I'd been expecting the usual churned-forth teenage pap. Just shows how wrong you can be. Final Destination is the work of Glen Morgan and James Wong, those X-Files writers who created some of the series' very best episodes. This isn't their very first movie (they did The Boys Next Door together in 1986) but it's their first after quitting television and it contains some very classy writing indeed. For a while I thought it was going to be absolutely superb. Unfortunately once the teen horror is underway, things get more formulaic and the movie becomes merely good, but I'm still glad I saw it.
Final Destination stars a bunch of teenagers who incur death's wrath by getting on a plane for France. Serves them right. The country's full of French people! Anyone of sense should realise God would punish them for that... and sure enough, He does. While we still don't know what's going on (i.e. the first half of the film) the unfolding events are fascinating. There's character drama, tension, horror and all that good old-fashioned stuff that people used to put in their scripts before they'd heard of car chases and explosions.
The cast are teens, sadly, but that's not their fault. They mostly overcome this handicap. The best performance comes from Tony Todd (aka. the Candyman), who burns a hole in the screen during his one-scene appearance. His dialogue is ridiculously purple if you stop and think about it, but the guy's screen presence is so strong that he could glue you to your seat just by reading the phone book. He was cool.
Leaving him aside, there are strong characters in this cast. Amazingly, the hero of this movie ("Alex", played by Devon Sawa) has a brain! He's smart, he thinks of things before they smack him in the face and he has balls. Demonstrating your hero's bad attitude by standing him up to authority figures is an over-familiar gambit, but Alex does it when it actually matters (as opposed to having the script set up the policemen just so he can knock them down again). Later on, he takes sensible precautions against the chief threat. This kind of behaviour makes a character far more sympathetic.
But that's only half the story. Final Destination also achieves a great sense of dread, in the beginning through ominous signs and resonances... and later on through juicily horrible deaths. It's always nice to see a truly sadistic director at work! Some of this stuff is pretty nasty. Yuck eurgh yuck. However at the same time, there's a jet-black sense of humour. It's sparingly used, thank goodness, but someone's clearly having fun. I also loved the ending, which made me laugh out loud.
All this is good stuff, but I also mentioned that it eventually got more formulaic. I guess it's inevitable with teenagers in mortal peril (how many times have we seen that, eh?), but I felt it was still a shame. The movie never becomes bad, not by a long shot, but I did find some of the luck on display a tad implausible. (Especially given the direction in which luck had hitherto been flowing.)
Final Destination is apparently full of references and in-jokes, but they're cleverer than the usual Kevin Williamson-esque pop culture name-dropping. Alex is informed that his birthday (9:25) is also his departure time, but it crops up in several other ways during the film (e.g. his seat number is I-25, with I being the ninth letter of the alphabet). The flight number is 180, another number which makes numerous appearances. (Apparently Final Destination was originally going to be called Flight 180.) Several characters are named after the stars or directors of black-and-white horror films, though you'll be doing well if you spot them all. And at the time of each death we hear a particular song by John Denver, a musician who died in a plane crash. The film's full of these little touches! Check out the imdb's trivia section on Final Destination; it's fascinating.
I'm strongly tempted to buy this on DVD, especially given the deleted scenes which it apparently includes. Don't bother with the R-rated version, which cut the juiciest bits of two key scenes. It's more intelligent than ten other teenage horror films put together. If you can live with a little silliness towards the end, strongly recommended.