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Final Destination is well worth the trip

Final Destination
Starring: Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Chad Donella, Seann William Scott, Kerr Smith, Brendan Fehr, Amanda Detmer, Kristen Cloke, and Tony Todd
Screenplay: Jeffrey Reddick, Glen Morgan, and James Wong
Producers: Warren Zide, Craig Perry, and Glen Morgan
Director: James Wong
MPAA Rating: R for violence and terror, and for language

First, let's all give a hand to Scream for giving new life to a dying subset of the horror genre. Second, let's all slice-and-dice Wes Craven for giving new life to a dying subset of the horror genre. Seriously though, is it any wonder why this genre died out in the late eighties? Not really, as sequel after sequel ruined what was originally a surprisingly effective scare machine. You had Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and from then on, it was boring cinematic crap. Now, in 2000, we have a similar scenario approaching quickly. Since that 1996 quintessential slasher film came out, we've been ridiculously overwhelmed by similar product on the big screen. Sadly, most of it doesn't compare to Craven's original self-referrential vision. Until now.

Final Destination is that small diamond amidst the coal. The previews were creepy enough, but that never means you'll see a good film. However, this trailer's creepiness doesn't go unjustified. Final Destination is that teen slasher without the slasher. That's right--you aren't going to find some crazy, messed up teen donning a mask here. No, this time it's back to the original eighties concept: supernatural evil. Just as Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street did for sleep deprivation, so will Final Destination for in-flight paranoia. Crafted with such precision and care by director James Wong (of The X-Files fame), Final Destination goes where no teenager slasher film has ever gone before: the heart (and I don't mean in that knife-to-the-heart kinda way either).

Perhaps I'm being overly nice. Not only am I a sucker for a good slasher flick, but I'm deathly afraid of flying as well. The thought of not being in control of my life is one I do not like, and flying 30,000 feet in the air is combining my fear of lack of control and my fear of heights into one tumultuous ride. There is just no way I'm getting on a plane (I'm just going to blame Die Hard 2 for this phobia). Final Destination capitalizes on both these fears, and as a result, it is hands down the best and most suspenseful teen slasher film since Scream.

Opening with a 25-minute segment that rushes viewers through a gauntlet of emotions varying from humor to horror to existential angst, Final Destination is one helluva a ride. Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) is your average 17-year-old high school student, highly anticipating his school trip to France for his French class. Once aboard the plane, however, Alex has a disturbingly vivid vision of the plane exploding midair during take-off. He rushes for the exit, causing several other students and teachers to be thrown off in the ensuing panic. Airport security won't let them board again, but a plea from Ms. Lewton (Kristen Cloke) gets the other French teacher aboard. Five minutes later, the plane bursts into flames.

The remaining group is thrown into a tyraid of emotions, trying to deal with the fact that all their friends are now dead. Tod (Chad Donella) lost his brother on the flight; Carter (Kerr Smith) and his girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer) are lucky they are still together; Ms. Lewton feels guilty for sending another teacher onto the plane; Billy (Seann W. Scott) is thankful that Alex got him off the plane by accident; and Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) is intrigued by Alex's supposed gift. Questioned by the FBI, who begin to suspect Alex may have had something to do with the explosion, the group is forced to come to terms with the extreme nature of their situation: they just defied Death. But Death, it seems, doesn't like being cheated.

This is arguably an interesting premise: if Death is foiled, does he come back to collect? Final Destination is not just a teen slasher film (due to the fact that there is no physical slasher, it doesn't even seem worthy of that title). It's a meditation on life and fate. This isn't Kieslowski, nor should anyone expect it to be, but the screenplay here tries to balance the gore with some thought-provoking questions. What is the point of life if death is always inevitable? Carter risks the lives of his friends during one frantic drive through the streets, claiming that if he is going to die eventually, why bother even trying to avoid it? Surprisingly, the film asks us these questions and doesn't offer us simple answers. Perhaps the only reason for living is the fact that we are not dead. It's Kafka-light, but it's still Kafka.

Certainly, after the opening 25-minutes, Final Destination settles into the typical teen slasher mode, where the victims are hunted down one by one in gruesome, Rube Goldberg fashion. Death's machinations are quite complex, where one mug of coffee turns into a series of deadly mishaps. It's not hard to guess who will live and who will die, but the entertainment factor of these films come from the actual deaths. Sure, a knife across the throat is gruesome enough, but Final Destination is much more unconventional. Death can't physically touch these people; instead, he must resort to setting up situations that resort in the demise of its intended. Alex soon realizes he can see Death's hand just prior to the actual event, allowing him to intervene. Unfortunately, Death is persistent. When your time is up, it's up. The film leaves a rather somber and depressing tone, and yet it's extremely entertaining throughout. And isn't that what films are all about anyway?

Scripted by Glen Morgan, Jeffrey Reddick, and James Wong, Final Destination is superior to most films of this subgenre. It's smart without being self-referential. It hearkens back to the good old days of such classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street where the horror is taken seriously. It's still funny (sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not), but it's also quite suspenseful. The screenplay is well-plotted without being twisty, and the dialogue is often-times intelligent.

Credit must be given to Devon Sawa, a young actor who deserves to have a higher profile in Hollywood. Sawa's down-to-earth personality and good looks give him the credibility to pull off these types of roles. Sawa is the emotional center of the film, and he's more than up to the task. It's his performance that makes us care as much as we do. Hopefully Sawa will have a good career ahead of him. Ali Larter is a genuine surprise, an unusual beauty who broods as easily as she smiles. Larter's performance balances Sawa's perfectly, and their chemistry together is nicely handled. Kerr Smith is given some bland dialogue and characterizations to work with, but he manages to make his character interesting nonetheless. Kristen Cloke steals many of her scenes as a tormented teacher who regrets sending the other teacher onto the plane. Cloke's performance is subtle and nuanced, and often times you are brought to tears by her earnestness. Seann W. Scott is the cast's only weak spot. Scott, who was terrific in American Pie, can't seem to make heads or tails of his character (and as a result, neither can we). Scott tries his hardest, but the character is poorly written. The rest of the cast is mostly of unimportance, either to be offed or to give Alex trouble.

Directed by Wong, who helped create some of the best X-Files episodes, Final Destination has a very dark and eerie atmosphere. The camera captures everything in a slow, almost dreamlike way. I know I've never seen a plane look so evil and foreboding as I saw here. The actual plane crash is filmed from afar, which is a nice change. The vision of the explosion is vivid and all-too-realistic. It's chaotic, scary, and just plain effective. Wong directs everything with a stable hand, never resorting to cheap scares once throughout. Sure, he uses the gimmicky wind gusts to represent Death approaching, but it works nonetheless. Wong gets the momentum going, and finishes with a nice, "there's-going-to-be-a-sequel" ending. We all hate sequels, but this premise is worthy of one. And for those interested, there's a nice throwback to the original plane crash during the final scene, when a neon sign swings down to kill one of the students (note the number on the sign and what it is turned upside down).

Final Destination is rated R for violence and terror, and for language. There's no cheap exploitation here. No naked bodies present on the screen once. This is pure horror, and it's genuinely scary. There are moments of suspense that will have you on the edge of your seat, knowing all too well what will happen. Final Destination is not a great film by any means. But it works, and it works extremely well. The scares are real, the horror is frightening, and the thoughts that stick with you as you drive home make you fear for your own mortality. Just be sure you don't have any flying plans soon after

***1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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