Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Final Destination (2009)

When Final Destination was released in 2000, it had cleverness on its side. After years of slasher films that found increasingly tortured origins for their kill-crazy villains, director James Wong (along with writer Glen Morgan) simply did away with the slasher altogether by making death itself the villain. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a neat twist on a horror staple. Then came installments two (directed by David E. Ellis in 2003) and three (directed by Wong in 2006), which both found the perfect realization of the concept. All three films start with a catastrophic accident (plane crash, highway pileup, rollercoaster derailment) before doubling back to find that a character has had a vision of that accident, which allows for some preventative measures that allow some of the would-be victims to move away from the inevitable. But they were supposed to die, so death (an unstoppable and unseen force) hunts them down. The second and third movies still weren’t great, but they were better than their franchise’s originator in the way they let their slow building dread of death creep up on the characters. All three films successfully turn everyday objects and situations into (increasingly inventive) Rube Goldberg death traps allowing the fear to come not from what’s hiding in the next shadow but from eying all of the objects in the frame with a newfound suspicion.

So here we are with a fourth installment, confusingly titled The Final Destination and back with David E. Ellis directing. This time it’s in (mostly pointless, save for the opening sequence) 3D, but that’s just about the extent of the innovation on display this time around. The opening accident is not quite as sensational. The death traps are not as creatively elaborate. (What used to take several steps in a chain of events now tops out at three or four). The characters are not as relatable or dimensional (not that dimension was ever a major strength of the characters in this franchise), instead they’re uniformly cartoons. Our main characters are the most relatable, but even then, they’re thinly drawn.

Bobby Campo plays the one with the vision and does a reasonable job shouldering that burden, though, like every aspect of the movie, he’s not quite as good as those who’ve come before. He has some friends (Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano, Haley Webb) and they all seem like they’re in their early-to-mid twenties but I’m not sure what they do. There’s a cryptic reference to studying in the opening scene but the rest of the film finds them only interacting with each other and others on death’s list or lounging (and fretting) around a well-furnished domicile. Where do they get their money? Are they still in school? Are they working? Where are their parents? For that matter, where does this movie take place? No one in this movie has much of a life outside of the plot, whereas in the other movies there were other characters or props that could show us that the world existed before and after the film. Here, the characters seem to only know each other in their bland generalized Hollywood town. This is a hermetically sealed death-machine with a mostly pretty cast sent to die.

The movie is reasonably diverting, though, moving right along. It’s short and barley leaves an impression. I certainly didn’t have an unenjoyable time, but it never truly delights or unsettles in the ways that its predecessors have. The most interesting moment has a (spoiler) movie theater showing a 3D movie strafed with debris from a nearby construction site. Save for this brief shimmering meta-moment, the movie just doesn’t have the creativity to fulfill its concept. With this fourth installment, what started out as a great twist on a tired genre has itself become tired.

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