In recent years, there have been a plethora of movies directed at the teenage moviegoer, and the majority of them fall into one of three categories. First, there is the teen romance, usually modeled after George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion", where some sort of deception blossoms into true love-- witness "She's All That", "10 Things I Hate About You", and "Drive Me Crazy". Then there's the self-explanatory 'bunch of guys trying to get laid' category-- films with this dubious distinction include "American Pie" and "Can't Hardly Wait". Finally, there's the most financially successful category of them all, the dead teenager movie, where well-scrubbed teens are dispatched in creatively gruesome ways by a mysterious killer-- witness the "Scream" series, "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and its equally idiotic follow-up, "Urban Legend", and the "Halloween" franchise.
"Final Destination" is the latest offering in the latter category, where more expendable teenyboppers are successively cut-down by an unseen killer. However, unlike previous entrants into the sub-genre, "Final Destination" has a number of elements that take it above your average run-of-the-mill slasher flick-- genuine suspense is created by a creepy atmosphere and surprising script, and the victims are stalked by Death itself. Under the careful writing and direction of "X-Files" veteran writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, "Final Destination" is a worthy horror-thriller in the tradition of "The Twilight Zone".
The plane's going to explode! It's not a joke!
Front and center in the story is Alex Browning (Devon Sawa of "Idle Hands"), a high school student about to embark on an extended field trip to France with his French class. However, on the morning of the trip and on the way to the airport, he gets a sense that something is terribly amiss, but cannot pin-point it exactly. But then, just before the plane is about to pull back from the gate for take off, Alex has a frightening vision of the plane exploding in mid-air. Terrified by this precognitive episode, he freaks out and is promptly ejected from the airplane with one of his teachers and five of his fellow classmates.
We all get thrown off the plane because Browning has a bad dream?
The plane subsequently takes off without them, and a few minutes later, as if on cue, it explodes in mid-air, leaving only the seven survivors in the departure lounge, who include teacher Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke, Lt. Vansen on "Space: Above & Beyond"), jock Carter Horton (Kerr Smith), and Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer). But instead of feeling grateful for their lives being saved by Alex's vision, the majority of the group views their would-be savior with suspicion and distrust, thinking that Alex had something to do with it. Only the reserved Clear Rivers (Ali Larter of "House on Haunted Hill"), who got off the plane voluntarily in the wake of Alex's rantings, believes that Alex's vision was genuine. Furthermore, the FBI, in the form of agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck of "U.S. Marshals") and Schreck (Roger Guenveur Smith), make Alex the focus of the investigation. However, the suspicion of guilt in relation to the explosion is the least of Alex's worries.
In death, there are no accidents, no coincidences, and no escapes.
In the weeks following the horrible mishap, each of the survivors begin dying under mysterious circumstances. Even more troubling is that Alex's precognitive abilities allow him to foresee when and the manner in which they will die. Of course, having been already ostracized by the airplane incident, no one wants to believe him. With time running out before Death reclaims all the survivors, Alex must figure out Death's design and counteract it the best he can. But as the old adage goes, 'everyone has to die sometime'.
What if it was our time? What if we weren't meant to get off that plane?
Working with the script first penned by New Line marketing executive Jeffrey Reddick, Morgan and Wong seem to have a little too much fun when it comes to raising the body count. You see, in "Final Destination", the victims aren't merely dispatched with simple knife wounds or axe chops. Instead, they are subject to either elaborate Rube Goldberg-type deaths involving intricate chain reactions with unexpected results, or sudden 'I didn't see it coming'-type mishaps-- either way, the result is gruesome and not for the faint of heart.
He knows which one of us is next!
Unlike other entrants in the teen horror sub-genre, there is little retread material found in this film, which helps create a true sense of suspense because you never know what Morgan and Wong have up their sleeve next-- this is particularly effective in the film's grand and pyrotechnic finale that will have you on the edge of your set. Even the film's more standard plot points, including the opening explosion on the plane and the tired cliche of a car being stuck on a railway crossing, seem fresh given how truly unpredictable things are. Morgan and Wong are very aware of how creatively-bankrupt the horror genre has become, and do their very best to up-end audience expectations.
Morgan and Wong also have a knack for creating a creepy atmosphere, as evidenced by their work on the early seasons of "The X-Files", "Millennium", and more recently on "The Others". Using iconic imagery, moody lighting, and a sinister soundtrack, there is a constant sense that nothing is right in Alex's world, which creates a sense of foreboding throughout the film. And the clues that are thrown the audience's way prior to another character being dispatched help create a sense of active participation for the astute moviegoer as they try to piece together what will happen next in tandem with the protagonist. However, not all the foreboding is deadly serious, as one recurring foreshadowing device is John Denver's upbeat "Rocky Mountain High", which becomes an anthem for impending doom (for those unaware, Denver died in a plane crash).
As the film's troubled protagonist, Sawa fits the bill, delivering a convincing performance. Another memorable performance is found in Tony Todd ("Candyman"), who has a brief appearance as an eerie undertaker. The rest of the cast however, does a serviceable job with some unremarkable performances-- the most disappointing being Larter, as Sawa's love interest, since her stilted acting sabotages the emotional atmosphere of their quieter scenes together.
"Final Destination" is a refreshing change of pace for what has become a tired sub-genre. From its opening moments to its sequel-hinting finale, "Final Destination" is an innovative romp through familiar territory. Boasting some impressive visual effects, some genuine surprises, and an intriguing story that would be at home in "The Twilight Zone", this latest dead teenager movie has quite a bit of life in it.