A teen-skewing take on “Twilight Zone”-style spookiness, “Final Destination” generates a respectable amount of suspense and takes a few unexpected turns while covering familiar territory. The first feature project by TV vets James Wong and Glen Morgan — award-winning scripters whose credits include “The X Files,” “Millennium” and “The Others” — thriller should scare up slightly more B.O. coin than other recent shockers aimed at the under-25 crowd. Ancillary prospects are brighter, especially if favorable word-of-mouth enhances pic’s cross-generational appeal.
Up-and-comer Devon Sawa is well cast as Alex Browning, a high school senior who’s blessed — or cursed — with precognitive powers. Alex doesn’t fully realize he has this dubious gift until the day he’s supposed to fly from New York to Paris on a senior class trip. Just before take-off, he has a frightfully vivid vision of a fiery explosion. Understandably terrified, he attempts to bolt from the aircraft, causing a ruckus that seriously upsets the unsympathetic flight attendants.
So Alex is booted off the plane, along with a teacher and a few classmates. While they’re squabbling in the departure lounge, the 747 takes off and — ka-boom! — blows up real good.
Survival turns out to be a mixed blessing for Alex, who’s viewed with equal measures of suspicion and hostility by the other members of the group. Truculent classmate Carter Horton (Kerr Smith) angrily insists that Alex must be some kind of freak, or worse. And Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke), the teacher who deplaned to oversee the ejected students, can’t help sharing Carter’s darkest suspicions.
Three other classmates — including Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer), Carter’s girlfriend — don’t know what to make of their good fortune and feel uneasy about being around the guy who saved their lives. Indeed, only Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), a improbably named loner, is supportive of Alex — if only because she finds herself in synch with his paranoid foreboding.
A couple of FBI agents, Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schreck (Roger Guenveur Smith), are openly skeptical of Alex’s “vision” as they investigate the possibility of sabotage aboard the ill-fated aircraft. (Maybe Alex might have been treated better had Scully and Mulder been assigned to the case?) Even after FAA investigators prove the explosion was accidental, the feds continue to keep an eye on Alex. And with good reason: A few weeks after the tragedy, survivors start to die under extremely suspicious circumstances.
What’s going on? Alex fears that some supernatural force — God? Fate? Satan? — is seeking revenge because he and his companions managed to cheat death. His worst fears are reinforced when, while visiting a fallen comrade at a funeral home, he and Clear receive a dire warning from a mortician named Bludworth (Tony Todd): By getting off the plane, Alex and his friends have tampered with the grand design of the Grim Reaper.
Throughout the remainder of “Final Destination,” Alex divides his time between trying to discern a pattern in the mounting body count and behaving suspiciously each time another survivor meets an unpleasant end. It takes him a long time — almost too long, really — to figure that, by once again throwing a monkey wrench into the grand plan, he can save himself and the remaining survivors. In the predictably ironic coda, however, Alex discovers that, even when death takes a holiday, you can’t indefinitely delay the inevitable.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Morgan and New Line marketing exec Jeffrey Reddick, first time director Wong evidences a sardonic sense of mischief in his handling of violent demises. At least one death is an exhilaratingly shocking, out-of-nowhere surprise. More often, though, Wong likes to toy with audience expectations, mercilessly extending sequences in which one thing leads to another, like interlocking pieces of a Rube Goldberg device, and somebody winds up garroted or decapitated or even worse.
Unfortunately, things get out of hand during the turbulent climax, as rapid-fire crosscutting makes a hash of continuity. There’s more confusion and chaos than genuine tension because the audience isn’t able to easily follow the logical progression of events.
“Final Destination” isn’t exactly a laff riot — most of it, in fact, is deadly serious — but Wong clearly has his tongue placed somewhere in the vicinity of his cheek. John Denver’s upbeat anthem “Rocky Mountain High” is used throughout the pic as a portent of death and destruction. And just to make sure the audience doesn’t miss the joke, Wong has someone note that Denver “died in a plane crash.”
Sawa is credible as the second-sighted Alex — unlike many other actors cast a teen protagonists, he actually looks like he might still be attending high school — but the supporting players are an uneven bunch. Larter never seems to be entirely at ease in her part, and it’s hard to shake the suspicion that one key scene — the first one-on-one conversation between Alex and Clear — is annoyingly jagged because of an attempted editing room salvage job.
On the other hand, Smith once again displays attention-grabbing screen presence in a secondary role, and Todd — an old hand at scary stories after the “Candyman” series — overplays with enough relish to position himself as a probable returnee for a “Final Destination II.”
Lenser Robert McLachlan’s lighting is unattractive, and the special effects aren’t nearly special enough. Other tech values are serviceable.
Trivia buffs, take note: The filmmakers pay homage to their fave-raves by naming many of their characters after actors and directors associated with horror and suspense classics. Some of the allusions are obvious — Valerie Lewton refers to B producer Val Lewton (“I Walked With a Zombie”), while Alex’s surname is a tribute to “Dracula” director Tod Browning — but a few are playfully obscure. The FBI agents, for example, are named after giants of German cinema — Schreck (after Max Schreck, star of “Nosferatu”) and Weine (a misspelling, deliberate or otherwise, of Robert Wiene, director of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”).
And then, of course, there are those kids named Hitchcock and Chaney. To say nothing of the student named George Waggner — just like the guy who directed “The Wolf Man” (1941).