After bearing witness to the soullessness with which Final Destination 3 pandered to the lowest common denominator, and the hilarious means by which some critics tried to rationalize director James Wong’s vulgar trivialization of death as a 9/11 allegory, it wasn’t a surprise to see a post-Snakes on a Plane David R. Ellis run into the open like the clueless, pigeon-chasing meat puppet from his Final Destination 2 and allow the 3D format to crush his flair for visual sophistication and pop excitement in The Final Destination. It almost kills me, then, to say that Steven Quale’s Final Destination 5 brings sanity to a single-minded, broken record of a franchise that has, until now at least, seemed predisposed against thoughtfulness. If the series really does end here, may this final installment be hailed as a triumph of poetic justice.
Final Desintation 5 doesn’t stray too far from the series’s familiar formula, except its stabs at existential discourse go beyond the superficial and jokey, and the drama of its characters coming to grips with the inevitable is notable for its patience, sensitivity, and overall lack of flippancy. In the beginning, Nicholas D’Agosto’s aspiring chef Sam has an elaborate premonition of death, from which he saves his girlfriend and his fellow co-workers at the Presage paper company. But death can’t be cheated, as coroner Tony Todd ominously reminds us, and one by one Sam and his friends die horrifically—and in the same exact order they would have been dispatched had they stayed on the film’s opening death trap, a ginormous, wind-battered bridge that suggests a metal-and-concrete strand of DNA.
Through the magic of some mightily impressive CGI, the film’s opening set piece—during which the bridge’s falling concrete and metal wires, along with the cars and other objects it sends flying off its surface, crush and slice over 80 people—comes close to besting the teeth-gnashing brinkmanship of Final Destination 2‘s visually prismatic freeway bloodstorm. But what truly dignifies this sequence, like others in the film, isn’t just its surprisingly graceful construction (a gymnasium-set scenario is a particularly exultant example of cross-cutting from beginning to end), but how human error is so mundanely factored into the logistics of the human mouse traps that the characters barely suspect the hand of a supernatural force.
The smallest shards of character development go a long way in Final Destination 5. The moment where Sam’s boss tastes one of the kid’s pasta dishes, which a customer returns because of the “tasteless” meat sauce, isn’t one that any other Final Destination would have made room for. But this great little aside illuminates Sam’s insecurities as a person, his sad and resigned view of himself as an inactive participant in his fate—feelings that likely explain why Molly (Emma Bell) breaks up with him prior to the bridge collapse. And just as the reasons for their relationship’s demise are left unspoken, so is their reconciliation, though one imagines it has something to do with Sam finally taking his life by the horns, boldly living it in spite of the death that awaits him—if not tomorrow, then in the distant future he hopes to still be sharing with his girl.
The film seems to consciously set out to refute the moral void of Final Destination 2 and the laziness of The Not So Final Destination. It’s in Sam’s refusal to safeguard himself, like the dummies from the previous film, against anything that may kill him, and in his friend Peter’s (Miles Fisher) surprisingly moving struggle to ward off death; one man’s becalmed existential struggle contrasts nicely with the other’s panicked own. Yes, the film makes a spectacle of death, but it also makes a spectacle of human guilt and moral crisis. A commentary on race, youth, and class even works itself out in the lead-up to one death sequence, which features, like most in the film, and unlike most in previous installments of the franchise, characters doing things that are typically not without the risk of danger—and in one notable exception, a buffoon’s demise is staged as comeuppance for his cultural insensitivity.
There’s a gallows humor to Final Destination 5‘s death sequences that giddily invites the audience’s applause, but the film also wants us to be appalled by how and when death can come to us—and, finally, how it unites us all (and, sometimes, characters across a series). The set pieces aren’t just elaborately staged jokes with the nastiest of punchlines, they’re also inquisitions; one eye-searing sequence holds an uncomfortably cheeky mirror up to our fascination with seeing these sorts of spectacles…and in more than two dimensions. This is a Final Destination with layers, and it may be the only one in which a hero is called out for how selfishly he behaves in his own premonition. The premonition may give him the playbook he needs to try and save human lives, but it also reminds us that there is no greater pain than knowing when death is at one’s door.