Final Destination 5: Tweaking the Formula

The “Final Destination” series, eleven years old now, is one of New Line’s (and Hollywood’s) most successful franchises. Beginning with the original film in spring 2000, this horror series has certainly found its place in our pop consciousness–and the uncertain age of terror.

The basic formula is that some young attractive person has a powerful premonition of imminent disaster (an airplane crash, a massive pileup, a rollercoaster accident), and somehow forces or convinces a few others who were “supposed to die” to escape death. Big mistake! This makes Death with a capital “D” very angry.  As a character, Death hunts down the survivors one by one.

In the previous films, Death is the shark. Aiming for freshness and novelty, “Final Destination 5” tweaks the formula slightly: Death will supposedly let only those survivors willing to kill another be spared. But this new rule is just thrown at the wall and does not really stick.

The idea of an unstoppable, unseen force out there that wants nothing more than you and yours exterminated has resonated (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars) with a decade of audiences that have, during the same period, witnessed a slew of wars and natural disasters consuming human lives the world over.

The films have made subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to their socio-cultural contexts. In this latest installment, the young man who has the vision (the bland Nicholas D’Agosto) is later pointedly accused by a detective of being a terrorist, and a shrine of pictures of the deceased at a company funeral recalls the September 11 memorials in Union Square.

The core idea of a “Final Destination” movie is that now place is really safe, not even the safest place you can think of in what used to be, or so some of us thought, the world’s safest country. Homeland Security can do nothing for you in the end, because Death is always bigger and badder.

Does this sound like a fun time at the movies? Not on paper, but the sick fun of the series has been watching silly people who think that they can outsmart Death being cornered and then punished with the most elaborate, cartoony deaths imaginable.

The fun is also in seeing how clever the filmmakers can be in killing people off. There is this endearing weirdness factor to these films, which is on full display in “Final Destination 5,” as we root for Death to win again and experience elation at its bloody victories.

Thanks to the advent of the new 3D technology, this sick, weird fun has only gotten sicker and weirder with “Final Destination 5” and the preceding 2009 edition, “The Final Destination.” Now we can practically experience being impaled or torn apart for ourselves.

“Final Destination 5” hits the ground running with stylish opening credits in which wave upon wave of 3D shards of glass fly at us. A couple of minutes of that and we already feel dead a few times over.

Although there are long and pointless expository stretches here that render the 3D meaningless, when that switch is turned on, the filmmakers don’t waste their new toy. Three of the big sequences in this film—a bridge collapse, a massage/acupuncture session gone wrong (leading up to the hilarious line “Who dies during a massage?”), and an ill-fated visit to the laser eye surgeon—work hard to earn their place in the “Final Destination” pantheon.

Rumor had it that the new installment would be a return to the original darker tone of the series, especially after the 2009 version took great pains to not take itself so seriously. But if anything, the new film takes even greater pains to be as funny as it is gross. And thankfully, funny it is.

The acting in this one is mostly atrocious, which tends to add to the comedy rather than detract from it. P.J. Byrne stands out as an obnoxious, womanizing nerd (the star of the aforementioned massage scene), as does David Koechner as an annoying boss and the great Tony Todd, who has appeared in all but one of the films, as Death’s mouthpiece. This time, Todd lectures the survivors on “a wrinkle in reality. And that reality is you!”

Which brings us to the flawed screenplay: although he sneaks in a few decent one-liners and a few goofball keepers, Eric Heisserer has written a largely the pedestrian dialogue to try to fill the slow spaces between Death attacks.

Nevertheless, “Final Destination” is not about narrative per se, and fans of the series should be gratified by the picture and its minor merits.

Cast

Sam – Nicholas D’Agosto

Molly – Emma Bell

Peter Friedkin – Miles Fisher

Nathan – Arlen Escarpeta

Dennis Lapman – David Koechner

William Bludworth – Tony Todd

Agent Block – Courtney B. Vance

Olivia Castle – Jacqueline MacInnes Wood

Candice Hooper – Ellen Wroe

Isaac Palmer – P.J. Byrne

Credits

A New Line production released by Warner.

Directed by Steven Quale.

Written by Eric Heisserer.

Produced by Craig Perry and Warren Zide.

Cinematography, Brian Pearson.

Editing, Eric Sears.

Original Music, Brian Tyler.

Running time: 92 minutes.