Sometimes it's almost too easy.
Never have we spotted a more perplexing case of critical schizophrenia than Armond White's lauding of Final Destination 3. Six years earlier White panned the first Final Destination in the following terms:
Sadly, I realize there is consensus for this type of flippancy. Conversely, the consensus blindness regarding Mission to Mars indicates a cultural crisis. The new teen thriller Final Destination gets flip about death, as Mission to Mars does not. Director James Wong uses the new shock f/x of Super Real Catastrophe seen in the car accidents of Meet Joe Black and Erin Brockovich to jolt rather than insinuate fear or reveal squeamishness. The plot of a psychic teen Alex (Devon Sawa) trying to outwit fate becomes a series of Rube Goldberg death rallies, staged bluntly, not cleverly. When Alex's classmate (Ali Larter) recalls her father's death, it's a bland recitation without being strange or evocative like Phoebe Cates' in Gremlins. And though minor characters all have the names of movies figures associated with horror films -- Lewton, Browning, Wiene, Schreck, Hitchcock, Chaney, Murnau, Dreyer -- it's fake sophistication, disgracing a grave, poetic tradition.
Yet regarding FD mark three:
Director James Wong displays genuine cinematic inventiveness. Having obviously studied DePalma [sic], Wong makes good use of screen space and split compositions, and times the chain-reaction, fatal-accident relays with snap and gallows humor. The Final Destination series is all about spectacle—the only thing we know this side of death—which means its violence is stylized, where so many other youth-targeted movies . . . present it with tactless brutality. Final Destination 3's unexpected visual wit—it is a live-action Road Runner cartoon—distinguishes it from those grind-house flicks, making it fascinating and defensible as pop entertainment.
If this isn't an about-face . . . Even were one to defend this bizarro self-contradiction by pointing out distinctions between the first FD and the third (of which there are practically none) that our man remains brilliantly sensitive to, well, that wouldn't help because AW now seems to approve of the entire series. Not only that, he's favorably comparing the third to his immortal De Palma, whereas before he contrasted Final Destination's "flippancy" about death with Mission to Mars' "emotionalism." Did director James Wong spend countless sessions between FD installments studiously viewing MtM (a la Orson Welles obsessively watching Stagecoach while making Citizen Kane) in order to properly infuse the franchise with De Palma's moral gravity?
Consciously perpetrated or not, what Armond's flip-flop tells us is that the man might want to have it both ways. When Mission to Mars gets unfairly bashed he runs to the rescue by chiding the culture and media at large for ignoring its humanism in favor of titillating exploitation like Final Destination; when the FD series fades (relatively) into the cultural background he backs it so as to offer a "surprising" reading of its b-movie subversiveness to combat high brow critiques like A History of Violence and Match Point, as well as real titillating exploitation like Saw and House of Wax. But Armond's switcharoo is also a moralistic move:
And here's where Final Destination 3 takes one by surprise. It rejects cool for comic horror. That may sound like the flip of Munich, but it's still essentially humane because it recognizes dismay as an honest response to death. Sensitivity comes through in the reflective moments when teens Kevin and Wendy (Ryan Merriman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plot to cheat death. These innocent-looking highschool seniors have witnessed the decimation of their classmates at an amusement park and then await—and attempt to outwit—their own fates. One clever scene announces the presence of the Grim Reaper with the image of a Ramones bobblehead doll. This connects with a student's brave boast that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, man," which is made prior to boarding a rollercoaster (the film's first scary set-piece). Pop-Nietzche [sic -- is AW or the Press to blame for these embarrassing typos?] and pop-nihilism have been swallowed whole without real comprehension by the characters. In permitting audiences to see the irony of its protagonists' youthful flippancy being expressed moments before they die, Final Destination 3 offers a message.
According to Armond, FD 3 warns its audience and its audience's on-screen surrogates not to be so damn flip about death. It's almost as if Armond offers FD 3 as a corrective to the first two films' lack of self-reflexivity, except that he doesn't explicate any change in the direction of the series from film to film. He also seems to like his moral instruction served cruel and unusual:
Despite its domino-effect game quality, the film startles us into awareness about modern culture. It'll be hard to top the comment on sexist consumerism and teenage narcissism made in the sequence where a tanning salon bed becomes a sarcophagus. Its climactic image—a phosphorescent close-up of a nude hottie in eyeshades, her mouth open to scream and her tongue pierced with a sex stud—is like a Polaroid snapshot capturing contemporary degeneracy. It's eerily fatal and fantastic—a death-fixated version of a Warhol silkscreen.
So now we know: "contemporary degeneracy" equals tanning. And the lurid punishment of female sexuality so essential to the reactionary strand of the horror genre in which FD 3 thoughtlessly (but extremely effectively) participates equals an "awareness about modern culture." What's sad is that Armond connects FD 3 to Munich via their similar goals of "preserv[ing] human values" and "want[ing] audiences to be appalled at violence." Munich's complex (although often problematic) (re)presentations of violence as spectacle might warrant such words, but given FD 3's simplistic moralism we're not as willing as AW to twist ourselves into critical knots in order to give this film such heft. Especially after we felt the exact opposite about its nearly indistinguishable predecessor.