There is a funny thing about the “Final Destination” franchise. If you’re talking about the five films that were released between 2000 and 2011 (I am not familiar with the book series or planned reboots), it is safe to say that you genuinely liked the first film, appreciated the opening act of the second movie and admired the twist ending of the last one, but were unimpressed by everything sandwiched in the middle.
Could I be wrong in my guess about your opinion? Sure, but that would just mean that your opinion is wrong. (I kid, I kid.)
The first film, “Final Destination,” set the plot template that all four sequels followed. A group of people nearly die in a horrific mass tragedy but are saved at the last second when a random person has a premonition about the impending calamity. In the “Final Destination” universe, however, this merely delays the inevitable — death does not like to be cheated of its intended victims, and like a ghost will subtly mess with your environment so that a seeming “accident” winds up killing you anyway.
The first movie worked because the kills were clever and unpredictable and, as legendary film critic Roger Ebert put it, “the film in its own way is biblical in its dilemma, although the students use the code word ‘fate’ when what they are really talking about is God. In their own terms, in their own way, using teenage vernacular, the students have existential discussions.”
The four sequels that followed were mostly uninspired, with each one using completely new characters (with the exceptions of Tony Todd as the creepy coroner William Bludworth, who appears in the stories set before “Final Destination 3,” and a meaningless secondary character cameo in one sequel so brief and pointless that it barely counts). Aside from that deviation, though, each sequel simply retold the story of the first film beat by beat. By then the filmmakers’ obvious goal was to come up with increasingly gruesome and creative ways to kill off characters who were more archetypes than people. Some of these deaths are better than others — you generally look for graphic gore and some wit in the Rube Goldberg-esque execution methods — but only three death sequences from the “Final Destination” sequels resonate as truly epic.
This helps you appreciate “Final Destination” all the more, by the way. Because you actually care about the characters, the film’s well-executed deaths pack more of a wallop and the weaker ones still shock because we identify with the protagonists.
Anyway, in terms of the sequels, only three death scenes impress. The first is the highway accident that serves as the mass tragedy at the beginning of “Final Destination 2,” which legendary director Quentin Tarantino accurately praised as “a magnificent car action piece.”
Then there is the twist ending at the close of “Final Destination 5,” one that helped that movie stand out from the pack and which I won’t spoil here.
The third I shall describe below. Before I get into that, though, simply know that the last four “Final Destination” movies are remarkably unremarkable (which the arguable exception of “Final Destination 2” because of its thrilling first act). Each one is serviceable if you’re interested in witnessing a geek show… and, I confess, I have seen all of them many times, because I have a dark side. That said, the only one that stands out as a truly worthy film in its own right is the first. Everything else is just a carbon copy.
If it wasn’t for its one special death scene, I would not have even chosen to review “The Final Destination,” which was released in 2009 and directed by David Ellis (who also helmed “Final Destination 2”). It is the fourth film in the series, which confusingly puts numbers behind each of the other sequels (“Final Destination 2,” Final Destination 3″ and “Final Destination 5”) but merely appends a definite article in front of this installment. Regardless, “The Final Destination” has the worst acting, the worst writing, the least interesting kills (one of which is blatantly ripped off from a Chuck Palahniuk story) and the most unconvincing special effects. There is no “Final Destination” movie I’d recommend less than this one.
Except for that one death scene.
As in every other “Final Destination” movie, this tale begins when a group of people nearly die in a horrific mass tragedy but are saved at the last second when a random person has a premonition about the impending calamity. The other movies had a plane explosion, a highway accident, a roller coaster malfunction and a bridge collapse as plot catalysts. Here it is a multi-vehicle collision at a stock car racing track that spills over into the crowd. The saved include a mechanic and his wife, an avowed racist, an attractive young mom and her family, a man in a cowboy hat, a preppy douchebag, a normal girl, a security guard, a love interest and a generic male protagonist.
Spoiler alert (although if you’re familiar with the series, you see this coming): All of them die by the end of the movie.
That would be all there is to say about “The Final Destination” except, at the time that I’m writing this, the year is 2020. Characters like the cartoonish racist in “The Final Destination” have taken over America thanks to President Donald Trump. I get harassed by them all the time, as do many of my friends and colleagues in the media. The far right has terrorized millions in this country and, even if they don’t turn America into a literal Nazi state, have started to normalize Nazism. Now African Americans, members of the Latinx community, members of the LGBTQ community, Jews, Muslims and anyone else they consider non-white has to live in fear.
That is why the death of the racist character is so satisfying — indeed, to the point that it somewhat redeems the film.
We are introduced to Carter the neo-Nazi (Justin Welborn) at the race track. When he sees an African American security guard named George (Mykelti Williamson), he mutters “there goes the neighborhood,” brazenly disregards the stadium rules to force a confrontation and whistles the tune of Dixie. After the same guard stops him from rushing into the exploding stadium in order to save his wife, Carter uses a racial slur against him and vows revenge.
One scene later and we see what that revenge is supposed to look like: He is going to burn a cross on the security guard’s lawn.
Most of you will predict that death is going to get Carter before he can follow through on his plan. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what exactly happens to him, although I should note that perhaps it is not a coincidence that Williamson and Welborn are the two best actors in the movie. I’ll add three other points:
- The choice of music for that scene is perfect.
- It is a great example of horror slapstick.
- I worry that a day may soon come in which scenes like that one are considered problematic.
We see it already with Trump declaring that there are “very fine people” among white supremacist groups, refusing to denounce them during a recent presidential debate, lying about whether he had heard of former Klan wizard David Duke and inaccurately equating left-wing activism (which is about social justice) with right-wing terrorism (which is about white supremacy and hate).
There have already been outcries against brutality toward fictional Nazis in the video game “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus” and in the Amazon TV series “Hunters.” I even personally witnessed some controversy over Tarantino inflicting horrible fates on fictional Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds,” a genuinely great film that I highly recommend. One of Trump’s closest advisers, Roger Stone, is affiliated with the Proud Boys and has flashed a supposedly “ironic” racist hand signal.
2009 was apparently a good year for cinematic rejections of Nazism, for “Inglourious Basterds” (which was also released that year) has a line that perfectly sums up my case for this one scene in “The Final Destination.” I recommend the clip of Carter’s death because it reminds us that a “Nazi ain’t got no humanity.” They — and Trump supporters like them — must be depicted as punchlines, not normal people, so America won’t tolerate them.
This may sound cruel, but the alternative is worse. The day when it becomes unacceptable to laugh at the poetically just and humiliating death of fictional Nazis (and real ones), we send the message that their philosophy of hate toward marginalized groups is okay, or at least not so repulsive that it disqualifies them from being viewed as more than the butt of a joke or the worst type of stock villain. Cultural moments like Carter’s death in “The Final Destination” help fight against that.
Any movie that accomplishes this goal, regardless of its other flaws, cannot be wholly devoid of value in my book. Hence my half-star for “The Final Destination.”
If you just want to see that clip, go to the 16:29 mark and watch for exactly five minutes.