(This review was originally published on August 12, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
When a film franchise consistently attempts to deliver a greater spectacle than its previous installments, there is an inherent risk as the gap between a recycled premise and its ability to surprise the audience widens. The “Final Destination” series has had the potential to go in either direction several times over the last decade, drawing from an endless pool of disastrous scenarios, and though the last entry pulled enough box office revenue to justify unearthing its diminished formula for another spin, even genre fans were pleading for the wrap-up that its title so deliberately suggested.
And so here is “Final Destination 5”, the Grim Reaper’s equivalent of “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning”. But I digress, and as a horror fanatic, I was happy that it was given another shot, especially at the capable hands of director Steven Quale whose technical proficiency was achieved through years of mastering state-of-the-art visual effects and 3D technology as a 2nd unit director to James Cameron. Attached also to the project is Brian Pearson, the cinematographer behind the Real 3D effects in “Drive Angry” and “My Bloody Valentine”, creating a team that didn’t have much of a struggle putting its predecessor’s visual effects to shame. And in defense of this series pulling a classic horror ‘restart’, there was really no endgame to speak of in the conclusion of its last creative atrophy, “The Final Destination”, requiring no real explanation for the newest storyline.
“Final Destination 5” is a test, not so much of the audience but of its own capabilities. An explosive opening credit sequence is played against an intense score by Brian Tyler (“Fast Five”), an assault on the senses that feels as deliberately mechanical as an interactive weapons demonstration. The concept of the film is taken from the same rulebook as its four predecessors and reloaded with the next available set of circumstances in the pitch pipeline, this time written by Eric Heisserer along with series story veteran Jeffrey Reddick, who actually manage to insert a couple surprises into this otherwise predictable fifth go-around. The character development phase unravels with the typical dramatic verve of a CW network pilot, challenging our social gauge with its disproportionately tepid dynamic, apparently saving its energy for more important things. The story opens with Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) a salesman at Presage Paper, an industrial entity that aside from its clever name appears to enforce a policy for employing attractive twenty-somethings. But Sam is also a budding chef who’s just been offered a culinary internship in Paris and is torn between pursuing his dream career abroad and potentially losing his girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell). As the employees gather at the paper company to prepare for a retreat, we are introduced to Sam’s best friend and supervisor Peter (Miles Fisher), a pseudo-manager whose advice is dispensed as effectively as scribble on cardboard. Rounding out the ill-fated employee roster are Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood)and Isaac (P.J. Byrne), the stereotypical office weasel and HR nightmare. With our suspension of disbelief already in check, the employees depart for their retreat via tour bus under the direction of their comically impatient and tyrannical boss Dennis, played by David Koechner.
The bus begins to cross a large suspension bridge that is amply staged for a catastrophe, grinding to a halt at a sketchy construction site high above a choppy river. Sam begins to notice unusual details of his surroundings, from the static on the radio to faulty-looking materials on the bridge (not to mention the overall cavalier attitude that tends to get people killed in these films). As the bus idles, a spider web of cracks suddenly rips through the cement and a domino effect of destruction is set in motion right before their eyes. Death creates a veritable pinball machine for the victims where they are eviscerated by suspension cables, scalded with hot tar and impaled on sail boat masts as the bridge crumbles violently into the water below. But we already know that this is all just part of Sam’s premonition, and as he awakens from his horrific vision to start reliving signs of the impending disaster, he immediately attempts to shuffle everyone off the bus. When the bridge collapses for real, the group has already made their way to safety, creating a rift in the fabric of their intended fates. Inevitably, Death returns for each of them with a new plan to collect its dues, implementing elaborate and creative ways of dispatching its elusive victims.
The series returns to its geographic roots of Vancouver, BC as well as some other aspects of the original story which all started as an undeveloped concept for an “X-Files” episode. Tony Todd was notably absent from the previous film due to negotiation issues with Warner Brothers; subsequently the studio reaccessed his Bludworth character as a cohesive element to the progression of the story. Todd reprises his role as the ominous and physically imposing coroner who possesses an unexplained connection with Death’s plan as well as a working knowledge of its rules. Along with a few new developments, Bludworth divulges potential loopholes in the plan to the new batch of ‘survivors’ including the advertised possibility of a human killer existing amongst the group.
As the survivors start dying mysteriously in the same order as Sam’s premonition, they are questioned by a Federal Agent played by Courtney B. Vance who appears just to be along for the ride. Meanwhile we get to see Quale’s efforts yield several much anticipated ‘accidental’ death scenes including a chill-inducing gymnastics tragedy, a mishap at a laser eye surgery center and a ridiculous but amusing accident involving acupuncture, fire and a buddha statue. While Sam and the remaining friends try to figure out how to manipulate their circumstances with their incorporeal stalker, they maintain an unusual lack of urgency as they still seem to be concerned about relationship and career decisions.
In a logical attempt to make full use of the crew’s expertise, “Final Destination 5” tends to out-choreograph itself with the elaborate chain of events that result in each character’s demise. Of course this is nothing new, nor is it a surprise, and Quale certainly knows more about precision and execution than most that would be tasked to helm a horror sequel. But as big budget films go, we often see the available production dollars overshadowing potentially effective scares, sometimes overlapping into comic range with its show-every-detail approach. And when the dynamic lock-jaw sets in, the movie’s horror aspect risks conceding to some of the one dimensional characters that attempt to justify its very existence.
“Final Destination 5” gives us what we should expect from a horror franchise that is this far along in the conceptual milking process, but deserves credit for its unbridled commitment to excess, no matter how little we care about the outcome. In any case, some of the predictable turns are balanced by its spectacular visual effects, showcasing Quale’s strengths as a director. The film also benefits from Tony Todd’s return and the best final act concept since the original “Final Destination”, so we’ll see if it performs well enough to initiate the back-to-back production of “FD6” & “7” that Mr. Todd says is possible. Nevertheless, this entry succeeds as much as it fails, but if you’re a horror fan who’s looking for some expendable characters getting their due in graphic 3D, you might just be entertained.
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