Death be not too proud for focus testing

So long, Stiffler!I watched Final Destination a while back, and I enjoyed it just fine. It’s perfect for all your young-people-getting-killed-in-gruesome-ways needs.

I suspect that this is one of those cases where waiting for the DVD is hundreds of times better than seeing it when it first came out. For one thing, the opening works as well now as it did on release, if not even better. If you follow pop culture at all, you have to at least heard of Final Destination, and you probably heard the premise, as well. (A premonition warns people off a doomed plane flight; Death comes back to take the ones who were predestined to die.) Knowing the premise added a separate level of tension to the beginning of the movie, since it wasn’t playing out as I’d expected it to. I must’ve spent the first 30 minutes saying to myself, “But I thought the… but wait… no!”

Even better than that, though, are the commentary and other special features. I found out some stuff I hadn’t known going in — it was originally intended as a pitch for “The X-Files,” and coincidentally ended up being produced/directed/written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, writers and producers for that series as well as “Millenium” and “Space: Above and Beyond.” But what’s most memorable is Morgan’s sad-sack, defeatist commentary throughout.

Now, I’m not a fan of kicking a guy when he’s down, and it’s just not cool to make fun of a guy for acknowledging he’s made something lousy. But I’m making an exception for two reasons: first, because I don’t think it’s lousy. It’s really an above-average horror movie. The death scenes are increasingly clever and surprising, and paced well in the script. It’s better than Scream at the post-modern self-referential thing, because it’s not as clumsy and obvious. The characters don’t just talk about the gimmick; the gimmick is baked into the plot. The characters know they’re marked for death, they even figure out the order in which they’ll be killed, and the killer isn’t some predictable serial killer, but the unseen hand of death itself. It’s a lot more clever than anything wallowing in late-’90s irony.

And the second reason I’m making an exception is because Morgan’s commentary is so hilariously over the top in its disappointment. Almost immediately after introducing himself, he starts in ragging on the movie. If you use chapter-skip, you can’t go more than few seconds at each track without hearing him make a comment to the effect that the scene didn’t work like they wanted, or it was a rip-off of something else, or that it wasn’t what they originally intended, and they could’ve done it better.

It continues to the deleted scenes, alternate ending, and a couple of documentaries. One of the documentaries is about New Line’s focus tests for the movie, and how the ending was changed as a result. It was clearly done to appease somebody, as New Line representatives keep making very tactful comments about how it’s necessary to protect an investment, and to let audiences be the judge, and how when you’re making movies with multi-million dollar budgets, art must be carefully balanced against commerce.

There are a couple of segments with Morgan, and he describes the original title and ending, what they saw during focus tests, and how they came up with the new ending. A typical quote: “Steven Spielberg doesn’t have to do focus tests. But we’re not Steven Spielberg.” If I’d been editing the documentary, I wouldn’t have been able to resist superimposing Glen Morgan’s head with Eeyore’s.

So yet another Hollywood movie gets dumbed down for the sake of the lowest common denominator in the audience, right? Not quite. Providing all the alternate and deleted scenes on the disc shows that the changes were universally for the better. Much, much better.

The original title was Flight 180. Apparently film execs thought that it sounded too much like Airport 77 and such, so they chose the title Final Destination. Not only is that an infinitely better title, it worked a lot better with sequels than Flight 180 Part 3: The Roller Coaster would have.

And the original ending, that was full of intelligence and hope and a beautiful artistic statement on what it means to be alive? Suuuuuuuucccccckkked. It’s not just that it’s a dull, overly drawn-out, and out of place ending for a suspense thriller; it’s that it’s hard to believe it was made by the same people who did the rest of the film.

Everything in the first 45 minutes of the movie has the mark of a group of people who know exactly what movie they’re making, and why it’s cool. The original ending seems like a desperate attempt to bring meaning to a movie that doesn’t need to “mean” anything. It’s not a case of dumbing down a piece of art in order to give the people what they want; it’s a case of being true to the rest of the work of art and not trying to turn it into something it’s not.

It’s a well-made franchise movie, with an undercurrent of intelligence and comedy, that makes you jump and laugh in all the right places. And it’s disappointing that they didn’t realize that there’s value in that, and that it doesn’t need to be anything more. I still haven’t seen Final Destination 3 yet; apparently Morgan & Wong weren’t burned by the first one so much that they wouldn’t come back for a sequel. I’m looking forward to seeing it and finding out if they still “get it.”

And one more thing: after the episode of “Lost” called “Not in Portland,” I read a bunch of stuff on the internet saying that the show had ripped off Final Destination. At the time, I thought that was just typical internet wankery — the same as saying George Lucas “ripped off” The Hidden Fortress, when the movies have next to nothing in common. Now that I’ve seen Final Destination, though, I think the internet definitely has a point. The scenes are eerily similar, although the movie has a much-appreciated splash of blood on the passers-by. I’m not feeling charitable enough to say that “Lost” was making an homage.