Final Destination

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It was about half-way through “Final Destination” that I finally caught on: I shouldn’t be laughing AT this movie; I should be laughing WITH it.

For 45 minutes or so, I’d been slapping my forehead over how lame, how contrived, how infernally perfunctory it all seemed to be. It was puzzling: After all, it was written by Glen Morgan and David Wong (and directed by Wong), two guys responsible for writing/directing/producing some of the best “X-Files” episodes in that show’s history. They should know how to construct suspense, creepiness and supernatural chills.

Yet “Final Destination” was, from its very first moments, exaggeratedly ominous. High-schooler Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), preparing to go to France on a school-sponsored trip with his classmates, gets freaked out by everything: the word “terminal” on an airport sign; the fact that his flight leaves at 9:25 and his birthday is 9/25; hearing a song by plane-crash victim John Denver before boarding; even his dad saying “you’ve got the rest of your life ahead of you” gets a thundering DUM-DUM-DUMMMMMMM! on the musical score.

Upon boarding the plane but before takeoff, Alex has a sweaty dream in which the plane explodes immediately after leaving the ground. This causes him to REALLY freak out, getting him and six others kicked off the plane in a manner that is waaay too convenient, after which the plane leaves the ground and immediately explodes.

When those lucky survivors start dying in freaky ways, it becomes apparent that Death didn’t like being cheated, and that Death is going to take everyone anyway — and in the same order they should have died on that plane.

We learn this when Alex and misfit girl Clear (Ali Larter) break into a mortuary so they can see a recently deceased fellow crash survivor and are met by a throaty-voiced mortician (Tony Todd) who tells them how Death operates, and how Death has a design that you can’t mess with, and then ends by telling the kids, ominously, “I’ll see you soon.”

And THAT’S when it hit me. The idea of the teens breaking into a mortuary for ill-explained reasons was ridiculous enough. But the over-the-top scene featuring a creepy mortician whose name is Bludworth — who NEVER APPEARS AGAIN IN THE REST OF THE FILM — made me realize that it was all on purpose! Of course Morgan and Wong know what they’re doing. When it was exaggerated for the first 20 minutes or so, I should have known it was on purpose, tweaking the genre of supernatural-yet-somehow-plausible-sounding thrillers that Morgan and Wong perfected on “X-Files.”

After that, I could enjoy the film for what it was: occasionally thrilling, often weirdly funny, always at least watchable, if not a brilliant piece of art.

There are enough subtle details in the film indicating Morgan and Wong’s savvy intelligence to let you know that whatever is dumb about the movie — like the way characters always seem to run into each other at just the right moments — is done on purpose. One of the characters’ last names is Hitchcock; another is Val Lewton (the same name as a ’40s producer of horror films). There are two different scenes in which we see Tod (Chad E. Donella, who played the brain-eater on a recent “X-Files”) sitting on the toilet. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” is used as a harbinger of imminent death.

Plus, there are several non-subtle things that show Wong’s skill as a director. The envisioned plane-crash scene is terrifyingly real and brilliantly crafted. One death later on is so out-of-the-blue it made every critic I sat near at the screening recoil (and a few of us even yelped). And the elaborate, Rube Goldberg ways that some characters are killed are inventive (better than the traditional knife-in-the-gut, anyway).

The acting? Ech, typical. Sawa and Donella are particularly likable, if somewhat non-descript, and everyone else muddles through OK. The movie doesn’t need Olivier-quality acting, nor does it get it.

“X-Files” fans will be delighted at the many similarities between that show and this film. The basic premise reeks of “X-Files” influence, and the fact that Alex’s visions are thoroughly explained except for the detail of WHY and/or HOW he has them is classic “X-Files” methodology: We’ll tell you what strange power a person has, but we won’t tell you how he got it. Whenever Death is nearby, we see a dark shadow pass across something. The two FBI agents investigating the plane crash are every bit as uncool and useless as Mulder and Scully are interesting and compelling. And Alex even gives the speech Mulder usually gets, the one that says, in essence, “What if what’s happening is that we somehow cheated Death, but now Death is coming back to get us anyway?” (All we need is for someone to respond, “You expect me to put in my report that Death is coming back to get us because we tricked him?”)

Trust Morgan and Wong. Relax when the film seems hokey. Enjoy the details and the humor that emerges at inappropriate times. You’ll have fun.

B- (; R, abundant profanity, abundant violence (explosions, stabbings, beheadings, etc., etc.).)

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