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FINAL DESTINATION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Tony Todd
Director:  James Wong
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes                
Release Date:  September 26, 2000                  

Film ***1/2

“And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee…”

- Luke 12:19-20

I once had a humanities professor teach me that the one true aspect that separated human beings from other living things on this planet was awareness of our own mortality.  We know we must die, and our concepts of what death really means has infiltrated our religions, our literature, our paintings, and even our films through the years.  Death has been personified in cinema many ways, from the sad, bent figure in Fritz Lang’s Destiny to the inscrutable, indifferent white faced spirit in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. 

At first glimpse, one might think that using Death as a personified intelligence in a teenage horror film as being a little over-the-top, but Final Destination is that movie, and it’s one of the more unsettling pictures I’ve seen in quite a while.  It’s much smarter and more honest than your average Freddy Krueger or Jason slasher picture.  It also boasts a fine young cast, a good script, and impeccable direction from James Wong working together to create real suspense and capture genuine emotion along the way.

One of psychic phenomena’s most legendary tales is that of the man who gets a strange feeling before boarding a plane, decides to skip the flight, and sure enough, the plane crashes.  That’s the kind of event that kicks off Final Destination.  Alex Browning (Sawa), along with his high school French class and a couple of teachers are about to take a class trip to Paris.  But a bizarre vision (one that guarantees placement of this movie alongside others like Fight Club and Alive as ones that will NEVER be shown on a commercial flight) causes him to panic.  He’s seen the plane explode in mid-air.  His ruckus causes himself and a few of his classmates to be thrown off the plane, along with one teacher.  While they’re all yelling at Alex for spoiling their travel plans, the plane does explode.

What follows is the inevitable emotion:  the survivors’ guilt, the existential questioning of why they were spared and their fellow travelers were not.  All of these things happen, and are examined in a way that is both truthful and worthwhile...sometimes even without the benefit of spoken words.  Their faces convey the pain.

But what follows this is the crux of the movie:  one by one, the survivors are dying in sometimes strange and horrific ways.  Is there a reason?  Were they meant to die on that plane, and is Death coming back to claim what was rightfully his in the first place?  All of this is food for anxious discussion amongst those still living, particularly when Alex thinks he’s discovered a pattern.  I don’t want to give away any more, except to say that my one disappointment with the film is that it forwent ambiguity about death and focused on it from a singular point of view.  The movie would have been perfect had it left the audience guessing about whether or not Alex and his friends were correct in assuming there was a pattern and a plan, or if the unfolding developments happened by mere chance, and there was no guiding hand behind them.

First time director Wong, who has worked on television’s The X Files, proves a more than capable hand behind the camera here, and I look forward with great anticipation to his future works.  His style in telling the story involves both scenes of tautly constructed suspense, as well as shocks and surprises that can’t be anticipated.  He uses both to great effect, building on one another to completely unsettle his audience and leave them unsure of what might happen next.  He also shows an almost Hitchcockian ability to play with his viewers’ minds.  One shot sticks out in my mind:  the teacher, in her house, standing at her sink.  She is relegated to the background, while the foreground focuses on a block of knives, with her image appearing behind and between the handles.  Is this important?  Is it foreshadowing?  Wong has a way of letting you believe certain things along the way, only to pull the rug out from under you.  Then, when you’re convinced you were wrong, he makes a skillful double cross and unleashes his real surprises.

I liked Devon Sawa in the role of Alex.  He’s proving more and more capable of growing from a mere teen star into a respectable young actor.  I loved his comic supporting turn in SLC Punk!, and here, he hits all the right notes in a role that requires a great range of fear, anger and confusion. 

Though falling just short of a perfect thriller, I have to give Final Destination its proper credit:  it unnerved me more than any other film in recent memory, and had me thinking about it long afterwards.  There are few horror movies any more that can claim to do both of those at the same time.

Video ****

This is another superb example of quality from New Line’s extraordinary Platinum Series line of discs.  The transfer is flawless, and the film’s look is preserved beautifully.  The range of images is wide and strong, from well lit to extremely dark, but nowhere along the way do they lose their sense of sharpness or definition.  Coloring is excellent and natural throughout, even in darker scenes, and exhibit no sense of bleeding or distortion.  Detail is extremely good, even in deep focus shots.  The print is perfectly clean, and compression artifacts do not exist.  There is no grain, noise, ringing or evidence of enhancement anywhere.  But I can’t emphasize strongly enough how well the many darker scenes look.  You never have to guess what you’re looking at.  This is a top notch transfer from a top notch studio, and earns highest marks.

Audio ****

The digital 5.1 soundtrack is every bit equal to the video in terms of quality.  The audio is lively boasts a great dynamic range all the way.  Some scenes are deathly quiet, others are loud enough to make you want to pull your breakables from your shelves.  All channels come into play, and the audio is well balanced with good flow between all speakers.  The rear stage offers plenty of extra punch to the stronger moments, and excellent ambient effects to the quieter scenes to add to the sense of eeriness.  The .1 channel gets plenty of action, too, and not just for the plane crash sequences.  All in all, this makes for a great disc to demonstrate your home theatre.

Features ****

The Platinum Series line is famed for its features packaging as well as disc quality, and again, New Line doesn’t disappoint.  There are three separate commentary tracks, one with the filmmakers (James Wong, Glen Morgan, James Coblentz and Jeffrey Reddick), another with the stars (Devon Sawa, Kerr Smith, Kristin Cloke and Chad E. Donella), plus a third featuring an isolated musical score with comments from composer Shirley Walker.  There are a collection of deleted scenes, including the alternate ending, which are also discussed in the first of two documentaries, “Test Screenings”.  This featurette shows how the audience reaction cards are used to determine a film’s strengths and weaknesses.  The second documentary is “Premonitions”, and features a real life psychic who uses her gifts to help crime fighters solve their cases.  Both are quite interesting.  There’s also a trailer and two ‘games’ for you to play.  One is a psychic test, which asks you to try and guess which card will be chosen next (I failed miserably).  All that’s missing is Bill Murray from Ghostbusters shocking you every time you get one wrong.  The second game is Death Clock…answer a series of questions (none of which asks you how old you are right now), and it tells you the exact minute and day you will die.  Yikes.  Plus some DVD ROM features including the screenplay.  A terrific extras package!

Summary:

Final Destination is a terrific scare ride that dares to focus on some important, honest issues about life and death along the way.  With a good cast and top-notch direction, it will grab you from the opening moments and keep you for the duration.  This disc also represents another reference quality disc from New Line’s Platinum Series, which makes this a DVD…well, to die for.