You can't cheat death…twice!
The difference between coincidence and conspiracy is a very fine, very real line. It's easy to read things into situations that seem clearly linked and yet another to actually find the corroborating connective tissue. We are a social order built on the notion of underlying causation and necessary explanations. When something comes along that we can't easily pigeonhole, we begin to associate sinister qualities to it, watching it slowly melt into the mythological and unsolved. Many questions still haunt our national consciousness: Who really killed JFK? Did we really land on the Moon? Is Elvis Presley really dead? Why we choose to focus on such lost legacies is something for the ever-growing legion of therapists and psychologists to wrestle with. But like the great celestial enigmas, beyond what they can't see or explain, most humans believe in an unseen realm they still can "sense" or "feel." Women call it their "intuition." Mother's specifically call it "the maternal instinct." We thrive on thinking we have a sixth sense side panel into God's own private plans. If we could just see into that magic, crystal karmic ball, we may be able to prepare for or prevent when the Angel of Death is planning to visit us. It is this very notion of cheating the grand, universal conspiracy between the cosmic and the mortal that makes up the basis for the successful Final Destination films. The Grim Reaper has a plan for all of us. And if we betray it, like the characters in Final Destination and the new to DVD Final Destination 2 do, you can be sure that sour spirit will be looking for us to orchestrate a little afterlife payback.
Facts of the Case
On the one-year anniversary of the explosion of Flight 180 (from the first film), Julie and her friends are headed to Daytona for spring break. Just as they enter the interstate a horrible accident happens and many lives are lost, including theirs. Or did it? Seems Julie merely has a premonition that a terrible automobile pile-up will occur and she refuses to enter the roadway. The resulting traffic jam blocks several other cars from entering the highway. When it turns out that the accident does indeed occur, Julie's actions have saved them all. The police take everyone in for questioning.
Nobody believes that Julie "foresaw" the accident. Julie explains the similarity between this case and Flight 180. See, there were survivors of that disaster, people who were supposed to be on the doomed plane and weren't. They survived, but then days later each died in a mysterious "freak" accident. Julie fears the same will happen to them all. No one seems to care and they all go their separate ways.
But as fate, or something more diabolical would have it, one by one, the people who were supposed to die in the accident become victims of odd, unexplained—and deadly—mishaps. Hoping to find an answer and prevent her own demise, Julie seeks help from the sole survivor of Flight 180. Together with the roadside police officer and a stop over for a rules booster from the dour, demented undertaker Mr. Bludworth, Julie tries to prevent The Angel of Death from completing his casualty list and taking her and everyone else to their final destination.
When it first hit movie theaters in 2000, nobody gave Final Destination much of a chance at clicking with an audience. Conceived originally as an episode of The X-Files (the writers and director worked on the television series) and starring a cast of relative unknowns (Candyman's Tony Todd and American Pie's Seann William Scott were the most recognizable faces), it went on to be a semi-sleeper hit, spawning a much more fevered fan base when it hit home video and DVD. In retrospect, it's easy to see why the expectations were so low (given its creation history) and its payoff so grand (considering what it actually delivered) Unlike other horror movies determined to wink and nod their way to a few ironic scares, Final Destination delivered a creepy, original premise and then pulled it off with masterful, detailed precision. It sold the notion that small, seemingly trivial incidents (call them…signs) could add up, creating a very dangerous and deadly crescendo, all in the guise of awkward but cinematically satisfying coincidence. It asked whether failing to die, perhaps when one was supposed to, actually cheated death, requiring the black angel to devise a more convoluted way of finalizing your position in the Grand Scheme of Things. But what it did, probably more successfully than any other exercise in terror, was make watching people die fun again (as sick as that sounds).
What the bearers of the Final Destination franchise figured out, much to the overwhelming glee of gore fans everywhere, is that like the Friday the 13th film series that made such a wealth of wallet stuffings, if you give people gruesome death and plenty of close-up/lingering shots of it, they will palpitate like Pavlov's rabid dogs. Back in the pre-MPAA mandated days of limited violence and NO-NO sex, Jason and his jack knife would carve a cragged scrawl through a young virgin's torso and we would witness every blood letting minute of it. But since Jack Valenti and his motion picture thought police have deemed it un-American to want to see sadistic, vicious vivisection, we have had to suffer through countless off-screen and on editing room floors deaths. Those in need of a nauseating splatter fix should look no further than Final Destination 2. Unlike its predecessor that substituted cleverness for claret, our sequel packs a pure prurient punch that hasn't been seen since the days of Tom Savini and Romero's zombie hoedowns. Thanks to exceptional makeup work, some killer CGI, and about 800 gallons of syrupy human soup, we get to witness decapitations, full body cross cutting, and total talent flattening (and we do mean flattening) at the skeletal, skillful hands of the invisible seraph of Doom. While they may not always be rational or within story reason, they sure are spectacular.
Indeed, unlike the first Final Destination, Final Destination 2 does not have its ephemeral life-ending eggs all lined up properly. The first film featured intricate, Rube Goldberg-esque deaths that seemed to spring out of the easily mistaken as minor accidents set-up method. It wasn't until a moment or two before the fatality that we could actually start to sense what the ultimate domino effect to slaughter would be. And even then a twist or turn was thrown in to show us that, unlike the Grim Reaper, we didn't have it all figured out properly and logically. Final Destination 2 offers far less complicated killings. In the film, normal circumstances (a morning commute, making a dinner) are allowed to go outrageously haywire, resulting in eventual DOAs. The difference is subtle, yet easily unmistakable. In Final Destination 2, when you see a car crash into a collection of PVC pipe, you just know that somehow, this conduit will be responsible for a death, or for the carrying of death bringing liquid (in this case both happens). Certainly, a couple of the deaths are impressive in the unpredictability (beware of panes of glass and barbed wire fences), but the entire opening set up is way too simple in its structure. Several drivers are not paying attention, so when truck looses logs, several drivers will imitate road kill. Obviously, what initially promises to be a complex and clever multi-car pile-up becomes just another bloody set of images for a driver's education film.
Still, in the capable hands of director David R. Ellis, who honed his craft as a stunt coordinator and second unit AD on literally dozens of projects (everything from Body of Evidence to the most recent The Matrix Reloaded). Final Destination 2 in general is an effective, often inventive thriller. His compositions are inventive and, thanks to his vast experience, he turns the opening multi-car crash into an action tour de force. But it is also this deadly pile-up that unearths his inherent weakness. Ellis is all about motion and misdirection, but he has yet to master (this was only his second film as an actual director) some basic storytelling techniques. In Final Destination, we understood very clearly the order in which the characters were being pursued by Death. Even with some pre-planned red herring tricks for the audience, there was still a fiendish pleasure in anticipating the next person to go. Here in the sequel there is nothing but confusion as to the afterlife pecking order. The characters have to constantly remind each other and the viewer who is next up on the doom docket. In suspense scenes with multiple characters, we shouldn't have to jump cut to a brief expository discussion about "who's next" to act as a finger string. The inherent storytelling within the film should be doing that. Also, Ellis needs to understand that something as visceral as a beheading or a torso tearing needs more than its shock value to be effective. It needs people we care about at the other end of the blunt cutting instrument. Unfortunately, most of the characters in Final Destination 2 are ciphers, empty vessels into which we are supposed to pour our own idea of what their three dimensions are.
It is not the actor's fault. The majority of the performers convince you of terror and dread, but only a couple move beyond the basic premise to open a window into their cinematic soul. As the only returning main cast member from the original, Ali Larter gives the same grave grace to her portrayal of Clear Rivers as she did before, now burdened with being number one on death's retribution list. Tony Todd is also back to cameo up the scenery as Mr. Bludworth. He gives us the same exercise in vagueness and mood that he blessed the screen with first time around. Of the new cast, only A.J. Cook as the omen seeing Kimberley and T.C. Carson as uptight black man Eugene Dix bring any manner of depth to their roles. Everyone else, from cop Thomas Burke to drug head Jonathan Cherry, seems waiting for an offstage cue before they perform, as if unsure of what to do or say next. And it really doesn't help, as stated before, that we have to rack our brains trying to remember who's who. Clear, strong personality traits do wonders to keep a character's name in the audiences mind. But when you are looking at a main player in the action of a film, and all you can think is "yuppie that smokes" or "guy who is filthy," there is definitely a need for another pass or two through the word processor. A tighter script and a more diverse set of actors (everyone here has a similar mannequin quality) would have made this film a real winner.
Still, for all its flaws, Final Destination 2 is a witty, wicked and fitting sequel to the original. In some ways it is more of a companion piece than a direct continuation, since the characters trying to outrun death have a very clever connection (or set of connections) to the events in the first film. Though the ending is a little convoluted and cheap (new life, unexpected, defeats death and rewrites the list…huh?) and the overall death events are scattershot, this is an enjoyable movie, especially for those of us who like our artery action ladled out on the heavy side. It's easy to see a 13th-esque series popping up, as long as the killings are handled in the same systematic fashion and the grue is piled high. Without those factors, however, this type of film would become derivative and hackneyed.
New Line offers Final Destination 2 as one of its specialized Infinifilm line of releases. This means there is supposedly a wealth of extra bonus material buried within a totally immersive, fully functional digital dynamic. However, of all the Infinifilms this critic has reviewed (or owned), Final Destination 2 is one of the least impressive. It is sparse, the special interactive menu coming up far less often than other titles in the series. There is also far less depth here; some of the facts stretch to make an actual connection to the movie. Some of the behind the scenes material is interesting, in particular the special effects section explaining the deaths (yummy!) that contains the added wonder of a sound bite or two from hero/legend/loon Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis. The trivia factoids are appropriately enlightening (number of people who die in traffic accidents, the amount of intestines used to complete a graphic stunt). But too much of the featurettes center around an odd psychological "fear" test of wimpy moviegoers and stories of people who cheated death—meaning they saw the light and did not go into it. These marginal experiments/life after death tales take up far too much of the bonus time (nearly 30 minutes) and really add nothing to the film. Unlike Thirteen Days or Austin Powers in Goldmember, we don't get interviews or storyboards. Instead, it seems like lame screen tests and the grim reaper's real world antics make up the preponderance of the plus stuff. And it's very repetitive. Occasionally, the Infinifilm tells us something that the commentary has already told us and the trivia material has reinforced a third time. For a technology as distinct as Infinifilm, it would have been nice to have material equally diverse for it to use.
From a pure filmmaking standpoint, the main alternative commentary track is first-class. We learn from Ellis and producer Craig Perry the amount of preplanning, last minute changing, and on-camera vs. computerized effects work that went into making the film. It's refreshing to hear them, accompanied by screen writers J. Gruber and Eric Bress, discuss their desire to make a movie that plays fair with the audience, that promises gloriously gory carnage and then delivers on said assurance. Gruber and Bress, specifically, recall the salad days of rental horror, when a trip to the local video store offered a wealth of nasty, never heard of before beauties to take home and gross yourself out on. All four men really like the movie they've created and hint that a third offering may be in the works. While occasionally a little too self-congratulatory (and repetitive with Infinifilm), it's still a fun listen. The few remaining extras are rather meaningless. The deleted scenes are absolutely pointless; the director and producer even say so in their commentary that accompanies them. The DVD-ROM material was inaccessible to this critic. From a strict additional benefit profile, New Line would have been better served to scuttle the technological interactive innovation and give us the commentary, the Gore/Effects featurette, and the trailers. Everything else here is superfluous.
From a sound and sonic perspective, Final Destination 2 is a video wonder. The anamorphic widescreen image, presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is eye-popping in its clarity and crispness (there is a rumored full screen version of the film supposedly enclosed on the disc, but this critic could neither confirm nor find it). From the deep blacks of night to the colorful flow of bright, rich red, the movie looks great. And gives it up aurally too. The Dolby Digital presentation is dynamite, the 5.1 utilizing the speakers and subwoofer wonderfully (DTS was unavailable to this critic). As a digital process, the Inifinifilm concept still has a few problems. It represents a reason for why DVD was created, since it utilizes the vast technological information capacity of the medium to incorporate contextual and complementary bonus material. But the title choice seems odd (why Final Destination 2 and not About Schmidt, or Magnolia?) and the content somewhat bargain basement. So if the overall effect is to expand the film and its themes, under those specific terms only, the Infinifilm release of Final Destination 2 can be considered a success. Otherwise, it seems like much ado about puff piecing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two Brief Tidbits:
The first issue with Final Destination 2 is how derivative it seems to have become. Sure, it is darkly comic and clever, much more inventive than your average horror film and goes for the gore with a surprising gusto. Films like this one deserve credit for bucking current trends. But just like Jason and his fatality by numerous inconceivable devices (light bulb? Corkscrew?), the premise of a precise, domino effect death is starting to look tired. After only one movie we can already see the cracks in the conceit. It is damn difficult to create these contraption casualties. The ones offered in Final Destination 2 seem unpolished and haphazard. And if more movies get made, it will probably just get worse. Unless the writing smartens up, Final Destination as a franchise should make its next incarnation a true finale.
The second issue is the bonus content. Frankly, what space cases that have somehow survived 4.23 minutes of brain death on the operating table only to return to preach about angels and pixies have to do with blood and gore is beyond understanding. Instead of near death dipsticks, wouldn't some more special effects specific footage have been nicer? How about conspiracy theorists or philosophers who challenge the idea of coincidence and unsolved mysteries? They would be a great deal more entertaining than Aunt Mae and her "I met Jesus" bit or the three wussy test case subjects who seem so jittery as to leap out of their leggings upon every death scene. Infinifilms should expand our understanding of a film, not bore us with brain scans.
There are moments in Final Destination 2 that remind one of the "signs" we see in our everyday life, ones which we ignore as being unconnected to each other: the worker poised precariously on a scaffold, a wild group of teenagers raising a ruckus nearby, open cans of flammable liquid, a busy executive throwing a cigarette butt out the window. Separately, they rate no more than a passing glance or a troubled mini-thought. But if one believes in the ethereal scheming theories of The Grim Reaper and his knock-off list, these isolated incidents seem to become portents of possible doom. Adding them together paints scenarios filled with death and destruction. We can even narrow the focus down to our own personal existence. The water overflows in the kitchen sink; we can't locate our rubber-soled slippers; the extension cord to the coffee maker slips off the counter as we reach for some paper towels. And all that is there is an empty roll, when you swear you just added a fresh one a few moments before. Such is life, right? Stuff happens. But the Final Destination movies would convince you that these premonitions indicate that our good Spirit of Disaster has got a complicated, Mouse Trap game style demise all set up for you. Miss the towel rack, slip into the water just as the cord connects with the liquid and—ZAP!—welcome to Valhalla Acres. Maybe it's just paranoia. Or maybe it's our natural tendency to confuse coincidence with conspiracy. Dying may indeed be part of some grand, puzzle like plan. Or maybe it's just a happenstance of being human. Who knows? But the next time you're traveling behind a tractor trailer truck piled high with huge, teetering SUVs and you notice that, right as you're ready to exit, the chain holding your car keys breaks, it may be time to pull over into the other lane.
Final Destination 2 is found not guilty and is free to go. Director David Ellis is sentenced to one year in the Remedial Storytelling Stockade until he can successfully complete the Elements of Plot and Character Development program of rehabilitation. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• DVD-ROM Material: Script-To-Screen, Link to Original Website, Screensaver, Wallpapers, "Chain Reaction" Activity, Exclusive Content at Infinifilm.Com
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