[12 August 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
It’s just that I’ve seen this before.
—Bludworth (Tony Todd)
Watching Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) watch a logging truck on the highway, you’re aware that you’ve seen this movie before. And that’s the high (low) concept of Final Destination 5: you’ve seen it all before.
Since the first Final Destination in 2000, the sequels have never pretended that they’re news. Instead, they’ve embraced the repetition, as well as their viewers’ anticipation and potential boredom. They always begin with victims who “cheat death”, escaping from a catastrophic event because some lone individual has a “vision”. The vision offers up the full grotesquerie of everyone dying: smashed to bits or brutally penetrated, dismembered or exploded, victims of accidents, in the first four films, on planes, highways, roller coasters, and race tracks. The seer convinces his or her friends to exit the scene just before the disaster, and Tony Todd arrives on the scene to tell everyone that death will be stalking them. Ooga booga.
This time, the accident is vaguely topical: Sam sees a bridge collapse as his company bus—en route to a retreat—is crossing. He wakes from his vision in the usual sweat, persuades his unbelieving coworkers—including his perfect-blond-sort-of-ex-girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell)—to get off the bus. Once they’ve arrived at a safe spot, they gasp at the horror unfolding, pausing to wonder at their good fortune and Sam’s prescience. Soon after, they meet up with Tony Todd.
The film doesn’t attend much to the context for the collapse, say, problems with U.S. infrastructure or the failing economy. It does give Agent Block (Courtney B. Vance) a few choice words as he suspects terrorism, or that Sam is in on a plot, or that the series of deaths following the bridge collapse are the result of a conspiracy (“Did Sam have issues with authority?” he asks a witness, or maybe inclinations toward “extremist behavior?”). But because you know better, Agent Block’s suspicions don’t matter much, only making him seem less informed than you, and so, one of the franchise’s typical cops, ever a step behind.
As Sam and Molly and crew begin to figure out what’s what, the rest of us are left to anticipate how that crew will die. Screws come loose, water spills toward electrical wires, candles flicker. A very nice girl gymnast (Ellen Wroe) meets a yucky fate on the parallel bars and someone else doesn’t survive an acupuncture session. In one particularly viscerally effective instance, flirty Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood) decides she just has to have her much-desired lasik eye surgery right this second and, well, you’ve either seen the trailer or can guess what happens: it’s Un Chien Andalou meets Rube Goldberg.
Such procedures—prolonged and gruesome—are the Final Destination movies’ bread and butter, of course (despite the occasional thrill from a sudden bus splat). The idea here is that you never know when your end will come, even if, in watching it happen to someone in a movie, you can’t help but guess. It’s fun to guess in these cases, to recognize references to the previous four movies, just as it’s fun to guess how any slasher will strike. It’s fun too, to observe someone’s imminent demise from a safe distance (even if that might seem reduced by the 3D), then to gasp alongside others (in the movie and sitting next to you in the theater) and the laugh, however uncomfortably, at the terrible climax.
That the Final Destinations offer so many climaxes is part of their charm. Most of these climaxes occur while victims are alone, so that the process can unfold without intervention, though they always resonate with those left behind, who know, as you do, that death likes to keep an order, and that their turn is coming up. Most of the victims are interchangeable, whether Sympathetic White Guy (Sam) or Selfish White Guy (Miles Fisher), Nasty White Guy (P.J. Byrne) or Token Black Guy (Arlen Escarpeta). The point is not that you care when or how they die, only that you know they will.
It’s cynical, it’s cruel, and it’s sometimes surprising (if only in the gore’s degree). As it encourages you to forget each trauma in turn, it’s of a piece with videogames and cable news, with the internet and cellphones. It’s made for viewers who watch and rewatch sequels as a matter of course, cyclic and silly and nonstop to the point of dullness (Sam and Molly’s romance is as tedious a plot as any in recent movie history). Low expectations do have effects.