Final Destination

USA, 2000.  Rated R.  95 minutes.

Cast: Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Seann William Scott, Chad Donella, Kristen Cloke
Writer(s): Jeffrey Reddick (screenplay & story), Glen Morgan, James Wong

Music: Shirley Walker

Cinematographer: Robert McLachlan

Producers: Craig Perry, Warren Zide

Director: James Wong


Grade: B- Review by Jeff Vorndam

Something odd happens when you find yourself enjoying a bad movie. Clichés and stereotypes become time-honored conventions. Implausible plot contrivances are seen as clever set-pieces. Banal dialogue turns into risible one-liners. A guilty pleasure is born. Final Destination is a cut above the generic teenage slasher flick, if for no other reason than that it does not include a slasher. Instead, the film skillfully conjures suspense from the mundane for its first sixty minutes before settling into a scattershot climax and rebounding with a wicked final scene. It's no masterpiece, but an appreciation for subtlety and irony reveals a sly wit that delivers solid escapist entertainment.

Notice the names of the characters in the movie. There's a guy named Hitchcock. Another's last name is Browning and another's first name is Tod (Tod Browning directed the classics Dracula and Freaks). There's even a "Valerie Newton" to remind us of 40s horror-meister Val Lewton. The FBI agents are named Schreck (Nosferatu) and Weine (Dr. Caligari). See if you can guess the connection between a vituperative character named Carter and the writers of the film. The filmmakers want us to not only smile in recognition of these cornerstones of horror cinema, but also to further emphasize the movie's themes of coincidence and fate–people with these types of names would just have to have terrible things happen to them. Carter, Sawa and Smith

The focal point of the machinations of terror is Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), a high school seniour about to embark on a trip to Paris with his French class. Alex is a fledgling clairvoyant, though we (and he) don't know he is at first. He seems more like a superstitious jitterbug on the border of paranoia. He's jumpy before he even leaves for the airport, and his father's ominous portend (in one of the film's many cheesy-obvious lines), "You have your whole life in front of you," doesn't help. Arriving at the airport, we meet some of Alex's classmates: the vain and sneering Carter (Kerr Smith), his bimbo girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer), the bookwormish beauty with the stripper name, Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), and his best buddy, the horndog Tod (Chad Donella). Alex is on edge. Everything he sees, comically, reminds him of imminent doom–the clacking arrival board that reads "final destination" and "terminal," and the John Denver song he hears in the bathroom (after all, Denver did die in a plane crash). Visibly sweating as he enters the plane, his panic grows as he notices little details that set off internal alarms. In a scene that rivals Fearless in its harrowing depiction of airborne disaster, Alex imagines the plane's destruction with white-knuckled realism. It's no wonder he shouts to be taken off the plane. His histrionics attract a crowd, and soon he and five others are hoisted off the plane before its departure.

As riveting and unsettling as the dream was, Alex's reality becomes far worse. While Carter excoriates him for ruining their class trip, we see the plane explode just after takeoff in the background. Alex's nightmare has come true and his eerie actions have saved himself and five others from certain death. Only one of the five, the quiet intellectual Clear, seems to be grateful for Alex's intercession. The others, particularly Carter, regard him as a freak, and perhaps even wonder if he caused the crash just by thinking about it. This is standard high-school B-movie drama, setting up strawmen to oppose the hero whom no one believes.

Hooked by the premise of the story, I enjoyed and awaited these identifiers of bad moviedom. Devon SawaThey act as comforting signposts to assure me that I am not watching art and should be having fun. One of the common signposts is the crazy old man who warns the kids that they're not out of the woods yet, and that if they continue meddling, they'll only find further trouble. Fulfilling this role with malicious joy is Tony Todd (The Candyman!), playing a creepy coroner (aren't all coroners creepy?) who whispers omens through his teeth, telling the teen sleuths that death has a plan for them all, and that they've only averted one attempt. One by one, he assures them, they will succumb to the icy claw of death.

Having outlined the rest of the plot, the coroner is not seen for the rest of the film, but his words ring over every scene. Alex becomes obsessed with the idea that he can continue to cheat death, and perhaps in doing so, become a god. As his surviving friends meet their grisly demises, and the noose tightens further around our hero's neck, the audience gets to play the game of wondering who's next and who will be left. A less-inspired film would mark time with rote killings earmarked by loud noises and sudden movements to shock its audience. Final Destination surprised me with its ingenuity in dispatching the first three victims. Not only are the methods and timing of the deaths well set-up and executed, but the fact that the perpetrator is unidentifiable provides the film's capstone.

Because the stalker is Death itself–not the cartoony Grim Reaper incarnation of Death, but an amorphous and invisible force that pervades the surroundings–we are constantly on edge. Even the smallest everyday actions seem dangerous and life-threatening. Shaving, fixing a drink, playing a record, lighting a match... who knows which will spark a fire, cause a fall, or lead to impalement? The killing scenes provide some clues and some red herrings; all culminate in a superbly edited expiration that had me squirming and peering through the gaps between my fingers. The camera placement is thoughtful, too. A few scenes create anxiety simply because of what is just out of reach of the frame.
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Disappointingly, Final Destination couldn't sustain the suspense for the duration of the story. Somewhere around the three-quarter mark, it loses focus and starts substituting larger and flashier "thrills" for the quieter everyday fare that had been successfully spooky. There's a lame car chase, some over-the-top gore, and a lot of pyrotechnics and loud noises that drown out the feelings of the characters experiencing them. Overwhelmed by the spectacle, I retreated from the action and hoped the film would right itself before running out of fuel. The coda does repair some of the damage, even if it's a little glib. One thing's for sure, "Rocky Mountain High" will never sound the same.

It's probably not fair to criticize the acting in this sort of film, since all the actors are required to do is scream, gurgle, and writhe in agony–and then during their death scenes do it all over again, but with feeling! Nevertheless, Devon Sawa serves nicely as our hapless protagonist, sufficiently dorky to invite ridicule from the "cool guy" and sufficiently cute to win the heart of the "smart hot babe." Ali Larter is completely unbelievable as a Henry Miller-reading, arc-welding high school student but she looks good in a tight shirt and that's all that seems to matter. Everyone knows they're playing "types" and broadens their performances accordingly.

The movie's open ending leaves room for a sequel, but I wonder what they can possibly title it. Final Destination Again: No Really, I Mean FINAL This Time? Or maybe Turn Your Brain Off And Enjoy! Nah, Hollywood's never been one for truth in advertising.

Review © March 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.

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