Final Destination Review

by Shannon Patrick Sullivan (shannon AT morgan DOT ucs DOT mun DOT ca)
April 14th, 2000

FINAL DESTINATION (2000) / ** 1/2

Directed by James Wong. Screenplay by Glen Morgan, Wong and Jeffrey Reddick, from a story by Reddick. Starring Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated R (MFCB). Reviewed on April 13th, 2000.


Since "Scream" revived the teenage horror genre, there hasn't been much variation on its successful formula. Films like "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Urban Legend" were largely direct knock-offs, lacking the creative spark to try something different. Now comes the latest youth-oriented thriller, "Final Destination", as usual sporting an inexperienced cast culled from other recent movies and TV shows popular with its target audience. But while the trappings of "Final Destination" may seem familiar, it is not just another "Scream" wannabe -- its screenplay is original, and more importantly does not speak down to its audience. While by no means a movie for intellectuals, "Final Destination" is nonetheless possessed of an intelligence which I hope is not lost on future scary movies.

As the film opens, a group of teenagers is boarding Flight 180 from JFK Airport for a class trip to Paris. One student, Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), falls asleep before takeoff and has a dream in which the craft explodes in midair, killing everyone on board. Convinced he has experienced a precognitive vision, Alex freaks out, trying to warn everyone off the plane. He ends up fighting with jock Carter Hogan (Kerr Smith, miles away from his character on "Dawson's Creek") and this results in several of them being kicked off: Alex, Carter, Alex's best friend Tod (Chad E Donella), Carter's girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer), nebbish Billy (Seann William Scott), loner Clear (Ali Larter), and their teacher Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke). Except for Clear, they all think Alex is overreacting to a nightmare -- until moments later when, in a terrific scene of building horror and anticipation, the plane does indeed blow up.
Alex is treated like a pariah thereafter. Some people (including the FBI) believe he may be responsible for the explosion, while others just fear him because they think he can see the future. But then, one by one, the survivors of Flight 180 start to die under mysterious and highly improbable circumstances, and Alex keeps getting premonitions. He slowly comes to believe that he and the others were not meant to survive the explosion, and now Death is coming back to claim them. Having cheated Death once, can he and the others do so again?

"Final Destination" is essentially composed of two types of scenes: scenes where people die, and scenes where people talk about death. The former might be, in a perverse way, the more enjoyable -- the movie boasts some impressively elaborate ways of killing off its cast, some of them worthy of Rube Goldman -- but it is the latter which sets "Final Destination" apart. The script, by Glen Morgan and James Wong (of "The X-Files" fame) and Jeffrey Reddick, does a good job of considering how death affects people, and how young people in particular think about death. There's the stereotypical attitude that teens think they're immortal, of course (embodied in Carter), but also much discourse about fate and free choice. What if the things we do today set in motion the events which will cause our death years down the road? asks Alex. It is a question with deep implications indeed.

But as much as "Final Destination" throws in touches of originality, in too many ways it is also very predictable. The identities of those who die and those who survive (or do they?) are not hard to guess, and as a result the middle portion of the film is somewhat lacking in suspense. We know people are going to die, we can pretty much guess who's going to die, so we end up marking time until the next inventive death sequence. It's not helped that almost every death is presaged by not just one but several occurrences: gusts of chill wind, strange shadows, the strains of "Rocky Mountain High" by the late John Denver ("He died in a plane crash," Alex notes early on). These touches added style to the killings the first couple of times around, but by the end of the movie had been overused to the point of farce.

The script is also hampered by a few gaps in logic. For example, after the plane explosion, more than a month passes before any of the survivors is killed, and then the deaths come in a rush. A similar stretch of time passes later in the film. Did the Grim Reaper have to wait until his calendar freed up? Also, we never learn why Alex has been gifted with these visions, and while the answer to that question is not really essential, I think some indication would not have been unwarranted. All this said, "Final Destination" makes up for some of these imperfections by eschewing the traditional Hollywood ending for something much darker and more surprising -- albeit one that is really inevitable, in the context of the movie. The writers deserve praise for sticking to their guns, instead of tacking on a more palatable ending which would have only diminished the picture as a whole.

The cast of "Final Destination" is generally solid, with Ali Larter notable as the enigmatic Clear. Sawa spends a little too much time looking wide-eyed and harried, but altogether does a good job in the lead role. The direction, by co-writer Wong, is accomplished, developing the atmosphere of paranoia without going overboard. Indeed, "Final Destination" is a movie which is well aware of its more ludicrous elements, and acknowledges them rather than trying to justify them -- witness a hilarious cameo by Tony Todd as a mortician, for instance.
"Final Destination" is not a great film, but as flawed as it is, it tries valiantly to rise above the conventions of the thriller genre, to be more than just another horror movie for teens. It doesn't just tell a story, but tries to tell a story about something, and I can only hope that other filmmakers follow its lead. "Final Destination" demonstrates that a movie -- even a scary movie -- can have meaning, and still be fun.

Copyright 2000 Shannon Patrick Sullivan.
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