Final Destination (2000) ***½
You know, it may just be possible that the rest of the world has finally caught up with my sick-ass sense of humor. I grant you, the prospect is extremely unlikely, but allow me to enter into evidence Final Destination, a comedy so black, I’m not even completely sure I was supposed to be laughing.
How’s this for a twisted concept? This movie is predicated on the notion that, while it is possible under certain rare circumstances to cheat death, doing so makes death extremely upset, and in the words of a minor character (a mortician played by Tony Todd, of Candyman fame), “you don’t even want to fuck with that mack daddy.” You read that right-- this is a movie in which somebody actually calls the Grim Reaper a mack daddy. The reason that you don’t want to fuck with him is that, should you somehow manage to skip out on your appointment with him, he will hunt your ass down and see to it that you meet with a little “accident”. “And this is supposed to be funny?” you ask, but, well, yes-- I think so, because the Grim Reaper seems to be relying on Rube Goldberg to counsel him in setting those accidents up. There is a scene in which one of the characters dies because the mug from which she has been drinking her gin develops a crack as she fills it, resulting in a trail of flammable liquid following her about the house, all the better for the flames to catch up to her when a few more drops of leaking gin short-circuit her computer monitor, causing it to explode. The flames need to be able to follow her, you see, because she immediately flees the room after the blast from the monitor propels a large piece of the screen into her throat, and without a trail of fire to chase her, how could she possibly be herded into her kitchen to accidentally impale herself by pulling her big wooden block full of carving knives down on herself as she struggles to reach the phone to call for help? I think you can see what I’m getting at here.
So exactly how does one cheat death? In this case, the cheater is a 17-year-old boy named Alex (Devon Sawa, from Idle Hands), who is supposed to go to Paris with his high school French class. Alex, however, has a premonition shortly before his plane is to lift off, in which he sees the aircraft rip itself apart from the inside out with a series of explosions stemming from some sort of electrical malfunction in the forward half of the passenger compartment. It’s a very vivid dream, or vision or whatever, and it creeps the boy out sufficiently that he develops a case of the Screaming John Lithgows, and has to be removed from the plane. His friend Tod (Chad Donella, of Disturbing Behavior), his non-friend Carter (Kerr Smith, another damn “Dawson’s Creek” alumnus), another boy by the name of Hitchcock (Seann William Scott), and Carter’s girlfriend (Amanda Detmer) are also removed from the plane. The class’s two teachers disembark to see what’s going on, and a girl with the unlikely name of Clear Rivers (Ali Larter, from the 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill) gets off, too, when she is hit by an inexplicable certainty that Alex knows what he’s shrieking about. The crew is adamant at first that none of the disembarked passengers will be allowed to re-board, but they ultimately relent enough to allow one of the teachers back on, leaving the other, Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke, from the TV show “Millennium”), to look after the exiled teens. Well guess what... the plane bursts into a huge fireball just moments after taking off, the explosion sending out shockwaves so powerful as to shatter the terminal windows from several thousand yards away. I’m telling you, if you’re ever on a plane, and somebody freaks out like that, saying it’s going to blow up, or that there’s a little monster eating the engine or something, and the plane hasn’t taken off yet, get your ass the motherfuck back in the airport!
Of course, you don’t just go around predicting the fiery destruction of loaded 747s without attracting attention, and some of that attention is bound to come from such agencies as the FBI, who will want to hear you explain exactly how you knew it was going to happen. So naturally, Alex and company spend much of the night sitting in little rooms, being grilled by G-men on the subject of why they happened to find themselves on the ground when their flight went up in flames. Eventually, the FBI agents conclude that they have nothing certain with which to link Alex to the disaster, and he and the others are allowed to go home and resume their normal lives, or whatever is left of them. In Alex’s case, the answer is “not much.” Everyone at school thinks he’s some kind of freak, that he either caused the crash somehow, or that he is blessed/cursed with some sort of special ability to see the time and method of people’s demise. (There’s a great little exchange early on in which one of Alex’s classmates tells him that his driving instructor said he would die young; “Was he right, Alex?” the boy asks, worry positively dripping off of his voice.) Alex even loses his best friend in the aftermath, in a sense, in that Tod’s father refuses to let his son see Alex, blaming the latter boy for the death of Tod’s brother, who went down with the plane.
But Alex’s troubles are just beginning, because soon his fellow survivors begin having accidents. Tod goes first, accidentally hanging himself in the bathtub through a process far too convoluted to explain. This first death is understandably pronounced a suicide-- it isn’t exactly easy to hang yourself by mistake, you know-- but Alex and Clear know better. Late one night, they break into the mortuary where Tod’s body is being kept, I suppose for one last look at their friend (to whose funeral they will surely not be invited), and it is here that they encounter Tony Todd, who seems to know more than is strictly speaking normal about the inner metaphysical workings of death. It’s from Todd that Alex gets the idea that death is coming after him and the others to collect on their debt, and he wastes little time in trying to convince the remaining survivors of their peril. Alex’s harangue is in the process of falling on deaf ears when Carter’s girl is flattened without warning by a passing bus (another highlight of the film).
The bus episode seems to leave Carter and Hitchcock a bit more open-minded, but Miss Lewton remains impervious to persuasion. That’s unfortunate for her, because she’s next on the list, which Alex has just determined follows the order in which the survivors would have been killed had they remained on the flight. When Alex shows up at Lewton’s house to warn her that her turn is coming, she calls the FBI agents that interviewed her and the kids earlier, and has Alex arrested. Bad move. See paragraph two for a detailed description of what happens to her while Alex is being interrogated.
It’s about this time that Alex makes a discovery. Now that he knows the order in which his companions are scheduled to die, he is able to see hints as to how it will happen, enabling him to save them when their turns come. He also discovers (though Hitchcock has to die before this intelligence comes to light) that death will move on to the next member of the group if it is prevented from claiming its intended victim. The remainder of the film concerns Alex’s efforts to master the art of cheating death while trying to keep Clear and Carter safe as well and, of course, avoiding the attentions of the FBI. And for once, we the jaded audience are presented with a twist epilogue that actually follows logically from the events of the movie, rather than existing merely to set up an undeserved sequel or provide an opportunity for another cheap shock.
The thing that amazes me about Final Destination is the fact that was given large-scale distribution by a real (albeit decidedly second-tier) studio, despite the deadpan gusto with which it laughs at hideous fatal accidents. I thought the movie was fucking hilarious, but I’m flabbergasted that some bunch of nutless, gutless studio suits thought enough people would agree with me to court the wrath of the easily offended by letting this thing get made. Some of the humor in this flick is in unbelievably poor taste. Take, for example, the scene in which death squares up his account with Valerie Lewton (and by the way, am I the only one who’s noticed that she seems to have been named after a much-adored producer of thrillers from the 1940’s?). Before she pours that fatal cup of gin, she goes to the stereo to put on some music. Miss Lewton’s choice of music to die by? A John Denver album. More to the point, when was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie that played a teenage girl’s death beneath the wheels of a bus for laughs, in a strange, deadpan way that seemed to say, “Isn’t this horrible? Isn’t it the funniest damn thing you’ve seen all week?” Granted, I haven’t exactly seen droves of commercials for Final Destination on TV, so clearly the film wasn’t reckoned a good enough risk to merit backing it with the full power of the merciless Hollywood hype machine, but in these dark days of neurotic public concern over violence and morbidity in entertainment, the sheer fact of the movie’s existence is startling. That it would also be so good is even more so.