Film Reviews

Death Frets

What if fate has something horrific in store for you, and you can't escape it? It's an idea that's been around for a long time, from Greek myths like Oedipus, to the New Testament, to EC Comics and The Twilight Zone. Cinematically, we tend to prefer the idea that destiny is going to be a positive force (Star Wars) or, if it isn't, that we're capable of changing the plan to make it more beneficial. As Linda Hamilton's character in Terminator 2 put it, "There is no fate but what we make." This interpretation tends to jell better with the American dream, which teaches that anyone can transcend the life-plan through hard work, although our Calvinist roots still whisper that everything is predestined according to God's favor. And if God decides He doesn't like you, well, there's just nothing you can do to change that. You're screwed.

Final Destination is a movie that generally hedges the two positions, although it stops short of getting seriously theological. As a plane full of high school students is getting ready to take off for France, Alex (Devon Sawa), a kid who's paranoid about air disasters to begin with, has a psychic vision of the plane exploding. He freaks out, causes a ruckus and is booted off the plane, along with everyone in his immediate vicinity. Just as the guilty-by-association crowd is beginning to berate Alex, however, the plane takes off and explodes. Instead of thanking him for saving their lives, they figure he must have somehow caused the explosion and start to label him a freak, especially when his fellow survivors begin dying in mysterious "accidents." We see from the get-go that Alex isn't responsible; rather, some invisible force that manifests itself as a black cloud seen only in reflective surfaces is out to get them. Alex's theory, which seems more or less to be the correct one, is that they were all supposed to die on the plane, but because they cheated death (or fate, or God, whichever), death is going to figure out another way for each of them to die accidentally, in the order they would've died on the plane (nevermind that that would've been virtually simultaneously).

While the first such death is pretty cool, featuring a pool of water that follows its victim around just waiting for an electrical appliance to fall, things quickly get ridiculous. Fate, it seems, has been influenced by Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera: Every death scene after the first involves an object falling onto another object, which pushes something along, which ignites something else, and kicks off a chain of events leading to sharp or heavy objects being hurled at someone's head. Unless you're the kind of person who empathizes with Wile E. Coyote, it's hard to take any of this as seriously as you're supposed to. In addition, it ultimately proves possible to cheat fate through simple-yet-daring acts of free will, although why is never clearly explained.

Filmmakers Glen Morgan (producer/co-screenwriter) and James Wong (director/screenwriter) have executive produced both The X-Files and Millennium, so what this movie tells us is that those shows' abilities to frighten while simultaneously delivering deadpan humor originates entirely with Chris Carter, their creator. As if to emphasize this point, Morgan and Wong not only throw in two obtuse FBI agents, they even have female lead Clear (yes, that's her name), played by Varsity Blues' Ali Larter, say, "I'm not into all that X-Files bullshit." To be accurate, Millennium was the show about a man who had visions of death (and, ironically enough, also the name of another subpar fantasy movie about a plane crash), but the point is still this: Don't make blatant comparisons with similar, superior achievements within the story itself. It can only hurt.

Other unintentional narrative howlers abound. When Alex first enters the airport, the P.A. system is playing John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High," a song which is endlessly repeated throughout. To make sure we don't miss the point, Alex is required to say out loud, to no one in particular, "John Denver -- he died in a plane crash." (Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" would seem to be more appropriate, but perhaps it cost too much.) Clear is demarcated as the deep-thinking-yet-sensuous female lead by virtue of the fact that when we first see her, she's reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. And is it really necessary to include a creepy mortician who says, "I'll see you soon"? That said character is portrayed by Tony "Candyman" Todd only serves to remind us yet again of better movies, since he's the film's only creepy element, in all five minutes of his screen time.

Matters aren't helped by director Wong, who seems to be from the daytime-soap school of thought -- a mouth hanging open equals astonishment, wonder, awe, and horror. At first, it just seems as if Sawa is a bad actor, but then you notice that everyone is acting exactly the same way, including Seann William Scott (so good as the obnoxious rich kid with the "Mrs. Robinson" mom in American Pie) and Kristen Cloke (one of Millennium's better recurring characters as psychic Lara Means). And Sawa gets better in the second half, when his facial expression changes to shell shock, which he can pull off well. Regular X-Files cinematographer Robert McLachlan, meanwhile, seems as out of his element as Morgan and Wong, as he photographs the whole thing like a TV show, with shallow staging, flat lighting and some rather poor special effects to boot.

Not that this movie is unbearably bad, mind you, it's just a waste of a decent premise. None of the actors are horrendous; they just don't seem to have been given much direction or credible dialogue ("God's not afraid to die. Gods don't die. We do! Ya know?"). Morgan and Wong's track record as co-producers speaks for itself, but Final Destination also speaks volumes about why they should remain producers. Stick to what you're good at, guys; help Chris Carter get a feature screenplay produced instead.

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Luke Y. Thompson