One of the first images that greets us in James Wong and Glen Morgan’s third “Final” (?) installment is a merry-go-round. a three-fold metaphor for the franchise, the plot, and the very nature of scary movies. In a movie most will undoubtedly dismiss as vapid, I think that these two former X-Files writers have more depth than some might surmise. From a franchise perspective, the painted, circling horses beckon “get on; here we go again”. Even the plot of the film hinges on the fact that its characters, once “missed” by death, are caught in an inevitable cycle as their terrible fate swings round again. (And again.)
During a senior high school party at the local fair, student Wendy Christensen has a horrible vision of a roller coaster accident; her subsequent outburst gets her, and several other classmates, ejected from the ride. When the inevitable accident follows, those who were “saved” by Wendy’s vision begin to die in the order they would have perished on the ride… much like what transpired to the survivors of Flight 180 in the original film. Can Wendy and her fellow schoolmates cheat death, or will it inexorably catch up with them?
There is a direct correlation between these types of scary movies and why people get on carnival rides to feel control taken out of their hands: turning, spinning and coasting our way along as grinding gears speed us toward an inevitable end. This film’s opening montage moves from merry-go-round to roller coaster, as the film visually depicts exactly what it’s trying to be. Film critics will typically disparage a film like FD3, and then take their family to Universal Studios or Six Flags the next weekend, enjoying the thrill rides perhaps more than their children. There is a bias here, perhaps, about what the medium of film can convey. Not every movie has to be as deep as Golden Pond, or take you to the emotional heights of Brokeback Mountain. I love a good expensive steak, but sometimes I like a burger. Sometimes I enjoy a bite of beef jerky. Sometimes even I can – gasp! – eat vegetarian. One needn’t lower their expectations for a film like Final Destination 3; they just need to know what they’re ordering.
Much like the first installment of this series, Final Destination 3 is a killer movie. The second film paced itself poorly, opening with a breathtaking sequence that outshone the rest of the film, leaving the viewer nonplussed. This installment lacks the seeming freshness that accompanied the original, but serves as a welcome supplement for those who loved the first.
This movie is not about horror. It’s about being scared (there is a difference). It’s cat jumping out of the cupboard scared, roller-coaster scared. My wife is one of these cats who love the roller coaster because, for a few precious, adrenalizing minutes, she thinks her number might just be up. “Game over man, game over!” (the cowardly classic line from Bill Paxton in Aliens). When the coaster docks a few minutes later, she has successfully confronted her own mortality and rests in the precious security that she’s still alive. Thrill-seeking – be it sky-diving, fast cars, video games, a safari trip, crossing the Alps – affords us a personal moment of peril, followed by the comfort that we’re left unscathed.
What’s even MORE unnerving about the FD series, setting it apart from the Freddys, Jasons and Michael Myers of the slasher world is that there is no person to “run” from. There is no brooding freak in a mask or joking bad boy with blades to beg, reason with, or to drop in a pit and/or light on fire. More resolute than The Terminator, this impersonal, destined but accidental death encroaching on the characters in these films cannot be seen, and typically comes in the embarrassing form of simple, everyday mistakes. It’s American’s Funniest Fatal Home Videos – and much the same reason we’re obsessed with the baseball in the crotch.
I was rewiring my office light switch yesterday and knew there were other people in the house. What simple miscommunication, and the single flip of a breaker, stood between my handy hubris and human toast? When I’m up on a ladder cleaning my gutters, I get a horrible image of losing balance and breaking my neck because of a handful of leaves. We know life is fragile, and a cinematic ride like this is the equivalent of driving past an accident and thanking your lucky stars that the drunk driver didn’t hit you. Even those bad Driver’s Ed videos about lead foots and inattentive drivers serve a similar purpose.
The central issue in Final Destination 3 is not death, but control. Wendy states – and reiterates several times – that she doesn’t like to feel out of control. Like Wendy, I think we all want life and death to be in our hands, on our terms; we like to believe that we have control over our own life. We wrestle not only with the idea that we are mortal and ultimately powerless to change this, but that there may be a fate, design (or Designer) that we can’t escape.
King Solomon lamented in Ecclesiastes that “death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” He also states in Proverbs that “a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” Even in the book of Job, the title character laments to God that “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.” A reviewer in Entertainment Weekly makes an assumption that the “unseen force” in the FD movies is “the devil”. I can’t be sure what writers Wong and Morgan are driving at (other than quick thrills) but it seems their “unseen force” in the film is less about malevolence and evil, and more about putting things in proper order.
The real question is… who HAS final authority over our death, and final destination?
If we fear death, of course, this movie presents a truly frightful prospect. Even the title implies this life is all there is, and that our “final destination” is the grave. Trip over the hidden wire, upset the wrong apple cart and you’re worm food. Personally, I don’t fear death; it might not be a pleasurable moment (or slow decline), but Jesus scoffed at people like you and me as we watch movies like this, feeling our hair stands on end. “I tell you, my friends,” he asserts, “do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
Yep, leave it to Jesus to put things in perspective.
How or when I die – no matter how awkward, gory or downright inconvenient – is really not the issue I should be freaking out about. Frightened high schoolers trying to sidestep the Grim Reaper, just so they can die later cooped up in a nursing home, might pause a moment to think past the death knell to what comes AFTER their final breath.