Final Destination (2000)

D: James Wong
S: Devon Sawa, Ali Larter

Well mounted exploitation pic built around a series of extremely elaborate death scenes and cleverly foreshadowed shock moments in which almost all of the characters are named after directors of of horror/suspense films and the ending was re-shot at a cost of $2million just to give the audience a final jolt for their money. An American teenager (Devon Sawa) en route to France on a field trip has a premonition that the plane he and his classmates are aboard will explode. Seven people disembark as he goes into hysterics, and, lo and behold, the plane explodes shortly after takeoff. In the wake of the disaster, not only does our hero have to cope with being an outcast, but suspicious FBI agents are on his trail and he has a horrible feeling that the story isn't over yet. Death, it seems, does not like being cheated of its victims, and may yet have plans for all of them.

There is a serious sub-text to this horror film. Like many genre entries, it deals with a fear of death. The whole film is predicated upon a fear of death, and upon the audience's anticipation of death befalling the characters whose fates are central to its plot. DVD viewers will even get to see the original ending, an elegiac homage to life and the human spirit which involves a whole sub-plot dropped from the final cut which reinforces that. Serious or no, this didn't wash with test audiences and so writers Glen Morgan, James Wong (also director) and Jeffrey Reddick bowed to studio pressures and came up with another big set piece death scene to finish the picture with a bang. So instead of glorifying life, this movie revels in death, an odd reversal of fortune for a serious work of cinema, but everyday business for an exploitation picture designed to pull in the punters and give them what they say they want.

To be fair though, Final Destination is extremely well done. The death scenes are inventively outrageous, and never quite come out the way you expect. The writers seem to have fertile imaginations when it comes to trying to find the most preposterous yet relatively 'natural' (as opposed to supernatural) ways in which people can meet their untimely end. Each of the death scenes is set up well in advance, foreshadowed by production design, John Denver singing "Rocky Mountain High" and plot links to Sawa's visions. They are also usually intercut with the latter's attempts to intervene, but of course you know he won't succeed because if he did there wouldn't be a payoff, and we all know what we paid to see here. The movie takes it time killing people, and somehow, despite some gruesomeness, certainly ghoulishness, the whole thing is so slickly done and just exaggerated enough that it gets away with it. There are even one or two genuine jolts in there, though they're usually followed by nervous laughter during 'cool down' scenes, then, especially at the end, outright laugh-out-loud guffawing (which is invited and indeed relied upon).

The story, apparently, was originally bound for TV, as a script entitled "Flight 180" which was intended for The X-Files. It shows. This is derivative stuff, classic horror fiction filtered through Hollywood B-movies, Roger Corman, and The Twilight Zone. Though it doesn't go so far as to use the immortal line "Room for one more," it does through in Tony Todd (Candyman) as a mortician who quips "I'll be seeing you soon." Throw in some black and white photography, a little ground fog, and a cackling hag and you're back two generations with Val Lewton and George Waggner (men whose names are used in the script). Yes, it is of the Scream generation insofar as its in-jokey sense of humour and refusal to really go for scares speaks of a postmodern sensibility. But it also comes from a much longer tradition both of classic genre tales and 1950s drive-in and popcorn flicks for teenagers, and it at least has the merit of not falling back on the slasher film's usual psycho-killer motif. It's a pity it didn't quite have the courage to really follow through with its deeper questions about death and destiny though, as very often those kinds of movies, if consistent and coherent, have as much value as 'weightier' versions of the same thing.

Final Destination is a total popcorn-muncher done with enough skill to hold it together and enough in-jokes to please more savvy viewers. It is well made, not as dumb as it might have been, and is generally a professional package designed for mass-market consumption. It will provide amusement for those not offended by the entire concept, but it may prove a little too flippant for some.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with an interesting featurette on the executive decisions made following the initial test screenings, proof of the market-led decision making process which determined the shape of the movie. It also features the usual trailer and biographical data, a commentary featuring several people including Wong and Reddick, and some amusing fate and destiny games you can play with your remote control.