As yet another gaggle of clueless teens runs around trying to postpone their appointments with Death, the question inevitably arises: Will there ever be a final “Final Destination”? Not as long as this durably gimmicky series, admittedly one of the wittier horror franchises in recent years, continues to dispense sadistic Rube Goldberg death traps with all the dramatic import of a kid frying ants under a magnifying glass. First two installments grossed more than $50 million and $40 million, respectively, and New Line should anticipate marginally lower returns from this slapdash sequel before it reaches a more lucrative destination on homevideo.
In the original “Final Destination” (whose director, James Wong, is back for this third round), a group of high schoolers narrowly avoided a fatal plane crash, only to find that Death doesn’t stay cheated for long. Here, the pre-empted tragedy is a freak roller-coaster accident, which Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) somehow foresees and manages to escape, though not in time to save sweetheart Jason (Jesse Moss) and pal Carrie (Gina Holden).
Now Wendy has to put aside her differences with Carrie’s boyfriend Kevin (Ryan Merriman, last seen in the prologue to “The Ring Two”) as they try to stop the chain of fatalities that inevitably will befall them and the other survivors — an incredulous group that includes a jock (Texas Battle), a sneering goth couple (Kris Lemche and Alexz Johnson) and Wendy’s bratty younger sister, Julie (Amanda Crew).
First to go are the requisite dumb hotties, Ashlyn (Crystal Lowe) and Ashley (Chelan Simmons), who walk into a tanning salon and don’t come out alive. Elaborately worked out scene is milked for mean-spirited comedy rather than suspense, and culminates in a sight gag so savagely inspired, it leaves one chortling at least a minute into the obligatory funeral sequence.
Subsequent killings are even more horrifically baroque, as once again, Death proves to be a highly resourceful if somewhat geekily detail-obsessed manipulator of inanimate objects. Helmer Wong (who also scripted and produced with Glen Morgan) doesn’t generate tension so much as initiate a queasy guessing game about the source of the next grisly “accident” — a weight machine? a runaway truck? condensation from a soft drink? — punctuated by an occasional frisson of pitch-black humor.
But whereas “Final Destination 2” at least strove for narrative intricacy, imagining a clever time-death continuum with the characters and events from the original, new pic is a desultorily plotted affair that feels less like a thriller than a homicidal checklist. In their race to save their classmates, Wendy and Kevin essentially end up triggering one bloodbath after another; it never occurs to them that they might do a lot more good by minding their own business.
In the story’s one major stroke of invention, the usual premonitions of death have been replaced with a set of photos (snapped by Wendy on the night of the roller-coaster accident) strewn with clues foreshadowing each character’s demise. Apparently, the Grim Reaper isn’t just a petty avenger but an irrepressible showoff, as even 9/11 is revealed — in a truly tasteless real-world reference — to be part of Death’s grand design.
In a role that occasions much screaming and weeping offset by the occasional doom-laden epiphany, Winstead is often too sniveling and mopey by half, but still provides a solid anchor. Pic’s “gotcha!” ending is just as half-hearted as the kicker that concluded its predecessor, but far more belabored.