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The Final Destination, 2009

I'll Be the King of Wishful Thinking

I knew The Final Destination would be an odd movie from the trailer:

“We’ve saved the best for…3D!”

Now, horror franchises have a fine tradition of trying to keep audiences awake by pumping up their third installments with 3D effects, but this is the fourth film. I thought that maybe New Line was trying to forget FD3, as have I—unsuccessfully, thanks to HBO. But, no, this is deliberate, and I would happily write it off as an utter failure had it not been so damned entertaining.

Please don’t take that as an endorsement of quality. My God, there are so many problems with this picture it’s as if the projectionist was screening the first week’s dailies. I’m talking about the fact that for 82 minutes, I laughed consistently and had the higher-functioning areas of my mind tickled more than once. I dare say that The Final Destination contains a workable thriller somewhere beneath the unconvincing CG gore and cynical script beats.

Anyone who’s seen Final Destination 3 knows that the script was, quite literally, a Xerox of the original film that had been modified only in the sense that all references to “airplane crash” were replaced with “roller coaster crash”. Even the character archetypes’ dialogue was the same. This holds true for The Final Destination, and our story begins with our four main characters, A, B, C, and D attending a NASCAR-style event. A has a vivid premonition of a car crash that sets off a violent chain reaction, which ends up killing him, his friends, and most everyone else in the venue. He wakes up from this daydream, freaks out, and ushers his friends outside, along with Neo-Nazi, MILF, Redneck Mechanic, and Black Security Guard (lest you think I’m being overly crude in these generalities, the end credits actually list actress Krista Allen as “MILF/Samantha”). The racetrack explodes in a firestorm of carnage, and everyone is—more or less—happy to be alive. This all happens within the first eight minutes or so, and it’s nice to see the fourth film break the cycle of aping the original by removing all elements of character and suspense.

A sees more premonitions, these geared specifically to the eventual demise of the other survivors; sure enough, they each die in the order that they should have at the track. The means of execution are invariably complex confluences of events that set in motion gruesome death traps—someone knocks over a bottle, which trips a switch, which turns on a fan, that yadda, yadda, yadda…man gets impaled by a propane tank and his torso is forced through a fence, creating perfect diamond-cut chunks of meat. The kills are unspectacular, especially one that was shamelessly ripped off from Chuck Palahniuk’s short story “Guts”. What sets this movie apart, however, is its frequent use of red herrings: on a number or occasions, what you think you’re seeing isn’t what you think it will turn out to be (and that includes some of the trailer’s money shots). This brings me to the end of the plot synopsis; barely the middle of the story, I know, but do you really need me to go any further?

I’d like to focus instead on the key things that make this movie amazing—not worthwhile, remember, but a hoot nonetheless. First, it’s the flattest-looking 3D movie I’ve ever seen. Forget that all of the great dimensional effects are wasted on cheap nails-flying-at-the-audience gags; I’m talking about the regular scenes, the non-gotcha stuff. Cinematographer Glen MacPherson ruins every scene by giving every person, set, and object of interest the exact same importance—and when everything’s important, nothing’s important. There’s no foreground or background to the movie, only copious amounts of gloss—imagine a Dilbert comic filmed as a Mentos commercial and you’re halfway there; I’m tempted to call this an “MTV” look, but it’s closer to a Barbara Walters Special. It sounds like a minor complaint, but I was constantly distracted by how bland everything looked—and it’s only half fair to blame the cast.

The Final Destination also wins the “Best Weightless Rubble” award, mostly for the racetrack disaster that opens the movie. It’s so painfully obvious that no practical effects people were allowed near the set; all the kills in this thing are digitally created non-events that must have sounded great on paper (“couple cut in half by flying car debris!” “Girl flattened by airborne engine!”), but the combination of lousy camerawork, CG, and flimsy acting didn’t amount to anything. Even several minutes of concrete pillars shattering and crushing people fail to evoke anything other than memories of Roadrunner cartoons.

Speaking of cartoons, did someone mistakenly tell all of the actors that they were filming Scary Movie 5? I swear, every line of dialogue was delivered with either dinner-theatre earnestness or Zoloft-stupor ennui. The Final Destination plays out like a MAD TV parody of Final Destination 3, with characters putting things together way too quickly or emoting on all the wrong beats. At one point, MILF/Samantha tells her two bratty kids, “I’m gonna keep my EYE on you!” Right before she gets a bullet-strength pebble to the EYE. The first three Final Destination films gave us at least one good or semi-accomplished actor apiece, from Ali Larter to A.J. Cook to Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The best this picture can offer is a former Cinemax-After-Dark icon (Allen) and a never-was MTV host (Nick Zano, who plays C).

The thing that fascinated me most about FD43D was its subtle (?) racism. If you think that’s a hefty charge, let me pose this question: What do you call it when the only characters of color in a major motion picture are a black homeless man, a black construction worker with two lines of dialogue, a black theatre usher with one line of dialogue and a black NASCAR security guard who ends up getting killed (twice)?

On second thought, there is another ethnic character that shows up in a hospital scene toward the end of the movie: a guy named “Chinese Orderly”.

Lacking any discriminatory memos on studio letterhead, I’m willing to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here and just assume they’re fans of really old movies. *

Earlier, I hinted at some moments of mental stimulation in the movie. For all its faults, I must give the creative team credit for the little touches—sight gags, really—scattered throughout. While some are real eye-rollers (“Destiny Towing Company”), others are nifty callbacks to the original film (a security camera displays the number 180, the doomed airplane’s flight number). There was on opportunity, though, that was painfully left dangling: wouldn’t it be cool if one of the survivors murdered one of the other survivors? They would act as the agent of death, rather than death having to set up another ridiculous Rube Goldberg scenario. This is suggested in a scene between Neo-Nazi and Black Security Guard, but I guess one doesn’t attend these movies for fully formed ideas.

This isn’t a very good movie, but it’s a worthwhile experience, especially if you plan to see it with friends. The Final Destination is a great end-of-summer, end-of-franchise picture full of laughs and mediocrity, the rare sort of movie that makes you proud to pay full price for the privilege of wasting time on over-produced, fourth-generation trash.

* For those who’ve seen the movie, you may argue that the dragging death of the Neo-Nazi was an empowerment kill, a turning of the tables between two cultural stereotypes. While it did make me giggle a bit, I contend that the aforementioned argument holds more sway than this minute-long scene.

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