Sep 1, 2009

Review Post 43: The Final Destination / Jetsam

DIR: David R. Ellis
CAST: Bobby Campo, Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano,
Haley Webb, Mykelti Williamson

It is my sad duty to report that on Friday the 28th of August 2009, at approximately 3:30pm, the Final Destination franchise died. The cause of death was reported as total creative bankruptcy. It was nine years old.

Okay, so the Final Destination franchise was no artistic milestone, but it had a good central idea. The concept of death stalking a group of people who have escaped an incident in which they were supposed to perish is a strong one. The franchise was never really concerned in exploring that idea in any depth, rather it preferred to use it as the jumping off point for death scenes that even Rube Goldberg might have regarded as needlessly complex. Combined with an awareness of the innate silliness of the series and with capable casts of pretty young things, that was plenty for three enjoyably dumb 90-minute chunks of horror.

The Final Destination is, on the surface, no different to its predecessors. In fact it is practically the same film. Some young adults escape a crash at a Nascar track and then find themselves elaborately picked off by Death. It’s not in the concept this movie fails though; it’s in the execution. It is a surprise that The Final Destination fails so completely, because both director David Ellis and writer Eric Bress worked on the series’ second instalment, which remains its high watermark. Sadly the wit and invention that made that sequel better than the original has completely deserted Ellis and Bress here. The screenplay may well have been scribbled in crayon on the back of a handful of napkins and filmed from that first draft. Lazy isn’t the word.

The script is so underdeveloped that some characters don’t even have names. Justin Welborn, who has a featured role and about 12 minutes screentime, is credited as ‘racist’.  Krista Allen, in a larger role, has to make do with ‘MILF/Samantha’ as her credit. Names are, of course, given to the main characters like Nick and Lori (Campo and VanSanten), but that is all we ever know about them. It’s not as if I’m asking for some deep character study here, but Lori doesn’t have a single discernable trait, let alone a personality. This is a problem because if you don’t know anything about the people in the movie why should you care whether (or how) they live or die? Final Destination 3 was no masterpiece and was hardly character driven, but Mary Elizabeth Winsted’s character Wendy had at least a modicum of personality, while Winsted’s winning performance allowed you to have some investment in her fate - making that film’s final sequence a real thriller. The Final Destination, by contrast, is just a bunch of stuff happening to people who are all but interchangeable because none of them is anything more than a name.

Still, Ellis should have been able to make a silk purse of this sows ear of a script, particularly given the fact that the 3D process should have thrown up a lot of interesting new ways to show the death scenes. Sadly this is perhaps the film that makes it most obvious that, technically improved though it may be now, 3D remains no more than a gimmick. Stuff pops out of the screen at us with a regularity that borders on tedious. Ellis fings cars at us, pushes body parts out of the screen at us and attempts to convince us we’re about to be impaled by spikes. The only problem with this is that it is all so patently fake, the clearly cut rate CGI so appallingly bad that not one single shot is even a bit scary. In 85 minutes, with things popping out of the screen at roughly five-minute intervals, my audience didn’t jump once. Jump? They barely reacted to anything. Much as CGI has been these last 20 years 3D seems, to date, to be a stylistic crutch that filmmakers are leaning on to allow them to avoid effort in other aspects of their work. It’s 3D, so who cares about the script?

The Final Destination franchise has had its breakout stars. The first had Ali Larter and Seann William Scott, and the third film brought Mary Elizabeth Winsted and Amanda Crew to Hollywood’s attention. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone here who you’d expect, or want, to see again. It’s perhaps not nice to pick on a girl, but still, Shantel VanSanten is the worst actress I’ve seen in a very long time. She’s pretty as a picture, but there’s nothing behind it. There’s a total vacancy to her performance, a sense of watching a completely empty vessel whose attempts at expressing emotion are so off that you wonder if she’s ever felt one. Terrible as VanSanten is she’s hardly alone in her awfulness. Bobby Campo has fewer expressions than the teddy bear I had as baby, while all Mykelti Williamson does is speak his lines and look absolutely mortified that he’s ended up here.

The Final Destination is staggeringly bad. It’s a film that makes me question whether anyone involved in the movie business gives a shit about anything beyond an opening weekend anymore. It exists purely because of and in service of a gimmick (a gimmick that doesn’t work), and it makes me scared for the future of cinema.

DIR: Simon Welsford
CAST: Alex Reid, Jamie Draven,
Cal Macaninch, Shauna MacDonald, Adam Shaw

Made in 14 days, for £2500, Jetsam looks like it was made… in 14 days, for £2500.

Bad films come in all shapes and sizes and this year they’ve ranged from the colossal turd that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to this extremely low budget British ‘thriller’. Jetsam does actually start rather intriguingly. In a silent opening sequence we meet a young woman (Reid), washed up on a beach with a USB stick in her pocket and seemingly no idea why she’s there.  Then we watch as she stumbles across a man who has also washed up unconscious, she wakes him up and he immediately chases her, seemingly wanting to kill her.

That’s a great start. It poses all sorts of fascinating questions. Sadly the film then proceeds to answer those questions in a way that is both unspeakably boring and hilariously implausible. Saying much about Jetsam’s story would risk spoiling the film, but it’s about industrial espionage and as befits a thriller with that subject it’s a twisty narrative. That twist is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a cinema this year, because it is so totally unbelievable, both at script and performance level.

The film hinges on Reid’s character, her relationships and her job; to spy Macaninch and his girlfriend MacDonald. The problem is that neither script nor performances give us a way in to these people and their lives, so the idea at the heart of the film, as well as being so well worked over that it would have been old hat in a 1940’s Hitchcock movie, never remotely convinces. Alex Reid, who was in The Descent with co-star MacDonald, is a blank slate. Her unchanging expression leads us through the film like a blindfolded guide leading a hike through the mountains - always hesitant, with little idea what she’s doing or where she’s going. Jetsam may be a rather minimalist film, but Reid’s acting is minimal to the point of not being there at all. The others aren’t bad, Cal Macaninch and Shauna MacDonald might have been able to do something interesting if the script weren’t monumentally awful.

Everything that might have worked is undone by writer/director Simon Welsford. While it’s an achievement to get a film together for £2500 it would still be nice if the final product looked somewhat professional, after all, cheaper films have managed it in the past. Sadly the technical side of things is just awful. The film is drenched in grain, artifact heavy and very poorly lit. Perhaps the funniest technical failing is the fake blood, which is a vivid shade of pink.

There is nothing to see here. Jetsam is poorly written, acted and made, it should just be allowed to drift away, like the discarded rubbish it is named for.

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