(by Dustin Putman
Some actual, honest-to-goodness thought and care went into "Final Destination 5," a sentiment not often found when it comes to the fifth installment in any increasingly ridiculous slasher franchise. Steven Quale, having previously co-directed 2005's IMAX documentary "Aliens of the Deep" with James Cameron, takes over the reigns here from James Wong (who helmed 2000's still-tops "Final Destination" and 2006's "Final Destination 3") and David R. Ellis (2003's "Final Destination 2" and 2009's stupidly-titled "The Final Destination"), and it turns out he's the electric paddles this series needed to jump-start its flagging pulse. True, the acting's spotty, the writing a tad hamstrung, and not every idea is a good one, but the pros ultimately outweigh the cons. Taking the tried-and-true formula any fan of Death's cinematic design will know intimately by now, director Quale and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street") playfully twist expectations just enough for what happens to feel ghoulishly inspired rather than a strict retread. Delivering solid production values and creative special effects that, on both accounts, are a huge step up from the overblown CGI artifice of its more slapdash precursor, "The Final Destination," "Final Destination 5" is decidedly the best sequel of the bunch. If there was a rating just a millimeter higher than a two-and-a-half but slightly lower than a full three, here's a film that might have earned it. Article continues below
The set-up is always the same. A person experiences a premonition about an impending disaster, saves a handful of lives moments before the tragedy in question takes place, and then watches as the survivors begin dying one by one in grisly freak accidents. They were fated to pass on, you see, and as know-it-all mortician Bludworth (Tony Todd) notes, "Death doesn't like to be cheated." This time around, the person with the eerie foresight is Sam Lawton (Nicholas D'Agosto), an aspiring chef still mulling a job opportunity in Paris as he heads off with his co-workers at company Presage Paper for a weekend team-building retreat. After narrowly saving himself and seven others—including on-again-off-again girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell), best friend Peter (Miles Fisher), and boss Dennis (David Koechner)—from the horrific collapse of the under-construction North Bay Bridge, Special Agent Block (Courtney B. Vance) begins to investigate how Sam could have known ahead of time about the bridge disaster. Labeled the "Lucky 8," Sam and his fellow employees aim to move forward but are soon interrupted when they begin dropping like flies in the order that they died in his premonition. It's always been said that when it comes to Death, there are no escapes, but might there be a heretofore undiscovered loophole?
"Final Destination 5" is handsome but grittier than the well-scrubbed "The Final Destination," and it is learned right off the bat who its characters are and what they do for a living—an instant step up from the previous entry. Granted, most of them are archetypes—"the conflicted but valiant hero;" "the even buffer, maybe slightly dumber best friend;" "the doubting but good-hearted girlfriend;" "the sleazy IT guy;" "the plucky intern;" "the harder-edged babe;" "the double-dealing boss"—but at least they are well-established, clearly-defined archetypes who are passingly likable or amusingly sleazy while they're still in the land of the living. Following a brief introduction to the cast, the picture leaps into its largest-scaled set-piece, a frightening suspension bridge collapse that cleverly builds up symbols of foreboding—the sign reading "watch your step" on the bus stairs; a Tagert Logging truck that sneakily calls back to the exceptionally conceived highway crash in "Final Destination 2;" Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" playing on the bus radio—before releasing an onslaught of carefully mounted tension and blood-and-guts carnage. For a horror film that doesn't have a $100-million budget, this sequence is every bit as crowd-pleasing and epic—maybe more so—as the similar Golden Gate Bridge finale in the recent "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
What immediately follows seems awfully familiar, even tedious, with the survivors being interviewed by special agents, attending funerals and memorials for the people who passed, and generally trying to go about their business. That's when Death, in the guise of Rube Goldberg's ghost, goes to work, invisibly setting up deadly accidents for its ill-fated protagonists to run afoul of. Director Steven Quale and screenwriter Eric Heisserer outdo themselves, concocting deviously inventive, cringe-inducing scenes that get under one's skin and, thankfully, don't constantly rely solely on CGI blood and effects. Some of the gore is, in fact, achieved by practical means. It's a small point, but does make a difference. The mere knowledge of a sharp screw lurking upwards on a balance beam while gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe) performs her routine works like gangbusters as an edge-of-your-seat tease, and another queasy scene set at a laser eye center is enough to delay poor-sighted audience members from throwing away their glasses and contacts.
As morbidly entertaining as the picture is even in its same old routine, it is the diversion from the norm in the third act that impresses in its audacity to try something different. Without giving away any specific details, the threat upon characters suddenly is coming from two opposite directions, leading to a more brutal, more real thriller-like confrontation than fans will be accustomed to. The real doozy, though, is the ending, verging on the ingenuity of 1999's "The Sixth Sense" in the way that its twist comes together so seamlessly, putting all that has come before in a whole new light while leaving the viewer in amazement that they were tricked (in the best way). The only damper to all this is an unnecessary last scene after what should have been the conclusion proper, and an endless pre-end-credits montage of all the series' deadly money shots that proves to be literal overkill. If this were truly going to be the last installment, then it would work as a parting exclamation point to its legacy, but let's face it: a "Final Destination 6" will be out in another two or three years' time.
Sterling performances aren't typically a top priority in the realm of the Grim Reaper's revenge, so as long as the actors can hit their marks and say their lines with a little feeling, expectations are met. That said, Nicholas D'Agosto (2009's "Fired Up!") is probably the best series lead since Devon Sawa in the original. As Sam, he exudes an upstanding, earnest-hearted affability that ensures he's worth rooting for. As girlfriend Molly, Emma Bell (outstanding in 2010's criminally overlooked "Frozen") plays her part a little too sleepily. Maybe she was bored by not having as much substance to dig into as in "Frozen." Playing Sam's closest buddy Peter, Miles Fisher (2008's "Superhero Movie") stands out in his uncanny resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, not only in looks but also in the sound of his voice. If their ages were twenty years closer together, they could almost be identical twins. P.J. Byrne (2011's "Horrible Bosses") runs with his role as Isaac, the company's womanizing IT guy, while Arlen Escarpeta (2009's "Friday the 13th") as put-upon young factory instructor Nathan, newcomer Ellen Wroe as intern/gymnast Candice, and soap star Jacqueline MacInnes Wood (TV's "The Bold and the Beautiful") as the sexy, practically blind Olivia have their moments in spite of little to work with on the written page. On the talents-squandered list: David Koechner (2011's "Paul"), an afterthought as boss Dennis; Courtney B. Vance (2010's "Extraordinary Measures") as the suspicious Agent Block; and Tony Todd (2010's "Hatchet II"), the sole returnee from the first three films, again given nothing of purpose to do as the enigmatic Bludworth.
"Final Destination 5" is stylishly shot by cinematographer Brian Pearson (2011's "Drive Angry") on location in British Columbia, and it deserves to be said that having seen it theatrically in reliable, vibrant, brightly-lit two dimensions, the alternate 3-D version was not missed for a second. "Who dies during a massage? Seriously," mutters Molly following the unthinkably gruesome discovery of one of her co-workers at a local spa. It's a funny line because it's honest, and yet what has remained so enjoyable about the "Final Destination" movies is its weird, strained but relatively plausible internal logic. We, as human beings, go about our merry way through each successive day, not stopping to think about how one false move, one miscalculated cause-and-effect, one unfortunate circumstance could spell the end of our lives. Granted, this series preys upon this idea on an extreme level, but it still rings oddly true. For diehards, "Final Destination 5" will be a particularly satisfying, intestines-strewn treat.