[Screen It]

(2000) (Devon Sawa, Ali Larter) (R)

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Horror: After cheating death by disembarking a plane that later exploded in midair, members of a small group of students start dying one by one, giving the survivors the impression that Death still wants to settle its score with them.
Alex Browning (DEVON SAWA) is an everyday student who's arrived at JFK to fly off to Paris with his high school French class. Seeing all sorts of nebulous signs of pending doom and then experiencing a realistic vision of the plane crashing, Alex freaks out before the plane even leaves the gate.

When fellow student and resident jerk, Carter (KERR SMITH), suddenly goes after Alex for disrupting the beginning of their trip, the two of them, along with Alex's best friend Tod (CHAD E. DONELLA), Carter's girlfriend Terry (AMANDA DETMER), fellow students Billy (SEANN WILLIAM SCOTT) and Clear (ALI LARTER) and one of their teachers, Ms. Lewton (KRISTEN CLOKE) find themselves back at the gate watching their plane take off.

All of them are understandably mad or concerned about Alex's actions and their missing the flight, that is until the plane explodes in midair, killing everyone on board. While their immediate reaction is shock and grief over what's just transpired, arriving FBI agents Weine (DANIEL ROEBUCK) and Schreck (ROGER GUENVER SMITH) become suspicious of Alex's premonition of the explosion.

Even so, no charges are filed and time passes by. Back at school, the survivors dedicate a memorial to those who perished, but they've all been changed by the turn of events. That's particularly true for Alex since everyone now believes him to be a freak, especially when the ensuing deaths of those who survived causes him to come up with the theory that Death wants to settle the score for being cheated out of earlier taking their lives. As the group's numbers begin to diminish, the survivors do what they can to avoid Death once more.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Everyone's probably familiar with the old saying that the only two things one can be assured of in life are death and taxes. However, unlike April 15th and most every purchase that signals it's time to pay taxes of one form or another, few of us know when death will come knocking at our door. As such, most everyone, no matter how self-assured, has wondered at one time or another when his or her time will be up.

Although most will succumb to heart attacks or other illnesses, it's the accidents - and the more dramatic the better - that inspire the most fear in people. While statistically they're not even close to other forms of death, airline accidents seem to the most feared, with many people wondering what thoughts must race through the victims' minds the moments or minutes before the end.

That point is only exacerbated by the news media that seems to have a morbid fixation on publishing or broadcasting the last moments of cockpit conversation between those flying the ill-fated flights. Then there are the stories of people who either perished or saved their own skins by changing their flight plans at the last moment, and the subsequent dual feelings of luck and grief for those who survived such tragedies.

Despite a heavy-handed approach at instilling a sense of foreboding doom up to the moment of its own version of such a crash, New Line Cinema's "Final Destination" seems like it might be an interesting, teen-based twist on the similar topic covered in Peter Weir's excellent, 1993 post-airline crash film, "Fearless."

Unfortunately, the only twist this film - that turns from a disaster survivor story into a slasher flick -- can muster is in replacing the bogeyman characters of films such as "Scream" and "Halloween" with none other than Death himself. Now before girls swoon over the thought of Brad Pitt showing up once more as the Grim Reaper, or fans of "The Seventh Seal" wondering if the twist will have the Great Leveler playing Nintendo, rather than chess, with his intended victim, we must inform you that Death, at least as an embodied character, never makes an appearance in this picture.

Instead, writer/director James Wong and co-writer Glen Morgan (both from TV's "The Others" and "The X-Files"), who work from an original story by New Line employee Jeffrey Reddick, go for something a bit less profound, and that's in finding imaginatively gruesome ways to kill the survivors. Of course, and in doing so, they throw all credibility - yes, even for a film like this - out the window.

For instance, while watching the film I kept wondering why Death seemingly enjoyed toying with his victims, instead of just killing them outright. After all, with the sheer quotas he must meet everyday, I'm sure he doesn't have time to sneak around and/or sneak up on his next victims. Rather, its seems that a sudden and lethal lighting bolt, earthquake, meteorite or plain old heart attack would seem to be the expeditious choice of delivery.

Of course, such behavior is present solely for the purpose of goosing the viewers, and those with low tolerance levels for such supernatural-based, slasher type mayhem will probably react accordingly. Even so, I also found myself wondering why Death would wait thirty-nine days before coming after these teens again after missing them the first time around - okay, there is the backlog excuse - and constantly questioned the whole order of deaths element (Death must not so conveniently kill the students in the order in which they were seated on the plane, and if one gets skipped, their off the hook, or scythe as it is). What, is Death subject to a modified double jeopardy provision?

Again, such hackneyed elements are thrown in solely as a means of trying to generate some suspense, as viewers are then supposed to guess in which way the next victim will buy the farm from a varied choice of red herrings thrown their way (my favorite was the hair clippers up the nose decoy). While that cinematic technique is moderately effective at first, it quickly wears thin as more preposterous material soon overrides most of the suspense.

The filmmakers also lack any sense of subtlety. While these sorts of films aren't naturally associated with such a trait, it would have been nice had we not been hammered over the head with the all too obvious pending sense of doom that permeates the pre-flight scenes. When playing cinematic poker, it's never a good decision to show your hand too early, but that's exactly what this film does, thus leaving the viewer with few, if any, subsequent surprises.

It may have worked much better had the vision of the crash come out of the blue, or if everything was played for laughs (seeing how ridiculous Alex's fears of flying were, etc.) and then suddenly hit with catastrophe. Conversely, the filmmakers could have instilled doubt in our minds about whether Alex really did have something to do with the airline accident and the subsequent deaths.

At least that would have made the film a bit more interesting and nebulous, and would have given more credibility to the incredibly weak subplot concerning some FBI agents who are suspicious of the protagonist. Unfortunately, none of that happens and the film simply follows the clichéd slasher formula, sans an embodied slasher.

The film's performances are rote for the genre, with none coming off as particularly noteworthy or interesting, let alone sympathetic. As the lead character, Devon Sawa ("Idle Hands," "Wild America") can't do much with his angst-ridden character, while Ali Larter ("Varsity Blues," "House on Haunted Hill"), Kerr Smith (TV's "Dawson's Creek") and Chad Donella ("Disturbing Behavior") are present simply as the stereotypical, and barely developed high school loner, bully and best friend.

Although the film has a few decent, suspenseful moments, its marginal twist of replacing the standard, teen-based, slasher film boogeyman with Death ultimately doesn't add much of anything new to the genre. With the only bits of imagination present arriving in the form of inventive and gruesome ways to kill the victims, as well as the odd choice of John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" as the musical harbinger of doom (although the singer did die in a plane crash and perhaps they couldn't get the rights to "American Pie" - about Buddy Holly's ill-fated flight), the film comes off as just another lame entry in a long line of exploitative horror flicks featuring teens being picked off one by one.

While the proceedings do leave the door open for a sequel (yes, Death fails at completely fulfilling his duty), one can only hope that the title will be indicative of the film's quick trip to - and final resting place on - the shelves of your local video store. "Final Destination" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed March 13, 2000 / Posted March 17, 2000

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