Sequels are tricky business. Done correctly, they can recapture whatever it was that an audience fell in love with the first time around, and they can extend stories and themes and characters in interesting and unexpected ways. Serialized storytelling in general has always been something that audiences devour eagerly, and sequels are a producer’s dream, the gift that keeps on giving. Done wrong, though, they can poison a film’s reputation, ruin a name, salt the earth so that there’s no going back, no growing anything new. Horror sequels and comedy sequels in particular are tough because so much of the impact of those genres depends on the unexpected, the involuntary reaction, and the more familiar you become with material, the less inherent surprise there is.
The “Final Destination” franchise is one of the unlikeliest I’ve ever seen, but it’s turned out to be one of the most robust and versatile formulas for a mainstream bubblegum movie series in recent memory. For me, the best in the series so far was the second film, which opened with a truly spectacular freeway crash sequence. The way they took the first film’s basic idea and streamlined it was inspired, and they also embraced the Rube Goldberg side of the series that makes each set piece so much fun if done correctly. The third and fourth films offered more of the same, with a few highlights in each one, but didn’t manage to sustain that energy over the entire movie. There’s such huge goodwill for this series, though, that it almost doesn’t matter. People go to watch outrageous ridiculous deaths, and as long as they get that, it seems like it’s enough.
It feels to me like screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Steven Quale get the formula, and they’ve built the most satisfying film in the series since the second one largely by playing to the strengths of that formula. Each film needs to begin with a giant set piece where the main character goes through an entire trauma, with dozens of dead bodies involved, only to realize that it was a premonition, acting just in time to change the events. That’s how death gets cheated, and then the rest of the movie becomes one big set piece after another as each person is killed by some elaborate set of circumstances. Here, it’s Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) who sees the vision of an elaborate bridge collapse, and he manages to save his girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell) along with several co-workers, including Peter (Miles Fisher), Candice (Ellen Wroe), Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), Isaac (P.J. Byrne), Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), and their boss Dennis (David Koechner).
As a result of them escaping the accident, they are each then hunted down by death, which means that they each end up meeting the grisliest end possible, and this is what determines a good “Final Destination” film versus a bad “Final Destination” film. There are at least three great set pieces here, one involving gymnasts, one involving LASIK, and the opening suspension bridge collapse, and that’s more than enough for me to recommend this. By now, audiences know how they feel about this series, and it’s obvious that the formula has become ingrained in the mainstream consciousness when you can do something like this…
… and people can still recognize it instantly as “Final Destination” without any movie stars, you’ve done a great job of building that formula. It really does come down to how well these things are built, and Steven Quale proves to be a very sharp director of mayhem. Quale has been mentored along by James Cameron, from his job as a production assistant on “The Abyss” to shooting EPK material for “T2” to second-unit director gigs on “Titanic” and “Avatar,” with a co-directing credit on the IMAX documentary “Aliens Of The Deep”. I think there’s something about the skill set that second unit guys develop that works well for these movies. So much of this is detail oriented and making sure that the audience understands exactly what could happen to the various victims, then toying with those expectations, is crucial. That means laying out a whole variety of terrible things that could occur, and the best example of that here is the scene involving the gymnasts. Quale makes everything in the entire gym feel like a threat, so you are never sure where the real danger comes from, and the way he sells the eventual punchline is impressive. Considering his background with 3D, he was an obvious choice for this, but I would wager that with the right material, Quale could really make something special. He’s got a deft touch that keeps things light, almost playing the film as overt black comedy, and knows how to make every shot in a sequence count.
Heisserer is getting a reputation as a writer who you hire to play with someone else’s toys. He’s one of the credited writers on “A Nightmare In Elm Street,” he wrote the prequel to “The Thing” that comes out this year, and now he’s got a sequel to a successful series under his belt as well. I’m curious to see who Heisserer really is as an artist, as right now, he’s basically an “American Idol” contestant, demonstrating an ability to mimic the template that’s already been set. This is what I find frustrating about the modern system and the opportunities that are available to writers. When John Carpenter remade “The Thing,” it was exciting because of the history that Carpenter had with his own work. When David Cronenberg remade “The Fly,” that was intriguing because of the way it fit neatly into the thematic throughline of his career up to that point. If we don’t see original work from these people sometimes, then it’s hard to know what they bring to the table. The stuff between the set pieces here is functional and obvious, and if you took the set pieces out, there’s no movie. To me, the real sign of success here would be if the movie worked even without all the deaths, and that’s not the kind of film this is. All of the energy has gone into death and destruction, and if that’s all you want, the film delivers.
My wife is not a horror fan. She hates the fact that most horror films are gross instead of scary, and she doesn’t get the appeal. But for some reason, this particular series speaks to her, and she looks forward to each new one, laughing her way through the films each time. It scratches some itch I’m not even sure she can define as a filmgoer. I give Jeffrey Reddick, the writer of the first film, and Craig Perry, the producer who has been onboard for the entire ride, a lot of credit for the way they’ve managed this. I suspect this will continue to be a viable commercial property for years to come, and the best thing I can say is that this one keeps the series humming along nicely, complete with a very clever final ten minutes that should deeply please fans of the entire series. Each time out, they promise this is the end, but there’s no final “Final” in sight, good news indeed for New Line and Warner.
“Final Destination 5” opens everywhere on Friday.