personally.

    To me, The Final Destination seemed a letdown. I had modest expectations for it -- just a rollercoaster ride -- and I didn't feel it met them.

    On the other hand -- I saw The Final Destination on Blu-ray, not in the theater, as you did.

    And sometimes films such as this (as with My Bloody Valentine 3D) really thrive on the community experience; on the theatrical camaraderie. I think I missed out somewhat on Paranormal Activity because of that too...it is apparently a very "communal" viewing experience.

    But hey -- to each his own -- that's what makes the horror blogging experience great!

    best,
    JKM

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  3. The problem with FINAL DESTINATION is the problem with a lot franchises - with each subsequent film you get the law of diminishing returns. IMO, the first two FINAL DESTINATIONS were the best. After that, it got real tired, real fast and just became a vehicle for CGI-enhanced deaths of various actors. Yawn.

    The first one, hands down, is still the best and that long shot of the plane blowing up in the background while the characters fight and argue amongst themselves still gives me chills. Plus, the film had a genuine playful vibe what with all the characters named after various horror genre legends.

    The second one was not quite as good, characters a little dumber, the set-ups a little more contrived but it still held my attention and I had something divested in some of the characters. After that, the film just became a by-the-numbers franchise and from what you say about this new one, this franchise has finally played itself out.

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  4. I really liked the first Final Destination, which I thought was an original concept with a truly frightening antagonist--Death. Parts 2 and 3 became increasingly more forgettable, so I never bothered watching the fourth one, which looked very derivative in the commercials. I see, from your review, that the film was exactly what I was expecting it to be.

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