Constrained by a formula as restrictive as the elements that define haiku or iambic pentameter, scripter Eric Heisserer and first-time feature helmer Steven Quale nevertheless generate a respectable amount of suspense in “Final Destination 5.” This latest entry in the 11-year-old horror series duly adheres to tradition by providing inventively grisly demises for various characters. But there’s cheeky cleverness on display in the Rube Goldberg-style setups — and darkly ironic payoffs — for most of those death scenes. And while the pic’s nasty ending would serve as satisfying closure for the franchise, theatrical and homevid biz should guarantee even more sequels.
Once again, the plot pivots on a disparate group of people who miraculously cheat death — only to find they’ve merely delayed their grim reapings. In this case, the inevitable is avoided — temporarily — thanks to Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto), a sales rep for a paper manufacturing firm, who has a terrifying vision of horrific disaster while aboard a bus bound for a corporate weekend retreat.
Specifically, Sam “sees” dozens of folks — including many of his fellow employees — killed during a bridge collapse. True to his premonition, the bridge does indeed go falling down, but not before Sam preemptively flees to safety with estranged girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell), corporate climber Peter (Miles Fisher), bespectacled hottie Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), gymnast/intern Candice (Ellen Wroe), young plant foreman Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), nerdy skirt-chaser Isaac (P.J. Byrne) and sleazy executive Dennis (David Koechner).
Bludworth, the spooky-sagacious franchise mainstay once again played by Tony Todd, gives fair warning: “Death doesn’t like to be cheated.” And sure enough, one after another, the survivors are felled by fatal accidents that — as the audience knows full well, but characters onscreen only gradually realize — really aren’t random events.
Quale (second unit director on James Cameron’s “Titanic” and “Avatar”) and Heisserer (who also penned the “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake and the upcoming prequel to John Carpenter’s “The Thing”) stick closely to the game plan established by earlier “Final Destination” pics, methodically ratcheting up tension before each bloody quietus by slowly laying out the interlocking mishaps and happenstances that inexorably lead to decapitation, defenestration or other sorts of carnage. But they repeatedly spring unsettling surprises with crafty fakeouts, triggering laughs as well as gasps by upending expectations at the last second. Even more deviously, they provide only fleeting hints to viewers that everything they see may not be as it appears — and, more important, when it appears.
Indeed, one can view this latest pic as a shrewdly calculated attempt to reboot the franchise after 2009’s misleadingly titled “The Final Destination,” which, despite posting the series’ highest worldwide gross, also was the most critically lambasted.
Performances are fine, with Fisher amusingly channeling a young Tom Cruise in the pic’s most interesting character arc, and Courtney B. Vance providing the right touch of intelligent skepticism as a federal agent investigating the bridge disaster and its aftermath.
Lenser Brian Pearson exploits 3D for a multitude of cheap thrills, particularly during the opening credits, when skulls, shattered glass, sharp knives and — the horror! — fluorescent light bulbs appear to fly off the screen. He also makes use of the gimmickry to add depth of field to key scenes, so that, for example, the chaos on the collapsing bridge is all the more viscerally exciting. Other tech values are pro.