Splat splat splat. The Final Destination franchise has never been one for subtlety. But it seemed new once, with quirky rhythms, wondrously Rube-Goldbergian modes of death, and a jokey self-awareness that didn’t ask you to invest much in what happened. The third film, however, is not so new, quirky, or jokey. Instead, it’s pretty much what you expect: heads popped and brains yuckily visible.
As before, death has a contract on a certain group of teens who have somehow eluded it. This time the original occasion is a roller coaster ride, and the order of dying is premised on where they were sitting when they got off — this owing to the hysterical breakdown of Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has just seen a scary vision of the ride collapsing. You see the vision with her, you know it will happen, and when she and the survivors get off and her boyfriend stays on, well, you know what happens next too.
Though Wendy mourns the loss of Jason (Jesse Moss), she doesn’t have too much time before she’s sucked into an effort to decipher and defeat death’s plan. Her confidant in this endeavor is Kevin (Ryan Merriman), whom she dismisses before the accident as a loser, dating her now dead best friend (who, by the way, was about to dump him even as he was about to propose to her, meaning, perhaps, that they weren’t involved in a precisely intimate emotional relationship).
Wendy’s belief that she has some access to death’s plan (even without access to Tony Todd, who has serviced previous, similarly afflicted teenagers in the series) makes her nervous, but she feels confirmed once she finds her digital, yearbook-bound photos from that fateful night: each holds a clue concerning the next victim’s death. These clues are goony, of course: props or shadows that generally indicate the means of death (say, a couple of swords over one kids head show he’ll be hit by swords: go figure). But this is beside the point, which appears to be getting Wendy and Kevin to visit each victim in turn, in order to witness the passings, grisly and shocking. The methodical pace isn’t exactly thrilling. One victim-to-be wonders if death is like a person; no, says Kevin, “It’s like a force.” And so, the franchise bucks the slasher trend, proceeding without a one-lining monster-boy.
Of course, it also steps right in line, too, making the deaths pornographically pleasurable — without much in the way of cost for viewers. The only death scene Kevin and Wendy don’t get to is the first, as they don’t quite get the pattern then. The interchangeable Ashley (Chelan Simmons) and Ashlynn (Crystal Lowe), blond and brunette bookendy girls arrive at a tanning salon with Slurpees and essentially cook in the tubes. The film, directed by X-Files veteran James Wong (who co-wrote with his X-Files buddy Glenn Morgan), spends more than a few minutes setting up this curdly scene, with the girls’ breasts exposed, their cd players cranked, and their pelvises bumping to “Love Rollercoaster,” just in case you’ve missed the point that they were supposed to have died on the ride.
As the tubes heat up (due to a long-coming, very visible-to-you short in the wiring), the girls start to sweat and squirm and scream. Soon they’re desperate to get out of their hot blue coffins, the camera close on their bubbling faces, their arms flailing and legs blistered. It’s a terrible punishment to inflict on these vain, airheaded girlies, and yet they are as much objects here as any of the gimmicks that propel their ugly demises. And so the movie never asks you to feel their loss, but only revel in the visual lunacy.
The next victims are also arrogant and ignorant, though their deserving death has more to do with their snotty rejections of Wendy’s warning than the sort of inherent, despicable stupidity attributed to the Ashleys. With these subsequent deaths, the film grinds into another sort of gear, where punishment is a function of bad attitude toward the designated heroes. That’s not to say they’re blameless in the great scheme of Final Destination‘s meting out of justice, as jock Lewis (Texas Battle), wannabe player Frankie Cheeks (Sam Easton), and punky gothboy Ian (Kris Lemche) all seem to deserve their fates, if only because they’re mean to Wendy.
She’s the film’s center, in a way that relegates all others to backdrop or prop status. She takes personally the brutality of each death. “Can you feel how vicious it was?” she asks following one, as if imagining death takes particular pleasure in being sadistic. While her observation marks the moment for you (in case you’d even think about missing the viciousness of the filmmakers’/death’s work here), it also places her in that standard position — your point of identification in a slasher film, the girl you come in with, want to like, and want to live. Of course, that’s no guarantee of anything in the Final Destination movies, renowned for excessive slickness and gruesomeness (heroes do get killed off, as spectacularly as anyone else).
What is predictable in the franchise is the bloody-pulpness, the extreme abuse of bodies and the pleasure such abuse provides for viewers. The films typically achieve this effect by decent bloody prosthetics and ingenious routes to death (the highway pileup in the second film was stunning in concept and execution). This time out, the body smashings do produce gasps and “ewwws,” but by now, these effects aren’t so unexpected. So there’s the question: when does pleasure in death effects become routine?