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Final Destination 5 (2011) – The Last Laugh is On Us

September 2, 2011

The literary critic Paul Bleton argues that the difference between genre and non-genre pieces is that genre pieces have a structure resembling that of a string of pearls.  What Bleton means is that genre (whether erotic, sensational or criminal) is all about big dramatic set pieces.  These dazzling moments of spectacle attract the eyes, stimulate the brain and distract you from the fact that the plots and characters they involve frequently serve no purpose other than to tie the set-pieces together into something broadly resembling a story.

Interesting though it may be, Bleton’s conception of genre is now seriously out of date.  Firstly, a generation of writers and directors with interests in character and subtext have worked at reclaiming genre devices so as to blur the distinction between pearl and string.  Secondly, a generation of directors including Michael Bay (Transformers), Gore Verbinsky (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Mark Neveldene and Brian Taylor (Crank) have stripped away the fig leaf of plot and character to produce films that are nothing more than series of set-pieces held together by implication and the fact that they are packaged and sold as a single artistic unit.

With the difference between genre and non-genre under continuous assault on multiple sides, there is something pure and elegant in a film that is unapologetic in its string of pearls-like structure.  The Final Destination series has never been anything other than a series of lavish set-pieces held together by weak plots and terrible characters but in that terrible predictability lies real profundity.

Final Destination 5 opens, like all of the Final Destination films with just enough exposition to make you a) familiar with and b) bored of the ensemble cast. From there, the film moves on to an eye-wateringly spectacular set-piece in which a collapsing bridge kills off the characters in a number of hilariously gruesome ways. At this point, the primary protagonist wakes up, realises that he has had a premonition of death, and saves the rest of the characters. The rest of the film is then given over to the characters’ attempts to escape death as the world around them is transformed into a vast and lethal Rube Goldberg machine.

While the chief pleasure of the Final Destination films remains the hilariously silly death scenes, it is fascinating to note how the filmmakers get away with making almost exactly the same film over and over again. The films function by internalising and pandering to the postmodern detachment of their audience.  Final Destination audiences know full well that the characters will not escape and so the films’ tension comes not from whether or not the characters will die but when and how Death will catch up with them.

This use of tension is particularly apparent in a scene involving the death of a gymnast.  As the characters talk, the camera pans around the area showing the audience a series of props: a loose screw on a set of bars, a faulty air-conditioning system, a frayed cable on a portable fan and a dripping pipe.  As the scene unfolds, these various elements begin to interact with each other; the air-conditioning system switches itself on and drips water near the frayed electricity cable while a loose screw lands on a balance beam while the gymnast is rehearsing.  The audience knows that the gymnast will die and they know that the various elements will interact in such a way as to cause her death but rather than simply showing us the death, the film teases us by denying us the expected outcome.  The more the gymnast dances around the screw and evades the electrified puddle, the more the tension builds. When the gymnast does eventually die, all the tension is released in one great roar of laughter. Director Steven Quale’s control over pacing and tension is not only exemplary but very much par for the course as far as the Final Destination series is concerned. The Final Destination films are all about the audience knowing more than the characters and the futility of the characters’ attempts at escaping audience expectations. This futility is evident in the series’ other great source of joy: the irrationality of the characters.

One of the films’ recurring motifs and plot contrivances is that, while the characters quickly work out what is going on, they also tend to latch onto a superstitious belief that death can be averted as long as a particular action is performed.  This action changes from film to film:

  • In Final Destination (2000), the characters believe that by saving each other they can force death to skip to the next person in the series.  In theory, this means that, as long as the characters keep saving each other, they can keep Death at bay for ever.
  • In Final Destination 2 (2003), the characters come to believe that they can escape Death either by isolating themselves from events or by bringing new life into the world.
  • In Final Destination 3 (2006), the characters begin to see signs and portents in a set of holiday snaps that they wind up using as a guide in their attempts to foil Death.
  • In The Final Destination (2009), the characters work out that Death is killing people in sequence and so they try to save each other from Death.  However, in attempting to save each other, the characters frequently wind up contributing to each other’s deaths prompting one character to wonder whether his premonition of impending doom might not have been sent by Death himself.
  • Final Destination 5 introduces the idea that, by killing someone else, a character on Death’s list might effectively trade places with that person and so acquire their remaining time on Earth.

In all five films, the characters resort to all kinds of superstitious and insane actions in the hope of averting death.  In all five films, these actions are revealed to be absolutely futile.  Sooner or later, Death comes for everyone.

Though steeped in craven audience-pandering, schadenfreude, black humour and the absolute dominion of genre expectations, the Final Destination films also contain a set of distinctly existential and satirical themes. Indeed, the Final Destination films are not only about the inevitable nature of death, they are also about the irrational lengths to which humans will go in order to ward off death.  What are the films’ various superstitions and plot contrivances if not an extended parody of organised religion and spirituality? Death, the films suggest, does not care if you follow the rules.  He does not care if you are a good person or a careful person or a ruthless person.  He will come for you and when he comes for you… he will have you.

What makes this satire so potent is the fact that it works on two different levels.  Audiences laugh at the characters’ attempts to avoid death because they have seen the previous Final Destination films and know that in these films nobody ever escapes.  However, as in the films, the last laugh lies with death itself for while we laugh at the characters’ attempts to escape, we do exactly the same thing as they do; We work out, we eat right, we go to Church, we play with crystals, we have monkey glands injected into our faces. We do all of these things because we think it will keep us alive but in truth, death is waiting for us and there is no avoiding it.  We squirm and squirm and squirm and yet death is inevitable but despite this fact, we feel entitled to laugh at the characters in Final Destination 5 because we supposedly know what they do not.

Over time, the Final Destination films have transitioned from innovative Horror and postmodern irony to vicious satire.  Aside from being well made and great fun to watch, the films also use genre expectations and audience smugness to deliver a highly effective satirical payload; We go and see the Final Destination films in order to laugh at those who think they can avoid death but in so laughing, we are only revealing the depths of our own delusions. The only one who should be laughing at the end of Final Destination 5 is Death himself.

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