Monday, September 7, 2015

Review: Final Destination (2000)

Final Destination (2000)

Rated R for violence and terror, and for language

The Final Destination series is one whose importance in the horror genre I've often found to be underappreciated. Watching the first movie again last night, the thought that kept coming up in my head was that this film, and the series in general, was basically a bridge of sorts between the teen horror of the late '90s and the gore/torture flicks that ruled the genre in the '00s. The entire appeal of the series, especially with the sequels, was to see what creative ways they'd come up with to kill people this time, much like what the Saw series eventually turned into. And yet, in the earlier films especially, the characters fell into a lot of '90s horror archetypes (the good girl, the nice guy, the asshole jock, the bitchy girl, the best friend). This film especially basically plays out almost like a slasher flick, only with the Grim Reaper itself as the bad guy, subtly manipulating the character's environments in order to kill them in seeming "accidents". It was a creative way to get around the increased censorship of horror in the early '00s -- by making the figure killing all these teenagers a supernatural force instead of a human psychopath, it was guaranteed that there would be virtually no allusions to the Columbine massacre of the sort that made many similar films very uncomfortable to watch in those years.

And to this day, the original Final Destination makes for a pretty effective chiller, even if it's outshined by some of its sequels. The film's attempts to build suspense with the setup to the big death scenes don't always work, but they're admirable overall, hitting more often than they miss, and the kills themselves are plenty creative even with a limited amount of grue (perhaps the least in the entire series). The cast is likable, especially the two leads. providing for some surprisingly well-rounded characters for what's basically a supernatural version of a slasher flick. And of course, the very idea that the film is founded upon is scary on its own. It's an aggressively solid and competent film that does what it does pretty well, though I can't really say it truly excelled outside a handful of moments.

The story begins with a high school French class getting ready for a trip to Paris. One of the students, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), has a premonition of the plane crashing and everybody on board dying a fiery death, which causes him and a number of other students, as well as one of his teachers, to get kicked off the plane. Sure enough, it crashes, but Alex and the others aren't safe yet -- before long, they start dying one by one in seeming "accidents", in the order they would've died on the plane. As Alex and his girlfriend Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) learn from a creepy undertaker (played by Tony Todd in an awesome cameo), they were all fated to die on that plane, and Alex's premonition defied Death's design -- and now the Reaper is coming back to take the lives that slipped from its grasp.

This basic conceit is one of the film's great strengths, and director James Wong (who co-wrote the script with Glen Morgan and Jeffrey Reddick) takes full advantage of it. While the sequels were pretty much gorefests, here both Wong and Morgan draw on classic suspense for their thrills and chills. This story began life as a spec script for an episode of The X-Files, which Wong and Morgan were heavily involved in writing for, and it shows throughout. At its best, the film frequently manages to successfully capture the sense of dread of the unknown that was a hallmark of that show's best "monster of the week" episodes, before delivering payoffs that display a Rube Goldberg level of creativity. It's not the bloodiest film -- one death is a hanging, and another happens so fast that you don't even see anything -- but all the deaths hit hard. There are plenty of fake-outs along the way, too, all the better to keep you guessing. Unlike many of the sequels, there are some scary scenes where characters don't die, so you never know if something bad's gonna happen this time.

The film doesn't bat a thousand with the suspense, though, as there were moments when the foreshadowing could get a little too on-the-nose. The setup for the opening plane crash scene in particular relentlessly telegraphs what's about to happen, constantly reminding you that the plane is going to explode in a few minutes rather than just dropping one or two hints and then letting the tension build on its own until the plane finally starts breaking up. It's probably the second-worst opening disaster in the series, behind only the fourth film.  You can also readily tell throughout the film that this was originally an X-Files episode fleshed out to feature length, with only the two protagonists getting much in the way of character and everybody else pretty obviously there just to die. The agents investigating the disaster (played by Daniel Roebuck and Roger Guenveur Smith) serve no real purpose given their substantial amount of screen time; it was obvious that they were supposed to be Mulder and Scully, and without the built-in character development that those two characters would've provided, they're little more than artifacts of the script's origins.

Fortunately, they managed to wrangle together some surprisingly solid actors to keep the film afloat. Devon Sawa and Ali Larter have great chemistry together as the leads, and both give better performances than the film probably deserved. Sawa's Alex especially felt genuinely heartbroken by the loss of his friends, and as the film progressed, it seemed as though he was truly starting to lose it in his quest to beat Death. Larter, for her part, proved to be smart, capable, and just as determined, given more to do than just scream. When Clear recounted the story of how her father died thanks to an act of random street crime, she sounded righteously pissed at Death for taking him away from her. Even with everybody else being pretty thinly-written, Alex and Clear manage to completely carry this movie's human side. The great Tony Todd only shows up in one scene, as the undertaker Bludworth who tells Alex and Clear about how Death operates, but with his cool yet chilling demeanor, he gets the point across better than films with infodumps twice as long. The rest of the cast is pretty much "there", but none of them are subpar or below-average. Kerr Smith is probably the best of them as Carter, the best friend who thinks he's invincible, and starts panicking at the thought of his death coming earlier than he thought it would.

Score: 3 out of 5

It's not a true standout, especially in comparison to some of its own sequels, but this is still a very high 3 out of 5 and a firm recommendation for horror fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment