Brian Malone reins in his paranoia to review the Rube Goldberg machine of death scenes that is Final Destination 2, comparing the sequel to its Devon Sawa-filled predecessor.
I’m not a fan of horror films. I’ve only seen six of them in the past twenty years or so (unless you countGlitter, in which case: seven). A disproportionate number of those were films in the Final Destinationfranchise. I don’t quite remember why I went to see Final Destination in the first place, although I do vaguely remember going through a phase in which I was obsessed with both plane crashes and Devon Sawa. At any rate, Final Destination made an impression on me. It scared me thoroughly — in a way that was both paralyzing and energizing. I saw it twice in the theater. I remember talking about it a lot. I recommended it to all of my friends (most of whom didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did). I even wrote a lecture on it for the course I was teaching at the time.
What I loved most about Final Destination was the premise: that the contingencies of everyday life, if they add up just right, can kill you. One evening you’re drinking tea in a cracked mug and — if everything goes right/wrong — moments later you end up pinned to the floor by a butcher knife as your burning house collapses around you. Once you realize this, how do you deal with it? The appropriate response is a low-level, generalized paranoia: you start to think about the ways in which everything you see could, under the right circumstances, kill you. In this way, I found Final Destination to be much scarier than other horror films. It’s the difference between being afraid that someone wants to kill you and being afraid that everything can kill you. It produces a much more insidious and all-encompassing dread. It’s one thing when a movie makes you lock the door while you shower; it’s another when a movie makes you hesitate before using scissors, the microwave, dental floss, etc.
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, my enthusiasm for Final Destination didn’t live through Final Destination 2. One of my main objections with the sequel was the absence of Devon Sawa, the fresh-faced Canadian twink who was the jittery center of the first film. I am aware that this sounds ridiculous. Who would have thought that a lack of Devon Sawa could mean so much? And who even remembers Devon Sawa all these years later? In my defense, I’ll note that I’m not the only one who felt that way. Just a few months ago, a friend and colleague suggested to me — in absolute seriousness — that Devon Sawa was the Robert Pattinson of the year 2000. While that might not be strictly true, it was true for me and a few other poor souls.
But beyond the Devon Sawa problem, the larger issue is that Final Destination 2 marked the moment when the spontaneity and novelty of Final Destination calcified into its own subgenre (and apparently, judging from the number of installments in the franchise, a very profitable one). By FD2, the whole thing had become an exercise in repetition, of conformity to the newly established generic expectations. In other words, for a film with significant body count, I remember FD2 as surprisingly boring. And ten years later, my judgment is the same. FD2 remains a joyless exercise, punctuated by a few moments of real dread.
The story is simple: a group of strangers escape death in a horrific freeway pile-up after our heroine, Kimberly, has a premonition of the crash and blocks the onramp. But Death is not so easily cheated; to restore order to the universe, Death must stalk and kill the survivors one by one. The question, then, is how long Kimberly and her comrades can fend off Death’s increasingly ingenious designs. Spoiler alert: about ninety minutes.
Of course, calling this a story feels a little too generous. Indeed, the film is essentially just a set of (barely) linked death scenes, supplemented with a few moments of unconvincing grief and the barest shadow of a romance plot. Probably the most interesting wrinkle in the plot is the return of Ali Larter from first film (but why not Devon Sawa?). Larter’s character, Clear Rivers [eyeroll], has been hiding from Death in a padded room in a mental institution for almost a year. At Kimberly’s request, she re-enters the world to mentor the survivors on how to evade death. This seems like a reasonable plan, although it’s hard to have faith in Rivers — who, remember, is being stalked by Death as well — when she insists on pumping her own gas.
If Larter’s presence in the film is a high point, it’s mostly because every other actor is a low point. The entire cast seems to be have been selected because they vaguely resemble more well-known actors. Everyone in the film looks like someone else — even though, most of the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on who. It reminded me of going out for dinner in West Hollywood and spending the whole meal trying to figure out why the people at the table next to you look familiar: are they celebrities or do they just look like it? Whoever these people in FD2 are, none of them are taking the film very seriously. Indeed, as Kimberly, A.J. Cook’s expressions throughout the movie are much closer to bemusement than to horror or grief. But who can blame her or any of her colleagues? It can’t be easy to recite, with a straight face, lines like “Thanks to you, we cheated death.” (And no, that’s not a line from Chekhov—I checked.)
Of course, it’s easy to make fun of plot, character, and dialogue when we all know that the real attractions in this film are the death scenes. So: the death scenes. I’ll admit that the freeway crash that starts the whole thing is pretty remarkable. It’s well choreographed, darkly funny, and genuinely frightening. It’s a seven-minute distillation of all the films you saw in Driver’s Ed (don’t drive drunk, high, distracted, speeding, on wet pavement, without seatbelts, with your knees, drinking hot coffee, etc.), but with much higher production values. It’s the highlight of the film (which is too bad, as 78 minutes still remain at this point). The subsequent death scenes, however, get a bit complicated. Increasingly, the scenes resemble nothing so much as murders plotted by Rube Goldberg. Consider the guy who drops his ring down the garbage disposal and ends up, ninety seconds later, impaled by a fire escape ladder. It’s like the world’s most lethal game of Mouse Trap. In Final Destination 2, Death goes baroque.
The problem here, for me, is that these scenes very quickly enter the realm of the absurd. And once we’re in this realm, it’s easy to begin asking the (admittedly annoying) questions that ruin the fun of most horror or action films: the questions that have to do with the properties of the physical world and the laws of physics. Once the characters start dying in bizarre ways, I find myself wondering if things could really happen that way. And then I end up asking questions like “How much would a sheet a plate glass need to weigh to completely flatten a teen as if he were made of Play-Doh?” (Answer: more than the sheet in the movie could possibly weigh.) Or, “Do cars really explode so easily on impact?” (Answer: No. Except maybe the Corvair.) I could go on.
Now it may seem churlish to demand verisimilitude from a film about being stalked by Death. And yet, a strict version of realism is more-or-less required by this film’s implied contract with the viewer. What makes these films so troubling to me is the idea that, in the right combination, quotidian actions and ordinary objects can end up killing us. The Final Destination films are scary, I want to suggest, only if things could really happen that way. In other words, it’s not the exploding cars and ultra-heavy plate glass that I fear, but rather the non-exploding car that I drive to work and the plate glass that I walk under on Market Street — either of which could kill me quite spectacularly. This film can ignore the probable, but it still must rely on the possible.
I realize that all of this makes me sound like the least fun moviegoer ever. That may be true (ask my partner). But this piece isn’t (only) an exercise in cynicism; it’s also a profession of love. It’s hard to see a movie you love debased by a sequel that undoes most of what you loved in the first place. Final Destination mattered to me. Final Destination 2 didn’t. And, ten years later, I still wish it had.