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That Wascally Fate

Final Destination looks at irreversible destiny through the eyes of Wile E. Coyote

What if fate has something horrific in store for you, and you can't escape it? It's an idea that has been around for a long time, from Greek myths such as Oedipus, to the New Testament, to EC Comics and The Twilight Zone. Cinematically we tend to prefer the idea that destiny is going to be a positive force (Star Wars) or, if it isn't, that we're capable of changing the plan to make it more beneficial. As Linda Hamilton's character in Terminator 2 put it, "There is no fate but what we make." This interpretation tends to gel better with the American dream, which teaches that anyone can transcend the life plan through hard work, although our Calvinist roots still whisper that everything is predestined according to God's favor. And if God decides He doesn't like you, well, there's just nothing you can do to change that. You're screwed.

Final Destination is a movie that generally hedges the two positions, although it stops short of getting seriously theological. As a plane full of high school students is getting ready to take off for France, Alex (Devon Sawa), a kid who's paranoid about air disasters to begin with, has a psychic vision of the aircraft exploding. He freaks out, causes a ruckus and is booted off the plane, along with everyone in his immediate vicinity. Just as the guilty-by-association crowd is beginning to berate Alex, however, the plane takes off and explodes. Instead of thanking him for saving their lives, they figure he must have somehow caused the explosion to happen and start to label him a freak, especially when his fellow survivors begin dying in mysterious "accidents." We see from the get-go that Alex isn't responsible; rather, some invisible force that manifests itself as a black cloud seen only in reflected surfaces is out to get them. Alex's theory, which seems more or less to be the correct one, is that they were all supposed to die on the plane, but since they cheated death (or fate, or God, whichever), death is going to figure out another way for each of them to die accidentally, in the order in which they would've died on the plane (never mind that that would've been virtually simultaneously).

While the first such death is pretty cool, featuring a pool of water that follows its victim around just waiting for an electrical appliance to fall, things quickly get ridiculous. Fate, it seems, has been influenced by Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera: Every death scene after the first involves an object falling onto another object, which pushes something along, which ignites something else and kicks off a chain of events leading to sharp or heavy objects being hurled at someone's head. Unless you're the kind of person who empathizes with Wile E. Coyote, it's hard to take any of this as seriously as you're supposed to. In addition, it ultimately proves possible to cheat fate through simple yet daring acts of free will, although why is never clearly explained.

Filmmakers Glen Morgan (producer/co-screenwriter) and James Wong (director/co-screenwriter) have executive produced both The X-Files and Millennium, so what this movie tells us is that those programs' ability to frighten while simultaneously delivering deadpan humor originates entirely with Chris Carter, the creator of those shows. As if to emphasize this point, Morgan and Wong not only throw in two obtuse FBI agents, they even have their female lead, Clear Rivers (yes, that's her name), played by Varsity Blues's Ali Larter, say, "I'm not into all that X-Files bullshit." To be accurate, Millennium was the show about a man who had visions of death (and, ironically enough, was also the name of another subpar fantasy movie about a plane crash), but the point is this: Don't make blatant comparisons with similar, superior achievements within the story itself.

Other unintentional narrative howlers abound. When Alex first enters the airport, the PA system is playing John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High," a song which is endlessly repeated throughout. To make sure we don't miss the point, Alex is required to say out loud, to no one in particular, "John Denver -- he died in a plane crash." Clear is demarcated as the deep-thinking-yet-sensuous female lead by virtue of the fact that when we first see her, she's reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. And is it really necessary to include a creepy mortician who says, "I'll see you soon"?

Matters aren't helped by director Wong, who seems to be from the daytime-soap school of thought -- a mouth hanging open equals astonishment, wonder, awe and horror. At first it just seems as if Sawa were a bad actor, but then you notice that everyone is acting exactly the same way, including Seann William Scott and Kristen Cloke (one of Millennium's better recurring characters as psychic Lara Means). Regular XFiles cinematographer Robert McLachlan, meanwhile, seems as out of his element as Morgan and Wong; he photographs the whole thing like a TV show, with shallow staging, flat lighting and some rather poor special effects.

Not that this movie is unbearably bad, mind you, it's just a waste of a decent premise. None of the actors are horrendous; they just don't seem to have been given much direction or credible dialogue ("God's not afraid to die. Gods don't die. We do! Ya know?"). Morgan and Wong's track record as co-producers speaks for itself, but Final Destination also speaks volumes about why they should remain producers. Stick to what you're good at, guys; help Chris Carter get a feature screenplay produced instead.

Final Destination. Directed by James Wong. With Devon Sawa, Ali Larter and Seann William Scott. -- Rated R.

 
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