Don’t let the MPAA rating fool you. Every slasher addresses a teen audience first and foremost. It may not have started as such, but, somewhere along the line, horror producers figured out that the young delight at watching gruesome murders, perhaps because the fictitious kill scenes provide them with a safe way to explore their burgeoning sense of mortality. Of course, the classics in the genre know to dress things up, whether with a memorable monster like in Halloween (1978), a haunting mythology like in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), or a devilish puzzle like in Scream (1996). It’s a tried and true formula, making Final Destination all the more intriguing for taking the exact opposite route.
Director James Wong and co-screenwriter Glen Morgan had some nerve to strip Jeffrey Reddick’s already slight script of every ingredient we’ve come to value in a “dead teenager” flick. Forget that tall, menacing stranger personifying death; the characters meet their end by way of absurd coincidences! Forget the Grim Reaper’s grand scheme and origin; oblivion comes for its own sake, bucking every pattern speculated by our heroes! Forget the big reveal about good and evil; Final Destination reminds us that fate transcends reason, leaving us with just the kids and the kills!
You’d figure that reducing the slasher to its bare essentials would make for a shallow experience, but Morgan and Wong’s revised screenplay feels richer for it. Consider the elegant simplicity of their plot: Alex (Devon Sawa) has a premonition of his plane going down; seven passengers exit before the crash; the universe course-corrects by knocking them off one by one. Without a villain to introduce or complex myth to explain, Final Destination can devote its runtime to the core themes of the genre, exploring how each character deals with his or her mortality.
We get a full range of reactions, each reflecting a different facet of human nature: Alex becomes obsessed with prolonging his existence; his best friend Tod (Chad Donella) falls prey to his parents’ insecurities; Clear (Ali Larter) finds herself eager to connect; Terry (Amanda Detmer) wants to make the most of her life; Valerie (Kristen Cloke) struggles with survivors’ guilt; and Billy (Seann William Scott) ignores the issue as any emotionally stunted geek would. To me, though, the most intriguing response in Final Destination belongs to Carter (Kerr Smith), who perceives death as a reminder of his own cosmic insignificance: “I decide when it’s time! I control my life!”
You see, for all their talk of thwarting the Grim Reaper, what the characters really mean to appease is their existential angst. Injecting Final Destination with the same soulful quirkiness they brought to my favourite episodes of The X-Files, Morgan and Wong turn every throwaway exchange into a philosophical in-joke. Consider George’s (Brendan Fehr) remark when spotting a toddler on his doomed flight: “It’d be a fucked-up God to take down this plane!” I also like the subtle irony in Clear wanting to tell Alex they’re destined for each other (oh, teenagers!) but chickening out because she can’t embrace fate without acknowledging their impending doom.
This, I suppose, leads us to the infamous death scenes, wherein assorted environmental factors line up perfectly to eviscerate an unsuspecting youth. By effectively removing the middleman (i.e. the killer), Morgan and Wong breathe new life into a tired genre convention, tapping directly into our most squeamish memories. It’s no secret that the franchise was built on these offbeat set pieces, but one should note that the original Final Destination focuses less on sadistic Rube Goldberg devices than on the mundane risks we take every day. I mean, why do we fear boarding a plane more than crossing the street without looking or sticking our nose next to a fuming computer?
The whole thing culminates in a hilarious sight gag, as Alex grows so meticulous in his efforts to foil the Grim Reaper that he ends up eating pudding with oven mitts next to a fire extinguisher. Encapsulating the folly of devoting one’s life to prolonging it, the scene might have served as a better conclusion than the one we got. Don’t get me wrong: the Paris epilogue beats Reddick’s corny alternate ending hands down, but I remember feeling like Final Destination had just slapped me in the face for no reason. I suppose that’s how it feels to acknowledge your mortality…