Final Destination is the most existential horror franchise of them all. Its characters don’t get to hope for survival if they can outrun a man with a knife or shoot a zombie square in the head – they’re being hunted by Death itself, and there’s no escape.
The Final Destination franchise masks its incredibly bleak message with bright colors and inventive Mousetrap-style killings, but at heart, they’re about how everyone dies one day, and the whole world is out to get you. Hardly anyone lives to the end of a Final Destination movie; the ones that do generally have to go to extreme measures, and it’s implied they won’t last long beyond the credits.
Given the lack of survivors to tie one film to the next, it’s kind of surprising that New Line and Warner Bros have managed to make five of these movies, but since they have, let’s try putting them into some kind of order…
5. The Final Destination (2009)
No one’s going to argue with this, are they? The fourth Final Destination film, which inexplicably lost the “4” from its title, is the nadir of the franchise. It’s just ass.
The opening scene at the McKinley Speedway track pretty much sets the tone. It lacks the wow factor of the opening disasters in some of the other movies, and just feels a bit uninspired. At their best, the premonition scenes in Final Destination movies tap into universal fears, pointing out just how fraught with danger our everyday lives are. But the kind of high speed racing the kids are watching at the beginning of The Final Destination is obviously dangerous.
Okay, so crashes aren’t that common, and if you’re a spectator you certainly wouldn’t expect to get horrifically killed at one of those races but it just doesn’t have the same sense of surprise and menace that a huge pileup on a normal road has. It certainly doesn’t feel universal.
And it all looks rubbish. The Final Destination movies are all about showy, over the top death scenes, but just take a minute to rewatch the opening scenes of The Final Destination. Horrible, no? It looks cheap, and there’s no real variety. It’s just people getting killed by flaming car parts landing on them.
The reason everything looks so crap is simple: it was designed to be seen in 3D. Every kill has something popping out of the screen at the viewer, to the point where the only 3D horror movie more obnoxious is Friday The 13th Part III (and even then only because The Final Destinationdoesn’t have a yoyo in it). Final Destinationis a pretty gimmicky franchise at the best of times, and the 3D nonsense doesn’t help.
It’s a shame, because this film shouldn’t be this bad. It was written by Eric Bress, who also wrote Final Destinations 2 and 3, and directed by the late David R. Ellis, who was also responsible for Snakes On A Plane and the underrated Cellular as well as Final Destination 2.
These guys should’ve known better, and yet, we get an uninspired opening scene, utterly forgettable characters, and a dopey scene that plagiarizes Chuck Palahniuk’s grossest short story but sucks out all of the horror.
As a final insult, Tony Todd doesn’t feature in this movie, at all. Not even his voice. Useless.
4. Final Destination 2 (2003)
There’s a sizeable jump in quality between The and 2, but that still doesn’t mean 2 is particularly good. It’s overly complicated, and a bit dopey. But it’s got some seriously great sequences in it, and that goes some way towards saving it.
To begin with, there’s that spectacular pile-up premonition scene at the beginning. Driving is scary, there are lots of things that can go wrong, and that sequence is the perfect distillation of all the worst possible scenarios. I still get nervous if I have to drive behind a van transporting logs, or with a ladder on the roof, or basically anything I imagine could come crashing down and through my windshield to murder me.
Then there are the nightmarishly elaborate kills later in the movie. The lift one is nasty, as is the barbed wire one, and the one with the leftover spaghetti is probably one of the best sequences in the entire franchise.
So why is it so far down the list overall? Well, mostly because it’s overly complicated. Check the credits and you’ll see three writers credited: Jeffrey Reddick, J. Mackye Gruber, and Eric Bress. The credits get split a few different ways, with Reddick credited for characters and story while Gruber and Bress are down for writing the story and the screenplay, but whichever way you slice it, that’s three people working on a story that should be pretty simple.
Instead, it’s convoluted. It suffers from a common sequel problem, where the filmmakers are trying to make sure it’s similar enough to the original movie to satisfy the fans while being different enough to stand alone, and the result is kind of a mess. There are two main things wrong with it: it tries to tie up the loose ends from the first movie but only brings back one of the two survivors; and it hasn’t quite figured out Death’s rules, so the film makes up some loopholes about pregnancy and order skipping. It’s confusing rather than clever, and just doesn’t feel as satisfying as the first movie’s simple rule that if you’re meant to be dead, you’re gonna die.
3. Final Destination 5 (2011)
Another jump in quality here; to be honest, there’s not much to set the odd-numbered Final Destination movies apart from one another, and you could probably argue pretty convincingly that any of these three are the best of the franchise. But I have to put them in order or this article will be way too short, so here goes.
Final Destination 5 was, like The Final Destination, shot in 3D. Somehow, though, that doesn’t make it crap. Also, it attempts to circle back and fit itself into the chronology of an earlier movie, and yet unlike Final Destination 2, it doesn’t feel confusing. It feels, instead, super satisfying. It somehow swerves the pitfalls that those two lesser movies fell for, and also delivers on the spectacle and terror front. And it’s funny. Somehow, it revived the franchise that seemed to have run out of ideas, and made us all remember what we liked about these movies in the first place.
Let’s start with the key disaster, because that’s the beginning of the film. Final Destination 5 delivers another driving disaster, but this time it’s not a crash, it’s a collapse. Which is brilliant. Who hasn’t felt a bit nervous about the stability of the bridge they were walking/driving/riding over? It also allows for some pretty dramatic death scenes, and while there’s still some 3D silliness, the effects look considerably more convincing than those in The Final Destination.
Also, unlike 2and The, all the people who get saved by the beginning premonition know one another. It shouldn’t make a difference to the storytelling – actually, having a disparate group of potential victims ought to make for a better film – but somehow the Final Destination movies seem to work better when everyone knows everyone else. Maybe it just makes for a more interesting dynamic when you actually care about the people around you dying.
Other notable things about this movie: it includes a death caused by laser eye surgery, which is horrifying; it integrates Tony Todd’s creepy coroner into the plot properly; and it features a character trying out a method of cheating Death that actually might work, and makes sense within the film’s chronology. If the scales of life and death are imbalanced, it seems like there’s a pretty simple way of rebalancing them without necessarily having to die yourself, right?
The twist at the end of Final Destination 5 is oddly brilliant, especially because it’s possible to watch the whole film without picking up on any clues. No fifth instalment in a horror franchise has any right to be this much fun – the credit for the fact that it is goes to writer Eric Heisserer and director Stephen Quale. Nice work, guys.
2. Final Destination (2000)
Here’s where you’re going to shout at me. The first Final Destination movie is, in retrospect, pretty great. But it’s not the best movie in the franchise. Critically, it was thoroughly panned when it was released, despite its popularity with audiences. So what’s the deal?
Final Destination might just have been in the right place at the wrong time. The idea for the film came from a spec script Jeffrey Reddick wrote for The X-Files, which was still on the air at the time. Somehow he was convinced to turn it into a full-length movie instead (minus Mulder and Scully) but the show stayed in its DNA, as X-Files writers James Wong and Glen Morgan picked up the project, did a rewrite, and turned it into the movie we know today.
When it was released in 2000, though, the wave of postmodern teen slashers was crashing, and maybe that had something to do with the way Final Destination was perceived. It’s got the same sort of hip young cast as something like Scream – it’s even got a then-hot TV actor in the form of Dawson’s Creek’s Kerr Smith – and it’s got a sort of broadly similar tone, with snarky, self-aware characters. But it is a different kind of film. It’s not riffing on horror clichés, and it’s not about characters overcoming their pasts or triumphing over a villain. It’s… kind of about the inevitability of death, in a way that manages to be bleak, ridiculous, and creepy.
It’s not really scary, though. It’s insidious, it gets under your skin, but it’s not scary in the way we’re used to horror movies being scary. Because we know the characters will all die, the fear we feel for them is lessened; when there’s no possibility of another outcome, there’s no real tension. It’s only when you’ve had time to digest the movie and realize how that applies to all of us, too, that it starts to seem terrifying.
In the meantime, you can either roll your eyes at or enjoy the elaborate death sequences; there’s a particularly good one in Final Destination that really highlights the importance of using the correct receptacles for your beverages.
Something to think about, before we move on: Final Destination was known as “Flight 180” while it was in production, and could well have been released under that title. If it had been, we probably wouldn’t have got the sequels we did – or maybe any sequels at all?
1. Final Destination 3 (2006)
That just leaves one movie to take the crown of the best Final Destination of them all, and for my money, that’s Final Destination 3. After the misunderstood first instalment and the confused second one, Final Destination 3 saw James Wong and Glen Morgan return to the franchise for a movie that finally crystallized the franchise into its final form. Final Destination 3 is what the Final Destinationmovies should always have been: a brightly colored, fast-paced, slightly silly meditation on how we’re all gonna die one day, so we might as well do it explosively.
The opening disaster ought to be underwhelming, since it’s comparatively small scale: a rollercoaster at an amusement park derails and takes a couple dozen people with it. It sounds less dramatic than the second movie’s car crash, or the first movie’s plane disaster, but it’s just so effective. If you’ve ever been on a rollercoaster, you’ll appreciate the way the movie evokes that sense of weightlessness, of holding your breath as the car climbs a hill before plummeting back down again. Rollercoasters aren’t everyday propositions for most of us, and their whole appeal is the way they mimic the appearance of danger, but no rollercoaster has ever gone as drastically wrong as the one in Final Destination 3. It’s ridiculous, it’s over the top, and it’s glorious.
Then we get into the meat of the story, as a bunch of high schoolers try to figure out what happened when some of them got off the coaster before their friends died. There’s a real sense of darkness in some scenes, a reminder that death isn’t all fun and games – before the movie makes another series of fun games out of characters dying. It’s a series of contradictions that shouldn’t really work, but somehow does.
Maybe it’s because it’s the third movie and it doesn’t need to, but Final Destination 3 doesn’t spend as much time trying to explain what’s going on as its predecessors. It just gets on with it. No film in the whole franchise has ever been able to explain what the deal is with the premonitions, and why some people are able to buy themselves a bit of extra time, but they might be all the better for that. Life is weird and random, after all, and death is a big mystery, so why should a flashy B-movie be able to answer any existential questions?
What we want from these movies, really, is to watch intricately planned kills that feed our anxiety about our own mortality, and Final Destination 3 delivers in buckets.
A version of this article was originally published in October 2016.