I am turning 40 today (hold your applause), which naturally has me thinking of getting old, this or that thing I meant to have done by now, etc. One thing I am trying not to think of is death, because hopefully that's a long ways off, and also because age doesn't really have anything to do with it until you get into your nineties. I could live another 60 years, I could be dead before I finish formatting this article (and then Scott would have to do it, which would mean I pissed him off in my final moments). But having recently finished watching The Good Place, it's hard not to think about the idea of cheating death, since it was a plot point of sorts (the people who died were allowed to return to life, sans their memories of dying, as part of an experiment) and in turn, that got me thinking of something that's also celebrating a milestone birthday: Final Destination is now twenty years old!
I've written about the series in general before, but it's been a long time since I revisited the very first film, which surprisingly spawned a franchise that includes four films, several novels, and at least one comic book. I say "surprising" because the one thing it HASN'T yielded is action figures and models of its central villain, which is completely unheard of for a horror franchise. And that's because, well, there IS no real central villain. The antagonist of the series is just the concept of Death itself, without a hood and sickle or even a handsomely dressed Brad Pitt to depict it. For all other genres, a sequel means the good guys go on a new adventure, but in "body count" horror the good guys are dead and it's the bad guy - Jason, Freddy, etc. - who gets to keep coming back. However, the producers of this franchise didn't even have that much - the idea itself is the only real through-line across all five movies.
Hardcore fans and movie trivia junkies know that once upon a time there was a more traditional villain. The story began life as an X-Files spec script in which Scully's brother Charles inhabits the Devon Sawa role, having a premonition of a plane crash and being removed just before takeoff (along with a handful of other passengers) only to see it become true just a few minutes later. When the other people that left the plane start dying suddenly, Mulder and Scully are naturally called in to investigate, with Scully having to also prove that her brother isn't the culprit, as he has been under suspicion ever since the disaster. As written by Jeffrey Reddick, it would have been a pretty good "monster of the week" episode, but we should thank the exec who convinced him to expand it into a feature (unrelated to X-Files) as it was clearly a concept that needed more time to be done proper justice.
Both the X-Files script and Reddick's feature draft (called Flight 180) utilized a traditional villain persona for the killings, but when Glen Morgan and James Wong (ironically, the writers behind the only two episodes to feature the Charles Scully character) came on board and revised the script, they landed on the "no killer" idea and played up the supernaturally charged Rube Goldbergian death scenes. Death is not a humanoid figure, but a force, and the kill sequences reflect that idea, as drops of water, blowing fans, loose fragments of metal, and countless other innocuous things take the place of a guy swinging a knife or a machete. It is of no surprise that these scenes became the series' calling card, extending such moments at the expense of character development and drama, and while they are indeed a big part of the fun, it occasionally felt like the later movies were designed around these scenes instead of acting as clever highlights of a more character-driven supernatural horror plot.
In fact, it's easy to forget that the first movie doesn't dwell on these sorts of sequences, nor are they as elaborate. Of its five-person body count (not counting the people on the plane), two of them are offed quickly, without any of the "Mouse Trap" style shenanigans that come to mind when you think of the series, and another only happened because the original ending - which killed a different character, also relatively quickly - was reshot after a lukewarm test screening reaction. And the first such death, of Chad Donella's Tod Waggner, is chalked up as a suicide, as the chain reaction stuff ultimately left him hanging in his shower, with no witnesses to the carnage that led to him being in that position. Compare that to say, Final Destination 5's LASIK or gymnastic themed deaths, in which suicide is literally impossible to blame due to their excess and more public spectacle.
That said, FD5 is the only sequel that made a strong attempt to bring the series back to its darker and more dramatic roots, toning down the humor that had kept increasing with each release. With fewer deaths in the original film, that meant more time for character development, and even a few philosophical discussions about death (plus a few procedural bits with two FBI agents who are suspicious of Alex, which may or may not be left over from the story's original concept). Sure, the "rules" had to be explained for the audience, something sequels (especially horror sequels) get to race through, but this is an unusual series in that there are no consistent characters outside of Tony Todd's Bludworth (whose three appearances are essentially cameos), so each time out we need to meet our new group, how they relate to each other, etc. But sequels demand less dilly-dally, so we learn less and less about our death fodder as time goes on, hitting a low point in 2009's The Final Destination* with a character simply referred to as "Racist" because that's pretty much the only thing we know about him (his actual name is Carter, though we only learn it from a news report after his death).
But here, we meet Alex's parents, and the parents of one of the other victims, plus spend more time with the other (temporary) survivors. In some later cases, we never check in with anyone that was "saved" until it's their turn to die, but the first film offers people like Carter (Kerr Smith), a hothead jock who hates that Alex saved his life because it conflicts with his control issues, but eventually comes around and displays a more human side. It's the sort of character we might only see in two scenes in one of the sequels, and furthermore if not for the test screening changes he'd actually survive the film (in fact he technically dies off-screen instead of in glorious/gory fashion). He even ends up saving Alex's life in the final scene, so even though we might laugh at/applaud his incoming death by falling sign, we still saw a supporting character complete an arc instead of just popping up to die, elevating this a bit over the usual "dead teen" standard line.
Also, Alex doesn't just race from death to death like some of his successors; several of his scenes find him at home, not wanting to talk to anyone and trying to cope with survivor's guilt and the troubling idea that he is suddenly clairvoyant. He also "death proofs" a room by taping up/securing/simply trashing anything that could possibly hurt him, a fun idea none of the other "visionaries" bothered to try (though Ali Larter's Clear tried a similar tack in Final Destination 2, by getting herself locked up in a padded room). Through him and his chats with the others (primarily Clear) the film gets to take a few minutes to explore the idea of a master "plan" for us all: did they cheat Death, or were they supposed to survive, per some grand design? Don't get me wrong, I love the death scenes too (and in fact, by a small fraction, prefer FD2 thanks to the spectacular crash and more interesting variety of characters), but it was nice to go back and watch this one (for the first time since I think FD3 came out) and see how it was taken a little more seriously at first.
It's been nearly a decade (!) since the last entry; about a year ago a new film was reported to be in the works, but I haven't heard anything since so I'm not sure if that's still happening. If so, I hope they can find that perfect balance, where the movie offers the carnage one expects from a "Final Destination sequel" but also isn't afraid to calm down a bit and let the characters grow and interact in ways that don't require lines like "You're next in the design!". Granted maybe it's my birthday talking, but perhaps an older character instead of the usual "young'n" would be interesting; someone with a little less of their "whole life ahead of them" might have a different reaction to the idea that Death is specifically coming to get them. The biggest complaint about the series is that the formula is too repetitive, so aging up the cast and giving them real characters to play like Sawa, Larter, etc. did might be the trick to successfully reviving the brand. But even if it's a dud, at least I can once again see my peer group on-screen in one of these movies, instead of being old enough to be cast as one of their dads!
*Which I actually like for the most part!