Final Destination Review

by Stephen Jones (lisgj AT LIB DOT TTU DOT EDU)
March 24th, 2000

Final Destination: chronicle of a death foretold

Emily Dickinson started one of her poems off 'Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me.' James Wong's Final Destination pretty much just removes the 'kindly' from that idea. It gets going just as the trailer promises, too: with a fiery plane crash. Meaning we know that this planeload of students on their senior trip isn't making it to Paris alive. Meaning this first sequence should, by all counts, be void of all tension, as we already know the outcome, already know that all these 'portents' Alex (Devon Sawa) is cueing into aren't just projections of his fear of flying, but are in fact glimpses into the immediate future. In spite of this foreknowledge, though--or, perhaps, because of it--Wong's still able to generate all the nerves the sequence requires and then some (by focusing on how Alex will get off the plane, not if), which sets the tone for the rest of the movie, where Alex is the one with foreknowledge. He just doesn't always know 'how' until almost too late. It's a very effective device. And of course it's been done before, too, in every slasher movie to roll off the assembly line. We know Michael/Jason/Freddy/etcetera is going to get their quota of teens, we just don't always know how. Where Final Destination distinguishes itself from the crowd, however, is that there's no Michael or Jason or Freddy. In fact, there's no visually satisfying physical manifestation of the Grim Reaper at all, which is quite a gamble. It pays off, though: by keeping Death immaterial, it gains the ability to be everywhere, charging every moment with the possibility of its presence. In a way, too, we want Death to be there, to be picking off these people who should have already died. It answers our need for balance, equilibrium, justice.
This doesn't mean we want this unlikely crew of survivors to die, either, though, which is part of the pleasure of Final Destination. Most of the time it's enough to compel the drama forward via conflict between the characters, their situation, all that. Final Destination ups the ante a little, by placing the conflict in us, manipulating us into both sympathizing with the stalker (Death, who was cheated) and the stalked (who seem to have done nothing to deserve death, other than being between 12 and 19 in a horror film). As if this wasn't enough, Final Destination also smuggles the whole Boethian dilemma into the works: is Alex (God, here, though he denies it) just 'seeing' all these events before they happen, or are they happening because he's seeing them? To add to all this, too, there's a wonderful spooky cameo by Tony Todd (Ben from the Night of the Living Dead remake?). Here he's a mortician called Bludworth, and--though his role in Final Destination is more myth-based (he's a 'helper'), and thus not really in sync with all the slasher conventions--still, his performance is cool enough that none of that matters. We're too busy listening to the owls calling everyone's name, the bells tolling for him and him and her, a Faustian death calling in its marker, all that fun stuff. And yes, 'fun stuff' does include some lines like "I've got to get my head together" spoken moments after a decapitation, but, unlike Scream etcetera, Final Destination doesn't live and breathe by such cuteness. Instead, it just tacks it on here and there, mutes it down enough to where it's there if you're listening, but doesn't get in the way if you're not.
Granted, Final Destination is more or less a serious treatment of, say, Bill & Ted's Bogus Adventure, where they also have to outwit Death (by playing Battleship, among other things), but it's something in it's own right too, simply because it rarely takes the easy way out, doesn't go for the cheap scream each time. In this regard, it feels a lot like Disturbing Behavior, only it's got a little more substance to it. And, like Lord of the Illusions, it holds just enough back for--in Nix's words--"one final illusion." All horror tries to do this, and only few succeed. Final Destination is in the latter category here. And it gets there by not breaking the rules it's already established, which is something of a feat in itself, to say nothing of how elaborately that last death is staged, Mr. Rube Goldberg. Never has 'how' been so fun to answer.

(c)2000 Stephen Graham Jones,

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