“Five different systems had to go wrong for that laser system to fail, five!”
So exclaims a stunned cop after a particularly squirm-inducing episode of fate-induced vengeance halfway through this latest instalment in the Final Destination franchise, mirroring the disbelief of this audience member that a series of films clearly on its last legs could come roaring back to life as a result of a fifth attempt at resuscitation. Acknowledging the expectations of its returning fanbase from the outset during a credit sequence which pays homage to the various means of execution in previous episodes (repeated in a ‘series’ greatest hits’ montage at the close), director Steven Quale veers little from the formula established by James Wong eleven years ago. But aside from an astute directorial grip on the mechanics of misdirection and editorial montage that raise the inventive set-pieces above those of its predecessors, it’s his injection of slivers of humanity, sensitivity, even morality into his characters that makes Final Destination 5 more than the sum of its death spectacles, a cycle into which the franchise had swiftly deteriorated.
From the second film onwards, these films have always clearly signposted their toilet breaks, with only those new to the franchise really needing the expository scenes (here delivered with ghoulish severity by Candyman himself, Tony Todd) explaining Death’s rules of engagement. Call it dramatic irony if you will, the audience remaining two steps ahead of the characters in trying to figure out ‘Who’s next?’, but where previous instalments actively encouraged the blood-baying of its audience towards a never ending conveyor belt of one-dimensional self-preservationists, here we’re presented with a somewhat deeper exploration of the moral dilemmas thrown up by the plot mechanics, particularly when the notion of saving one’s own life by taking another comes to the foreground during the film’s latter half.
The opening premonitory sequence set upon a disintegrating suspension bridge could well be the best of the series, the 3D effects proving effective both in an old-school ‘in yo’ face’ sense not seen since the likes of Friday the 13th Part III (1982) as well as providing a greater depth of field to the fantastic CGI work, the first on-screen death as a yacht passes under the bridge immediately setting the tone. The aftermath of the disaster, as Death/fate catches up with the survivors one by one (although the supernatural element is here more muted) represents business as usual, with Quale’s direction in total command of audience expectation, an early gymnasium-set episode proving the film’s (perhaps even the series’) highlight.
Sure, some of the cast fare less well than others both in terms of performance and characterisation, racist chauvinist Isaac (P. J. Byrne) being a prime example, and the dialogue can often be a little painful to swallow, but the decision to move the protagonists out of high school and into the work place offers small but welcome signs of the franchise growing up, touching as it does (however lightly) on its hierarchies and divisions, particularly in a pre-kill scene between young black factory manager Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta) and an older white subordinate whose death may or may not have been at his hands. When best friends Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) and Miles (Tom Cruise lookalike Peter Friedkin) square off at the end, each dealing with their issues of survivor-guilt in starkly contrasting ways, Final Destination 5 poses questions its four predecessors showed little interest in, adding an ethical layer previously unseen, however facile it may ultimately prove to be.
As the film moves towards its killer, franchise-reflexive climax, the feeling may still remain that the Final Destination series has now had its day, that the repetitive nature of its narrative structure now really has nowhere else to go. In which case it’s great to see James Cameron protégé Steven Quale taking it out on what could well prove the series’ high note (assuming that is that part six isn’t already on its way), because as late-Friday-night B-movies go, this is where it’s at.
Final Destination 5 – 2011 – USA – 92 mins – Dir : Steven Quale