REVIEW: Final Destination 5 Combines Wit and Morbid Excess, and Somehow It Works

Movieline Score: 8

In his 1998 article about the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 into the Florida Everglades, William Langwiesche explains the concept of the "normal accident." When 105 people die, the public wants answers -- a story to make sense of what happened and determine who is to blame. The piece's ultimate point is that allowances must be made, particularly in a world with as many working parts as ours, for disasters that are not only unforeseen but unavoidable. Laying out the complicated sequence of events that led to an oxygen tank explosion in the plane's cargo hold, Langwiesche arrives at the conclusion that it may be more dangerous to take extreme measures to avoid what amounts to a series of benign human oversights combined with circumstance than to accept that the universe will occasionally and very casually line up against you. It's a beautifully wrought and supremely rational argument whose logic might be a source of comfort if it weren't so horrifying.

1996 was a bad year for plane travel. Two months after the ValuJet crash, TWA Flight 800 fell out of the sky, killing 230 people. The FBI stepped in to investigate the possibility of terrorism; nothing else made sense. But there was no bogeyman on Flight 800, as then-X Files writers James Wong and Glen Morgan noted. It was an accident, one that even hindsight might have trouble predicting. That simple and yet boggling idea served as inspiration for one of the few original horror franchises of the aughts, the Final Destination films. Eleven years and half a billion dollars after the first film -- which centered on a plane crash and incorporated actual news footage of Flight 800 -- comes Final Destination 5, otherwise known as the one after The Final Destination, which was not so final after all. The formula Wong and Morgan settled on (original inspiration came from a script by their X-Files co-worker, Jeffrey Reddick, who has served as story consultant on every film) was so simple it was destined to kill: What if the bad guy is death itself, and there aren't really any accidents, normal or otherwise?

Senselessness is in many ways the scarier option, which is why much of the series -- a merry collection of savagely gruesome, outrageously circumstantial kill scenes held together by a shoestring conceit -- focuses on the ways the random might align to pop any one of us off on a given day, on a flight, on a ride to a work retreat. The latter is where we find the central characters of the fifth installment, which stars Nicholas D'Agosto as Sam, the film's designated seer. Fans of the franchise will know that this means that Sam is the one who foresees the bus he and his colleagues have boarded falling off of a suspension bridge. He persuades eight of them -- including the sweet-faced blonde (Emma Bell) who just dumped him, the handsome intern poacher (Miles Fischer), the office bad girl (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), the skeevy nerd (P.J. Byrne), and the amiable black guy (Arlen Escarpeta) -- to leave the bus before the bridge collapses, in a sequence of gorings, splatters, and epic catastrophe so spectacular we get to see it twice.

Did I mention this is all in 3-D? Directing his first film in the franchise (and his first film; long-time FD producers Craig Perry and Warren Zide return) is Steven Quale, who has done more than 20 years of second unit directing and effects supervision with James Cameron. Major care and major bank went into the film's slick look and rather stunning dimension. Again and again, they combine with a sense of wit and morbid excess to release the terror of watching someone barely escape death's fickle right hand, only to get hit by a roundhouse from the left. Aside from the showy, overwrought credits sequence, it's silly and self-conscious and still scary as hell. "I don't know why it's funny," the stranger beside me marveled between choking guffaws after a gymnast (Ellen Wroe) on the double bars sticks her landing in the way anyone who has ever watched elite gymnastics has feared with a kind of titillated anticipation. "But it's funny!"

I don't know if "funny" is the word -- hysterical is more like it. It's certainly the first time I have seen the new breed of pornographically violent horror films connect with the genre's memento mori impulse in such a meta, modern, and yet still meaningful way. The requisite self-reference even gives the casting of the usual archetypes -- with their good but derivative looks -- a sordid edge. Fischer is such a dead-to-rights Tom Cruise clone that he became famous for a spoof of the actor; Wood is a slinkier but less charismatic Megan Fox; and D'Agosto's every-movie face is so uncannily familiar and yet so unremarkable it feels like part of the scenery. The performances are more solid and nuanced than is par for the genre, which compounds the sense of dread underlying the film's nihilistic, superficial approach to its cast: There is no villain, no hero, and no Final Girl, only a group of actors who are immediately recognizable as being disposable not just in horror films but in Hollywood.

According to FD law, the survivors of the bus accident are picked off by cosmic bloopers as death collects its due. Several are set pieces of well-crafted suspense derived from relatively mundane situations: Death outdoes itself in the gym sequence, and if you've had LASIK surgery, as I have, you will be clutching your eye sockets during Wood's way-past-worst-case-scenario procedure. A hugely satisfying tension comes from tapping the dread we push down to get through a life of constant negotiation with danger, whether it's crossing a suspension bridge or crossing the street. Who needs Freddy when routine plane travel is so fraught?

Though the formula's big twist (the script was written by Eric Heisserer) doesn't get a firm grip on the introduction of human motive to the mix, the hits keep coming at a steady clip, as Courtney B. Vance (as a detective certain there must be more than fate at work) and the tall, dark stranger played by series stalwart Tony Todd look on. When the coda opened on the proud nose of the jumbo airliner holding the film's sole survivors, the audience I was a part of erupted in a knowing, giddy groan. Some caught the reference, some did not, but we all tensed together. Because if a plane were ever just a plane, those days are long gone.