Silver Screen: Final Destination V **
The operative question in Final Destination V is: Why not?
Why make a fourth sequel to a series that seemed to lose any remaining momentum with the last, gasping, wheezing installment? Why not? The movies are relatively cheap to make, considering they include no recurring actors who can demand salary hikes to come back, require no prominent performers, and feature a villain that can never be vanquished. In other words, they tend to make some money.
And so we return to perhaps the most formulaic franchise in Hollywood, one that makes the Saw series look like The Crying Game. Young person foresees an accident, convinces several people around him to flee just before accident happens, actor Tony Todd shows up to explain to them all that they were supposed to die and cannot cheat death, death comes for each of them in a series of Rube Goldbergian accidents.
This time around, the data plugged into the formula follows thusly. Young person: Aspiring chef Sam. Accident: a bridge collapse. People who flee with young person: several coworkers riding a bus with him to a company retreat. Tony Todd: still Tony Todd.
The formula isn't all bad, actually. It's implicit in the movies that the audience knows the characters are going to die in some gory, wildly improbable manner, so half the fun is trying to piece together the exact circumstances as the camera focuses on a plethora of leaky pipes, loose screws, frayed wires, and perilously dangling sharp objects. (As much as anything, the Final Destination flicks seem like horror movies about poor engineering and shoddy craftsmanship.) It winds up playing like disaster porn for the deeply neurotic, validating the pessimist's inclination to believe that certain death is lurking around every mundane corner.
But in the last couple installments, the filmmakers (this time around represented by James Cameron proté gé Steven Quale) even go so far as to foreshadow the deaths in the opening credits. The last two movies, both having been shot in 3D, begin with a long title sequence that features the various objects of doom floating out of the screen and toward the newly bespectacled audience even before the murder weapons are placed in context. It winds up killing what little surprise exists in a few of the scenes and makes it difficult not to spend the entire film waiting for a flaming tire or a rusty hook to zip your way.
Writer Eric Heisserer actually comes up with a pretty nifty addition to the formula that doubles down on the merrily macabre. For no discernible reason, Tony Todd, who shows up in most of the movies to conveniently lay out the rules of the game for the next group of to-be-slaughtered lambs, knows a way out of the pact. This time around, the survivors can cheat death, but only if they murder someone to take their place. Unfortunately, this revelation doesn't come until two thirds of the way into the movie and is treated almost as an afterthought instead of the intense addition it could have been.
Now back to the big question. Is there any reason, if the movies are going to be so patently formulaic, that they need to be quite so dull? In every installment save for the original, the characters were disaster fodder. All the sequels have been set in some bland, unnamed town that reeks of cheap-to-film-in Canada, and the actors (save for part three's lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are as vanilla as the dashed-off characters they play. If that's the case, wouldn't it be just as easy to make the characters weirder, their connections and backstories stranger and sillier, the circumstances increasingly absurd as opposed to more and more generic? The jokes in Final Destination V are subtle background gags and references that barely elicit a chuckle-- the gang works for a company called “Presage Paper,” Tony Todd whistles the same church hymn made chilling by Robert Mitchum when he sang it in Night of the Hunter. If it's irrelevant, isn't it better to make it outlandish rather than patience-trying? If you're going to make a movie this absurd, why not make it as absurd as possible? Why not?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.