Actor Devon Sawa has starred in at least two grossly underrated horror films. The first is 1999's Idle Hands, an oddball comedy of campy gore in which a lazy teen's hand becomes possessed by an evil, murderous force. The second is 2000's Final Destination, a moody tale of cheating death, written and directed by some of the creative talents responsible for earlier episodes of The X-Files.
On his way to the ill-fated Flight 180 for a senior trip to France, high school student Alex Browning (Sawa) feels severe apprehension when he encounters a wave of signs that suggest impending doom. His unease finally culminates into a vivid and disturbing premonition of the plane exploding, prompting him to create such a disturbance that he and a handful of passengers are booted back to the airport terminal. One of Alex's classmates, loner chick Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), also disembarks when she has the inexplicable suspicion that something is wrong. Leaving without them, Flight 180 immediately explodes in a dramatic display, killing all aboard.
Emotions run high as Alex, Clear, one teacher, and a few students realize their narrow escape from a violent demise. But the accident is only the start of their problems. Having essentially cheated death by getting off the plane at the last minute, the survivors inadvertently cause a disruption in the grand design of the Grim Reaper. Death, personified as an invisible and pseudo-conscious entity, subsequently hunts them down in order to get its master plan back on track--it's an outrageous premise, but the survivors soon embrace it when they start dying off one by one under mysterious circumstances.
After much thought and observation, Alex concludes that death can be perpetually cheated. And if it's coming back for him and his friends to wrap up unfinished business, the only way to avoid an early grave is to look out for signs of imminent doom and cheat it again. Armed with this glimmer of hope, the survivors of Flight 180 try to beat death at its own game.
Director James Wong does a fantastic job of generating paranoia by focusing on a flood of mundane images blown into sinister context. The camera zooms in tightly and claustrophobically on all manner of visual signs, smothering audiences with anxiety in the first fifteen minutes alone and making almost everything seem like a harbinger of death. The audio is equally symbolic at times--when Alex first hears "Rocky Mountain High" in the bathroom, the scene appropriately cuts off at the point where the late, killed-in-a-flight-mishap John Denver sings, "...I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky."
With the death scenes ranging from suspensefully slow to shockingly sudden, Final Destination does not follow any particular pattern in how victims face the Reaper. Once Amanda Detmer's character gets smashed to hell by a bus out of nowhere, the movie makes it clear that death will strike at any time, in any place. This uncertainty puts out a constant tension that keeps viewers on their toes.
The cast is a likeable enough bunch, which is often not the case with teen horror movies. Devon Sawa works well as a hapless everyman, Ali Larter is hot, and American Pie's Seann William Scott is amusing. (Who would have thought that Stifler getting his head sliced off at the jaw could be so funny?) A cameo by horror/sci-fi veteran Tony Todd (Candyman, Night of the Living Dead) injects a Crypt Keeper-ish mood.
But despite its intriguing premise and foreboding atmosphere, Final Destination has a giant, glaring flaw: the efforts of the characters to avoid their fates are absolutely ludicrous, even in the context of fictional horror. The notion that the best way to escape a cheated, pissed-off death is to cheat it a second time is contradictory and absurd--wouldn't death just get doubly enraged?
The inevitability of death makes only one ending credible: everyone dies. Thus, the movie is stuck in a narrow, self-determined fate--either it delivers a realistic but totally predictable conclusion, or it goes for originality at the expense of more believability. Since the film favors the latter, it forces audiences to entertain the flimsy idea that a bunch of kids can tangle with the Reaper and come out on top. (The 2003 sequel Final Destination 2 clears this up by demonstrating that death always gets its due in the long run, but as a stand-alone story, the first Final Destination fails to adequately handle this weak point.) Still, fans of the genre who can get past the dubious premise of a defeatable death should find a lot to like in this underappreciated thriller that is considerably more than an average teen horror flick.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)