Like the ‘Saw‘ franchise, from 2000 to 2011, Final Destination became a cinematic tradition. Released every few years, the series hooked audiences in with the promise of ridiculously gory and over-the-top deaths. But it did this with a surprisingly consistent approach, establishing and updating it’s strict set of in-world rules and building a impressively rich mythos. And also someone gets their guts pulled out of their arsehole.
Each film sees a new set of attractive youngsters avoid a harrowing and insane disaster (think plane crashes, roller coaster malfunctions, bridge collapses, etc.) thanks to the premonition of the protagonist. This character sees the event before it happens and warns a number of people. These people have then effectively cheated death, and that’s not going to stand. They’re all picked off, one by one, in the order they would have died. And each death is like a Rube Goldberg machine, with things getting more and more complex and inventive as the series continues. It’s up to the survivors to stop it and break the chain before it’s too late. (Spoiler: they don’t).
The films are actually pretty consistent quality-wise, remaining extremely entertaining and original throughout, with only one or two moments where the series feels like it’s repeating itself. They also have a postmodern sensibility, with the characters being aware of the ‘rules’ and trying their best to avoid death. Many of the films veer into black comedy at points, and it makes it all the more entertaining. Here’s my ranking. Don’t agree? Let me know!
The Final Destination (2009)
Like Saw, Final Destination stumbled when it moved into 3D. The difference here is that it’s only a misstep, whereas Saw: 3D was much worse. 2009’s The Final Destination sees a bunch of young people avoid horrible deaths at a NASCAR track. The hook is interesting, and the build up is great (by this point, the filmmakers knew how to ramp up tension like a fine art). The problem in this film lies in the characters. The series was never known for it’s fleshed out characters, but they always had some depth. Here, they’re all decidedly mediocre, with backstories that either never come or are revealed really awkwardly. The group isn’t as well defined as in past instalments, instead being just a group of young people we literally know nothing about.
But the film has some exquisite death scenes. A standout is when a redneck racist is trying to burn a cross and ends up dying, being dragged down the road on fire as ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ blasts out of his tow truck. Another one, and perhaps one the series most well known death scenes, sees Hunt get disembowelled by a drain in a swimming pool.
As I said at the beginning, all of the films are worth watching and are all entertaining. This one only finds itself at the bottom of the list because it doesn’t do enough to move the series forward. By the fourth film, it needed something new. And this film arguably does less than the previous films. It’s got some great deaths and some really impressive set pieces, but not much else.
Final Destination (2000)
The original, the film that started it. Released in 2000, I was surprised to see that this film didn’t receive better reviews (with the second lowest critic score). Its elements may have been improved upon in the subsequent films, but this is still a well made horror thriller.
After seeing a vision of their plane crashing, Alex Browning tries to warn his classmates of the impending doom. Of course, they don’t listen. He gets a half dozen of his peers of the plane before it takes off and explodes. This is where the game begins. Death begins hunting the survivors down, in the order they would have died in on the plane. As I said, it’s surprisingly well made, with a huge number of practical elements and clever effects. It doesn’t feel like a teen slasher film, like ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’. The villain is always unseen and inevitable. It’s clear the filmmakers were going for something different, and it works, feeling like an entertaining horror film but one underpinned by an inescapable nihilism.
The only downside to this first film is that, in retrospect, the deaths are quite small scale in comparison to the ones that follow. There are some great ones, especially the death of teacher Valerie Lewton in her home, a scene that goes from bad to worse and lays the groundwork for the insane complexity of future deaths. The film also plays it straight, and doesn’t go into the realm of black comedy that the other films do. But overall, it’s still a great film. And one that has stood the test of time to become more than just a teen horror film. And it introduces Tony Todd as the very strange coroner William Bludsworth, in an especially chilling scene. Todd goes on to become a recurring presence throughout the series, but what exactly he is or represents is left open to interpretation.
Final Destination 2 (2003)
For my money, Final Destination 2 took what was great about the first film and doubled down. The horrific mass casualty event that always opens these films is prolonged and even more over the top, the deaths are ridiculous, and it knows exactly what it is.
After a pileup on the motorway leaves dozes dead, the survivors begin to draw parallels between the event they narrowly avoided and the Flight 180 disaster from the previous film. They know they have to beat Death’s design and recruit the help of Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), the only survivor of the first film. This is where the series begins to lay its stall out. No one survives. Whatever they do in the events of these films, their deaths are inescapable. It’s amazing that you know this going in, yet just like the characters to honestly believe there might be a way for them to make it out alive.
Final Destination 2 has some of the greatest deaths of the whole franchise. The best follows recent lottery winner Evan as he returns to his apartment. This scene really sets the tone for the films to come, and is a perfect demonstration of what the films do so well. They introduce a space and draw attention to its dangers. Then that leaves you guessing about how the character will die. Will he slip, lose his hand in the garbage disposal, burn his house down? And then the character will die in a way you never expected. It’s like a lateral thinking puzzle and is insanely entertaining.
The film also has some weirdly funny moments, with some really colourful characters and one of the most insane final few seconds I’ve seen. Like so many sequels, it improves on everything that made the original great. It also connects the events of the film to the events of the first film, through a series of tenuous links. And I love my complicated lore. It’s a lot of fun and it knows it.
Final Destination 3 (2006)
Final Destination 3, or the one with the rollercoaster, is a blast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Wendy, the protagonist of this one, and it’s thanks to her premonition that a small group of her classmates survive a horrible rollercoaster accident. But it’s not long before she starts seeing clues in the photographs she’d taken minutes before the accident, clues that suggest the survivors aren’t long for this world.
Basically, Final Destination 3 just does everything right. It’s got some great death scenes and set pieces and a wonderful lead performance from Winstead. It also does just enough to differentiate itself from the other films. Unlike the second sequel, this one is unconnected. It also adds in a human element in the third act, as Wendy realises that her death is going to come at the hands of an grief-stricken fellow survivor. The film also has one of the best and most toe-curling death scenes in the entire franchise, as the two popular girls that survived the crash are roasted alive within their respective tanning beds (look out for the excellent shot of the tanning beds becoming two white coffins).
As becomes par for the course, the film ends on an incredibly downbeat ending, reinforcing the central theme that you can’t escape death forever. It’s a bold choice for a genre where you typically want the protagonist to survive the encounter with the killer. But here there is no killer, only an unseen force that none of them can outrun. No film in the franchise demonstrates this better than Final Destination 3.
Except for maybe the film in the number one spot.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
That’s right. Somehow it is the fifth film in the franchise — released a whole eleven years after the original — that takes the top spot here. And this isn’t an uncommon opinion. This film was surprisingly well received, and garnered the best reviews of any film in the franchise. Like with Saw VI, horror franchises are excellent at saving their best until last.
Everything about this film feels like an improvement. The deaths and their build ups are fine tuned to generate the perfect reaction, the characters are genuinely interesting and have realistic motivations and surprising depth, and the established rules are maintained, but enough is added to make it feel original. After surviving a disaster when a bridge collapses, a group of colleague are presented with another way to escape their impending dooms (from Tony Todd himself). They must take a life, thus switching places with the person they kill. Death doesn’t care who he gets, after all. Like with the other rules in the series, you really don’t know whether to believe it. And those that do try this method are eventually punished with some blackly comic karma.
On top of that, the film has some of the best deaths in the series, making things I may have done in my life become things I will certainly never do, such as laser eye surgery and acupuncture. And the film has one hell of a final twist. Somehow I’d managed to avoid the twist over the past decade and was blown away. It’s not a cheap twist for the sake of it, in fact all the clues had been there, we were just too distracted to notice.
Overall, Final Destination 5 is the best of the franchise and is also a fantastic film in its own right.
The future of the series is unclear. What is clear is the vast amount of possibilities for a franchise like this. It seems like another film is in the works, and they’d be silly not to, especially if they take away all the positives they learned from these five films. There’s a wider world out there, and a greater mythology that’s currently only been delved into in a tie-in comic book (which I read and would honestly not recommend). As long as Tony Todd makes a reappearance, I’ll be there. After all, the film in the number five spot is the only film not to feature him.
Wherever they take the franchise from here, I’ll be there in the cinema watching the next group of attractive young people get killed in lubricious ways. Until then, don’t go having any premonitions.