Thursday, July 21, 2011

Life's Road Leads to Final Destination

By Chris Dimick 
You are going to die. That is not a threat, but a promise.
Everyone dies eventually, and that true horror has been the basis of scary movies for decades.
Death is the ultimate terror for the simple fact that most people want to live.
Some don’t – they hope the sweet release of death will come save them from another day of alarm clocks, asshole acquaintances, and pointless routine.
But the majority of people would prefer to just keep on trucking down the center of life’s highway, not end up a puddle of mush in its gutter.

The inevitability and relentlessness of death has not been personified in a more entertaining fashion than in the Final Destination horror movie series, which will officially become a franchise next month when its fifth installment – Final Destination 5 – opens Aug. 12.

The final destination franchise – unlike its characters – has continued to cheat death time and time again. The fourth installment was even titled “The Final Destination,” but after it became the highest grossing film in the series, pulling in $66.5 million, distributor New Line Cinema couldn’t bring itself to nail the coffin shut.

While the Final Destination movies might not be Kubrick-level art, they are a fascinating nod to the inevitability of death and our inherent, primal fear of it.
 The series boldly rubs the audience’s face in the Reaper’s armpit, all while screaming “no matter who you are, how much money you have, or how unfair it may be, Death’s gonna take you when he damn well pleases!”

Free Will Versus Fate
Like any good slasher horror series, the Final Destination movies follow a specific formula. A group of good looking young people avoid sudden, accidental death after one in their group has a premonition warning them of the impending deadly catastrophe. Death doesn’t like such meddling with fate, and dispatches with each survivor in complex, seemingly accidental ways.
But it’s not that simple. Each film asks the question, can you outsmart death? Does fate always trump free will?

Of course the answer is eventually death always wins. But can your death come on your own terms? Not all of us will die peacefully sleeping in our beds at 99-years-old. No one plans to fall over a railing at a baseball game; get smoked by a drunk driver crossing the median, or contract a deadly cancer. No one plans to die at 9-years-old, or 30-years-old, or even 90-years-old.

Death isn’t fair, and doesn’t discriminate or show mercy based on one’s moral behavior, beliefs, societal status or habits. Healthy eating is supposed to delay death… but will broccoli every night with dinner keep that drunk off the road?
That is what makes Death so scary; we have no control over when it will visit. Hence lies the horror in this film series – our deepest fear – an early demise.

Death You Can Root For
Philosophy aside, the Final Destination formula also happens to be addicting entertainment. While technically a slasher movie, our victims aren’t running from a masked maniac or working to stop demons from the Netherlands. Their demise comes from seemingly ordinary and safe situations in everyday life. These movies’ slasher, Death, likes to work unheard and unseen.
(For example, in Final Destination 3, Death slays a girl through a complex series of accidents that eventually lead to her being trapped in an overactive tanning bed – which turns her into KFC within minutes. See the clip here.)

All slasher films cull their entertainment from the dramatic and interesting ways each victim is dispatched. In Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy cooks up an elaborate dream sequence to kill his pretties. In Friday the 13th, Jason employs a variety of knifes and other weapons to take out camp counselors in athletic and at times humorous ways.

Final Destination features the most creative and complex murder set pieces in any film series to date. Each death is the result of Rube Goldberg like complexity. This action leads to this action, that action leads to that action, which all add up to a butcher knife falling into a victim’s chest. Each set piece is like Murder Mousetrap (see below).

It is all just a bizarre accident to those not in the know. There is no freak running around slicing people; no dream man menacing. Just an accident to the naked eye – but the trusty viewer knows that is just how Death likes to work. Death merely nudges one deadly domino, setting in motion a series of events that lead to a freshly removed soul.

Those who cheated death never know when or how he will eventually take them. It could be anything – don’t use that hair dryer, walk across the street, eat that piece of meat – death could use it to kill you. Not only is this plot device effective in building suspense and creating immensely entertaining death scenes, it is also realistic. You never know how or when you will meet your demise. True horror.

Slasher for all Sensibilities
What makes the Final Destination series so likeable though goes deeper than just the interesting set pieces. One doesn’t really have to feel guilty enjoying the demise of others. I’m not saying most people cheer on Jason or Freddy as they hack up teens.
But fans of the slasher genre do enjoy the various horrific and scary ways these villains dispatch their victims. And that comes with guilt; especially when one is rooting for unjustified evil doing their bloody business to innocents.

But since Death is the slasher in these films, people can freely enjoy its work. These people were meant to die in the big accident. They didn’t, and escaped Death’s plan, and now Death must work to finish his job.
Sure, you sympathize with most of the characters and hope they can make it through alive, but you can also see Death’s point of view – a trait completely lacking in nearly every other slasher.

Just Killer Fun
Like most formulaic slasher series, the sequels don’t get points for originality or stellar acting. Each film has the same plot and premise as the first, vastly superior original film.
But that’s okay in this instance, since all the audience is coming for anyway is to see the unique and complex ways Death is going to off this fresh batch of fate-haters.

The first film was excellent not only for its reinvention of the slasher film, but also for its use of suspense. The rest of the franchise films only focused on the death sequences, letting acting and tension rot on the vine.

This latest installment could be a pile of garbage. But then again, the fifth movie may turn a corner and restore the series to its former glory.

James Cameron protégé Steve Quale is making his solo directorial debut with Final Destination 5. He told the Los Angeles Times he has studied the previous four films to see what does and doesn’t work, and seems passionate about creating an audience pleasing scare-pix.

From his LA Times interview:
When I came in to pitch my take on it, I basically said, ‘Look, I really liked what the original did as far as the suspense and the believability and the strength of the characters, and it’s paramount to me that we cast really good actors.’ Second, I also liked some of the comedy in second one, it was sort of organic, it wasn’t way over the top like the fourth one.
"I wanted a couple of funny actors in some of the supporting roles so we could amp up the humor in a believable and entertaining way that the fans would really appreciate. And third, I wanted the opening set piece to be really dynamic and visceral, a real spectacle.
“After all my years of working with Jim Cameron I knew the value of that. None of the other [Final Destination films] had anything like that. They had some cool stunt sequences but not something that is epic and spectacular like a suspension bridge collapse. I knew that could lend itself to really interesting visual dynamics."

That is a promising statement. The horror community will see if Quale can deliver on it come Aug. 12. While it will be hard to compare to the first two films, here’s to hoping FD5 can recapture the magic.

Enjoy It While It Lasts
The prospect of death is scary. Self-preservation is hard wired into our bones, and most of us would like to keep-on-keeping-on as long as possible. Regardless of one’s views on what happens after death, most can agree we only get one turn on the Earthly merry-go-round that is human life.

While fear of death is great for horror movies, in reality death should be respected but not feared. Whether this life is all there is or something else lies beyond, the fact that we all die should be a rallying point to make the most of our time while we are here.

The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne sang it best:
“Do you realize, that everyone you know someday will die
But instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”

Eventually the Final Destination films will end. And we are all gonna die. Might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

Catastrophes featured in the Final Destination films:

Final Destination (2000)
Airplane explodes mid-air

Final Destination 2 (2003)
Multi-car high speed crash on highway

Final Destination 3 (2006)
Rollercoaster derailment

The Final Destination (2009)
Race cars at a Speedway crash, fly into audience

Final Destination 5 (2011)
Suspension bridge collapses

SPOILER ALERT! Click HERE for a video that shows the opening disaster scenes from the first three Final Destination movies!

Final Destination Series By the Numbers:
Total estimated budget for first four films: $123 million
Total estimated box office for first four films: $612 million

Random Facts about Final Destination
The best in the series, the first Final Destination film has many connections to eerie occurrences, accidents, and well loved horror movies. Below, a few random facts:

X-Files Link
The original movie was based on an unproduced X-Files script.

Paying Homage:
Many of the characters in the original Final Destination are named after directors or stars of beloved black and white horror movies:
-Chaney (Two generations of horror actors, Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr.)
- Browning (Famous "Dracula" director Tod Browning)
-Larry Murnau, (After F.W. Murnau, director of the "first" Dracula film "Nosferatu")
-Schreck (Max Schreck, star of "Nosferatu”)
-Valerie Lewton (Famous horror producer Val Lewton)
-Blake Dreyer (Carl Theodor Dreyer, director of "Vampyr")
-Billy Hitchcock (Homage to Alfred Hitchcock)

Musical Meaning
The music played throughout the movie is by John Denver, a musician who died in a plane crash.

Look Busy, Death is Coming
The film’s title was changed for the Chinese release, and translated to "The Death God Comes".

Chris Salutes:
Rube Goldberg Machines
Death kills his victims with Rube Goldberg-like sequences. Below, a salute to the genius who loves pointless machines.

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