20YA: "Final Destination" (dir. James Wong) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Final Destination" (2000 film)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth (or in this case, 20th) anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Still from "Final Destination"

“I have thought a lot about that ‘somewhere,’ Alex. It exists, that place… where my dad is still safe. Where he had a full pack of cigarettes that night, and just kept driving. Where me and my mom and my dad are still together…and have no idea about this life here. Where our friends are still in the sky. Where everyone gets a second chance. Alex, we can’t give up.

Clear Rivers (Ali Larter)

Horror fandom might be a young man’s game. As a seasoned cinemagoer, you certainly get wise to the tricks of the trade – the jump scares, the cheap thrills, the bone-crunching, fingernail-splitting gore, the (now-standard) shots of someone backing into a crosswalk without looking, etc. – but that’s not what I’m talking about, as it’s hardly the sum of horror anyway. I’m not going to disparage my younger self by suggesting that I care more about the horror of my friends and loved ones dying than I did when I was younger, but the idea of that actually occurring feels less like a vague future abstraction than ever before, and that was true even before we entered a global virus pandemic. At its best, the horror genre inspires relatable fear of things that people are reliably afraid of, but it also inspires existential dread, which is easier to come by when you have a better-developed sense of the world and your place in it. Equipped with a slightly more potent feeling of one’s own mortality and hubris, as your frontal lobes and sense of danger have had a chance to develop, the world gets a bit stranger, and you start to realize that death really is a sad and terrible and verbally taboo part of life that steals away people and experiences and memories that have had far longer to ruminate and develop in value. The potency of real-world dread intensifies, and you either decide that indulging in fake dread is still acceptable sport, or your threshold for experiencing it just keeps ticking higher and higher.

Fun fact: Like Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), I took a two-week class trip to France (and Spain) during my senior year of high school. Our flight number? 180, just like the plane that explodes at the start of this film. And you better believe I took great pleasure in telling everyone in the group about that, since dropping movie references and scaring people for no reason is also a young man’s game. But after Alex has a premonition of the group’s imminent demise, he promptly pitches a fit and gets himself and several others thrown off the plane. The plane leaves, and explodes – leading to an awesome (if slightly preposterous) shot and edit in which it explodes, still in view of the airport, then shatters the terminal window a split second later right as a watching character finishes saying “Oh shit!”. This is the first of many Rube Goldberg-esque death mechanics that this film creates, and it’s fair to say that they’re a recipe for chuckles, not existential dread. And in Final Destination, even the most grisly tableaus managed to deliver, as George Carlin might say, a couple of fuckin’ laughs.

Still from "Final Destination"

Suffice to say, the railroad-induced decapitation of Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott) met these criteria, and the other characters – who genuinely do not seem to care that Billy has been horrifically killed before their eyes – are too busy figuring out the in-universe rules of Death’s sadistic design to deal with the human tragedy they’ve just witnessed. Should we care? Any residual annoyance at Steve Stifler notwithstanding, I suppose Billy has a few character traits – he likes Whoppers enough to nearly miss an international flight to go buy a carton. He’s weirdly cosplaying as future Kevin Smith with the hockey jersey and jorts, and half his dialogue consists of calling letterman jock Carter Horton (Kerr Smith) a dick after the latter physically assaults him in some way. But no, if I’m being honest, I didn’t care when he died. Nor did I particularly care when Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) – whose prior dialogue consisted solely of telling her boyfriend Carter to be less of a dick – backed into traffic and got pancaked by a speeding bus. That was slapstick. Splatterstick? The spatter stuck. This film’s clear objective – as spelled out by the inimitably vamping Tony Todd as the creepy mortician Bludworth – was to get me to laugh at Death, and since I first saw it in my mid-teens when my fear of death wasn’t offering any real competition, it largely succeeded.

Still from "Final Destination"

But the film dabbles in taking death seriously as well. Following his brother’s death on the plane, survivor Tod (Chad E. Donella), Alex’s best friend, appears at a group memorial. He stands before the assembled mourners and reads a passage from Marcel Proust: “We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.” Given that he dies in a preordained (and blue toilet-water-induced) freak accident that very same evening, the quote has additional resonance, but the film goes beyond just quoting notable prose, and actually takes the trouble to give goth outsider Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) a gritty backstory with mortality. She isn’t just one of Death’s would-be victims – she literally has a vendetta against the infernal entity for randomly killing her father, and – after explaining how this backstory fuels her determination, throws in a “Fuck Death!” for good measure. How silly and awesome is that? I could laugh at Clear. Hell, it’s been 20 years – perhaps I did laugh at her. But who among us hasn’t liked some social media post book-ended with “Fuck cancer”? As much as this film indulges in pathos as punctuation between all of the gory spectacle, it at least seems to care more about its characters’ inner lives than a charnel house like the Saw franchise, and the script and performances deserve some credit for that. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. That rage is ever-present, even if it’s of variable quality (Kerr Smith is the weakest link), but Larter and Sawa are uniformly solid, and Sawa even gets a gritty FBI interrogation monologue. Although, since he apparently makes it to and from his local FBI station within the length of a single John Denver song, it’s probably best not to think too hard about the geography, or what Agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schrek (Roger Guenveur Smith) have going on in their lives that they can appear at multiple death-houses with a few minutes’ notice several nights in a row. Logistics aside, this all mostly works. And it ably sets up the formula that the rest of the franchise would follow: tie a string of Death’s would-be victims together with an fx-fueled spectacle, then spare and ultimately pick them off one by one. While the franchise never quite reached the heights of the first film in terms of giving me characters whose unlikely survival I was rooting for, it at least built its series of escalating thrill rides on a solid foundation – and one that I’ve troubled to rewatch several more times over the last 20 years.

So is horror fandom a young man’s game? I can picture my co-host Daniel’s response. You’re 35, Glenn, shut up. And it’s true that since launching my website, I’ve picked my top film of the year from the horror genre more than once, but it was always something special within that genre. David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows – in addition to being a delightfully weird ultra-widescreen retrofuturistic design experience – presented an intractable monster that you were utterly alone in facing, the product of your own regrettable choices, and one that for the rest of your life, you will never, ever truly know that you’re safe from. David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story pretends to be a rumination on death and grief, but reveals itself to be a work of existential horror that made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack while I watched it. Final Destination does not rise to this level. But it is a better-than-average franchise horror starter with a clever concept-villain that can never be defeated or grow stale. It can receive a direct sequel with a new cast at literally any time. Hell, Sawa’s disinterest in returning for FD2 was settled with an off-screen brick. All it needs is someone like Bludworth to explain the rules – or rather, remind characters and viewers alike that they already know the rules – the rules that have dogged them since the day they were born. And until…well, you know the rest.

Stay safe out there.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Jerome Bixby’s “The Man From Earth” – A brilliant and audacious journey

Poster for "The Man From Earth"

Produced in 2007 from a screenplay finished on the writer’s deathbed, Jerome Bixby’s sci-fi opus The Man From Earth feels more like a play than a film. Professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) announces to his colleagues and friends that he’ll be moving on, but makes a surprise confession – he is immortal, and has lived for the past 14,000 years. The rest of the film takes place almost entirely in a single room, following the threads of the group’s conversation. And in a very theatrical touch, the assembled group of academics are perfectly suited to test his story. There’s Harry – a biologist (John Billingsley), Dan – an anthropologist (Tony Todd), Sandy – a historian (Annika Peterson), Art – an archaeologist (William Katt), and Edith (Ellen Crawford), a devout Christian with an unnamed specialty. As John’s story goes on, they are joined (quite expectedly) by Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), a psychologist.

I mention the character names, but these aren’t really characters anyway. They’re just filters through which the audience can analyze this man’s fantastical tale. There is even a student (Alexis Thorpe) present to ask a few simplistic questions so the professors can explain details that the group would already know. And even when the story strives for more dramatic and theatrical character moments (a confession of love, a surprise death threat, and so on), the situation never quite feels plausible, as these moments only serve to provoke new dimensions to John’s story.

But as I mention these character and narrative shortcomings, I must also say this – not a single one of them detracts from the film. David Lee Smith gives a remarkably subdued performance as John Oldman (one of many pun names he claims to have chosen over the years), the wise, humble, and pragmatic old soul. He reminded me somewhat of Doctor Who, but he feels far more authentic and human, because the film so excels at depicting the limitations of his purportedly vast knowledge and experience.

As they quiz him for every detail of the last 14,000 years, he points out that he doesn’t remember every detail any more than we can remember every moment of our childhoods. As he produces details of history, anthropology, and social and scientific advancement, they rightfully point out that he could have gleaned any of them from a textbook. But as one professor admits, it is no more possible for John to prove his story than it is for any of them to disprove it. And so the conversation goes on. He talks of love, friendship, life, and death – the one subject of which he has no more knowledge than anyone else. The film goes on to raise some startling religious themes, to the chagrin of Edith, the devout Christian… The ensuing theological discussion is easily the most provocative aspect of this film, and is quite well realized.

I don’t have much to say about the other performances, since there weren’t any other particularly strong characters. But even as a collection of variable filters for John’s conversation, the acting was solid overall. Todd, Crawford, and Riehle were superb, and Billingsley was enjoyable, albeit playing to familiar quirky territory. Annika Peterson does the best she can with some of the more contrived character moments, although her unlikely conversation with John about the nature of love is a surprisingly effective addition to the film. Katt and Thorpe don’t contribute much as skeptic and simpleton respectively, but I don’t really fault their performances, as they aren’t given much to do in the film (except make the audience wonder why a fifty-something doppelganger of James Cameron is permitted to date one of his students).

Jerome Bixby was a writer for the original “Star Trek” series, and it definitely shows here. The film’s end features Tony Todd announcing he’ll go home and “watch some ‘Star Trek’ for a little sanity”, and while it was a mildly self-indulgent reference, it does bring to mind a key difference between the two works. “Star Trek”, with its niche audience, was quite free to explore the big sci-fi ideas via alien allegory, since no one was too worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of the Tholian Empire. The Man From Earth takes on a far more daunting task – to deconstruct human history, values, and beliefs in a manner as shocking as it is insightful, and keep the audience adequately engaged to stop them squirming in their seats and fleeing the room. And it completely succeeds.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10