The Minor Miracle that is 'Final Destination 5'
I’ll set the scene. It’s early 2007 and as a 90s kid (groan if you have to) you’ve successfully entered the phase of life we’ll hereby refer to as ‘the sleepover club’. That’s right, you and your schoolfriends now consider every weekend as potential all-night-long hangouts in which each of you will claim how easy it is to stay up a full 24 hours, only to collectively awake in the morning and feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment at the fact you couldn’t make it past 3am. Whilst your average sleepover features heavy usage of split-screen videogames, as the evening goes on the attention of course turns to a movie marathon. And guess what? You’re a teenager now so that means it’s a rite of passage for you to give that thing we call ‘horror’ a go!
But you want the easy thrills to start yourself off. You’re still partially traumatised from when you watched The Blair Witch Project as a kid and bought into the whole ‘found-footage’ thing. But guess what? Your mate has brought a DVD boxset with them of the Final Destination ‘Thrill-ogy’. That’s the perfect start-off point! You’ve seen the first Final Destination and can hack it, and the films themselves are just gory fun times for all so you’re in for a treat over the next four and a half hours!
Now, obviously this is a…ahem, entirely fictional situation. But the point still stands. The Final Destination series has always occupied that sweet spot entry-level horror that the 21st century dominated teenage audiences with. Originally intended to be a standalone episode of The X-Files by Jeffrey Reddick, the series follows a strict formula which sees a group of young people narrowly avoiding a catastrophe in which they all die. Then, over the course of the film each of the survivors are picked off one-by-one in increasingly strange scenarios as Death takes back what is rightfully his. Also Candyman’s Tony Todd coroner Mr. Bludworth may or may not be Death himself and ominously watches may of the events unfold, but we’ll get into that later.
Whilst financially successful the series had never been particularly well-received critically. You go into a Final Destination expecting to see nothing more than some cool gore and inventive death scenes, and that’s typically what you get. Everyone has their favourites too. Whether it’s the blisteringly intense tanning-booth death from Final Destination 3, the first shocking twist death in the original or the cataclysmic car pile-up from Final Destination 2, they’re films designed to be shallow entertainment. And the series seemed to be content with itself too.
However by the time The Final Destination (number 4) arrived in 2009 at the apex of the 3D craze, this lack of ingenuity and innovation started to leave a sour taste. Whilst the inciting incidents of the series thus far had been native, everyday fears (plane crash, car crash, rollercoaster…crash) the fourth entry has a speedway pile-up kill crowds with debris. Not only that, but many of the deaths within the film felt lacking in that creative and silly spark the series had up until that point (apart from the escalator sequence which I think is up there with some of the franchise’s best). The film ended up getting the worst reviews of the series…but made the biggest profit thanks to the 3D boost. Inevitably this meant the series would go on for the financial viability alone right? The Final Destination seemed to prove to the studio that audiences would flock to a sequel no matter what, despite it being advertised as the final film in the franchise. Sure enough Final Destination 5 was hastily greenlit and put into production the following year.
But here’s the thing. Final Destination 5 is actually pretty damn good. Sure it features the same archetypal character roster that’s refused to develop since American Pie was popular, but there’s a sly reason behind that thanks to a suitably tight script from Eric Heisserer (Arrival– yes, really). From the get-go, we know we’re in safe hands. Director Steven Quale utilises native 3D shooting (no post-conversion here folks) in opening titles that harken back to the dizzying effect of Zombieland’s. Various debris and call-backs to previous deaths in the series are flung towards the camera, shattering glass panels that dispenses the cast and crew – it’s fun and reminiscent of the schlocky B-movie fun the series had taken on since its second instalment. But this serves an important purpose, because from there on Final Destination 5 is darker and more suspenseful in tone with the original. Not only that, but the inciting incident of a bridge collapse taps into another universal primal fear. And what a sequence it is too. Whilst making their way to a worker’s retreat outing, a new group of victims are caught on the North Bat Bridge, New York as strong winds and construction weakens its foundation causing it to collapse.
*From here on out there's spoilers for Final Destination 5 - You've been warned*
Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto’s) premonition is a beautifully orchestrated sequence helped by some great effects work (a huge improvement over the previous instalment). As the bridge crumbles various onlookers are flung into the ocean below and crushed under cars, people are impaled by the masts of boats below, and someone is scorched by blazing hot tar until their skin blisters and peels. It’s gloriously over the top and nonsensical but a lot of fun. Then of course as the bridge nears its collapse, we’re granted an extended tightrope sequence as people attempt to cross the metal supports. That goes about as well as you’d expect of course.
From there on out it appears as though the typical Final Destination formula kicks in. The only difference however is an assured confidence behind the camera that elevates the sequences to something akin to masterful tension building. The franchise has always framed its death sequences by rattling off potential hazards and keeping you guessing, but Candice (Ellen Wroe’s) gymnastic session surpasses the bridge collapse tenfold. Quale and editor Eric Sears drip-feed you endless causes for concern, from a loose nail in the practice bars to a growing puddle that drips from an uneven air conditioning unit down to an exposed electrical wire. One particular set-piece involving a lone nail landing screw-up on the balancing beam during rehearsals is particularly gut-wrenching, and the whole scene showcases a remarkable display of timing and presentation. It’s comic anxiety dialled up to 11 and has been described numerous times as ‘Hitchcockian’ in execution.
Film.com in their review wrote that “Quale sets [each subsequent death] up like a cross between a joke and a magic trick” and it’s a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. Whether it’s toying with the general unease about acupuncture or laser-eye surgery, each sequence takes a sadistic glee in presenting the numerous ways they could go wrong. Heisserer’s script also presents the first new idea since the series’ inception, as the survivors are spurred on by Tony Todd’s suggestion of murder to question whether they can replace their fate with someone else’s. In the background there’s also a minimal investigative side-plot as a detective believes Sam is somehow responsible for the bridge collapse, but this is just a Macguffin to the film’s murderous intentions.
After Candice’s death, her boyfriend Peter (Mile Fisher) decides to test out the theory that’s seemingly worked out for Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta). He confronts Sam and Molly (Emma Bell) in a restaurant kitchen (a place rife with deadly objects) with the intent to murder her, as she’s the only one who survives the initial bridge collapse in Sam’s prophecy. This adds an unknown immediacy to the series’ concept that hasn’t been explored before, and could almost lend itself to a slasher-style serial killer vibe if used correctly. I’d argue that Final Destination 5 doesn’t quite stick the landing, choosing to stay on the safe side and punish Peter with another great chest-bursting sequence. But without Eric Heisserer’s willingness to experiment, this confrontation wouldn’t have added another layer to the narrative.
He doesn’t stop there either. By now we know that those left alive can’t escape death, and as Sam and Molly board a plane to France in order to get away, Sam is distracted by a couple of passengers being removed from the plane. One of them is none other than Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) in footage from the original film. They’re on flight 180 from the original Final Destination. This not only contextualises the outdated archetypal characters and strange lack of technological advancements throughout the film, but also offers a cyclical story that encompasses the very themes of the entire series. These people can’t escape death, and we can’t escape the inciting incident. That, and it also allows for another great sequence that rounds off Nathan’s loose-end with a crowd-pleasing wink as the credits role.
Final Destination 5 sits right beside Saw VI in the ‘has no right to be this surprisingly good’ category of horror sequels. Whilst it earned the series its first positive critical reception and swept up at the box-office, there has thus far been no talk of another instalment. Some conversations were had about a reboot, but in all honesty each film is standalone with the same premise and, unless you can refresh the idea in a genuinely inventive way I wouldn’t see the point. 5 feels like an epilogue in many ways to a series that struck gold in the 00s and capitalised on it in just the right way. As a swan song to the franchise, it works by emphasising everything that made the original work, so if you haven’t seen it for whatever reason I’d recommend giving it a look. You might be pleasantly surprised…
Final Destination 5 is currently available on Netflix in the UK.
It is also available on DVD, Blu-Ray and 3D Blu-Ray. The 3D is actually very well done.
A complete boxset of the series is also available, but it doesn't feature a pun as good as 'Thrill-Ogy'.
EDIT: So in the time between writing this piece and publishing it, details about the next instalment in the franchise, written by Saw sequel writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dustan have emerged. Not only will the film not be a reboot but set in the same canon, it's also looking to focus on the world of first responders - EMTs, firemen and police. It's an interesting choice and I hope it manages to recapture the magic that the fifth instalment had in spades.
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