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Final Destination 2 (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

The casualties are the film's raison d'etre -- the more incredible and creative, the better.

Final Destination 2

Director: David R. Ellis
Cast: Ali Larter, A.J. Cook, Michael Landes, T.C. Carson, Keegan Connor Tracy, Jonathan Cherry, David Paetkau, Tony Todd
MPAA rating: R
Studio: New Line Cinema
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-01-31

It's the first anniversary of the explosion of Flight 180. Kimberly Corman (A.J. Cook) sleeps fitfully, as a talk show host on her scritchy, blue-lighty television recalls the explosion and the tragedies that followed: when a group of students got off the flight because Alex (Devon Sawa) had a vision that foretold the explosion, one by one they all died "weird, seemingly random," and quite horrible deaths. The talk show guest draws his gloomy conclusion: "We are surrounded by death, absolutely, everyday, everywhere." And, of course, it's a good idea to "look beneath the visible world." Whatever that means.

All this info may be helpful for anyone who hasn't seen Final Destination. For everyone else -- that is, the most likely audience for Final Destination 2 -- it's standard slasher sequel setup: briefly recount past events, set a mood, and send forth the latest batch of victims-to-be smack into fatal havoc... or, in the case of the FD films, into death's "grand design." For in these films, there are no accidents, except of survival: the only uncertainty (that is, the thrill) is how wacky the deaths will be.

In this movie, as the talk show ends, Kim wakes, breathing hard: she's in trouble. Within minutes, she's out in the sunshine, saying bye-bye to her dad and driving to Florida for Spring Break, with her best blond girlfriend and a couple of doper-boys in tow. As she drives and her pals mess around, Kim starts to see "signs" -- "Highway to Hell" comes on the car radio; a beer truck driver drinks while he's driving; her SUV engine light comes on; a kid crashes a couple of toy cars for Kim's benefit. Then, disaster: a log falls off a truck and smashes through a windshield, obliterating the driver's head into a splatter of blood and brain matter; in excruciating slow-motion succession, multiple cars ram, slam, crunch, and burst into flames.

Kim wakes -- again -- this time in the driver's seat at the on-ramp to Route 23. What's just happened is her version of Alex's plane explosion premonition, and since she knows today's the anniversary, she quickly puts together what her vision means. She swings her vehicle around so no one behind her can get past, thus saving all their lives in the multi-car pile-up that does take place before their eyes. (Too bad for the cars that do crash -- their drivers' faces do not appear in her vision and so they're plot-moving toast.)

Officer Thomas Burke (Michael Landes) happens to be in this line of cars behind Kim. Following the actual accident, after her premonition, he hauls her and the others on the ramp down to headquarters so they can discuss what happened, and, more to the point, so they can more or less reproduce the airport discussion scene from the first film. On hearing that they may be now involved in a scheme whereby "Death itself" will be stalking them, the survivors-about-to-be-victims react variously. They mention Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), the only survivor from the first film, now voluntarily locked in a padded room (apparently, Sawa had better things to do than come back for more, so Alex's death by a falling brick is reported in a news headline), and thus available for consultation.

According to formula, the survivors leave the room believing the story is mostly unbelievable, so that Death can get on with its business. The first to go is Evan (David Paetkau), a swaggering, material boy who has, oh so ironically, not only not died in the fiery calamity, but has also just won the lottery. His death is the most protracted and obviously comic -- taking several minutes and a series of accidents (his gold-watch-bearing wrist stuck in his sink's garbage disposal while his dinner ignites on the stove, a failed fire extinguisher, and an initial narrow escape that leads to a ferocious smack-down by Death), but it sets the tone for the rest of the bizarre, shockingly flesh-and-bone-devastating demises.

It's obvious that the casualties are the film's raison d'etre -- the more incredible and creative, the better. As in the first film, most of these deaths are presaged by Rube Goldbergian chains of circumstances -- a drip here leads to an effect there, which leads to a rising tension for you while the victim remains blithely unaware that a bone-shattering plate glass window or a spike through the skull is coming his or her way. The suddenness of several of these deaths suggests that the filmmakers attended to the great popularity of the alarming smashed-by-a-bus moment in the original FD: most of these fatalities involve bodies spattering into fluids.

In the midst of all this amusement, Final Destination 2, scripted by J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress, does devote a few brief minutes to "character development." These belong mostly to your hero Kim ("Why is this happening to me?" she frets, much like Alex before her); her not-quite-romantic-interest Burke; and a cocky biker named Eugene (T.C. Carson), who declares, with typical token-black-guy affect, "My ass is alive!" Another rather vivid character is a coke addict named Rory (Jonathan Cherry), who, for all his eye-poppy jitters, will likely be best remembered for his utterly appalling death, which combines an idea ripped off from Paul W. S. Anderson's Resident Evil (and, no doubt, precursors) and some common farm equipment.

So as to adhere to formula (those requisite references to first film in a series), Kim contacts Clear, drawing her out of her cell and into the melee with a whiny judgment: "You're a coward," she asserts, then flips Clear the bird in the surveillance monitor outside her hospital room door. It appears that the central reason Clear emerges is so she can lead Kim and Burke to visit with the first film's uncanny and odiously named mortician, Bill Bludworth (Tony Todd, evidently typecast for life). He's hanging out in a peculiarly hellish morgue -- red light, shadowy corners, sinister stone walls -- where Kim and crew arrive in order to ask him how to "stop Death." He smiles cruelly, then advises cryptically that they find a "flaw in the design."

Bludworth's mostly unnecessary re-appearance aside, the Final Destination franchise has come up with a somewhat clever spin on the slasher formula, that is, to excise the embodied slasher. "Death itself" need never be visual or even characterized, which grants the series a long-term lack of investment in a performer or set of particular causes and effects. No need to entice a Robert Englund (or several actors in hockey masks) to return for subsequent installments. Just dish up the basics, namely, dead bodies, preferably arranged for in ridiculous, increasingly outrageously entertaining ways, so as to allow a certain distance from the enacted violence and presumed emotional effects.

This understanding of the essentials of slasher aesthetics -- such films work like musicals, with story and characters only lined up to get from one set piece to another, the set pieces here being gory slayings -- possesses an elegant simplicity. While the design appears to draw from video games (which drew from film and other narratives), it also grasps the bare bones of (movie) plots, per se: conflict leads to resolution. And this may or may not open into a next conflict, depending on box office and/or video sales. However you feel about the design's moral, political, or even artistic aspects, on its own terms, it's flawless.

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