The Final Destination films has always possessed a sort of crude purity. Even more than in most body count movies, where narrative is usually more of a pretext than an actual legitimate element, this series is unusually eager to admit that it's about one thing and one thing only: absurdly contrived and colorfully violent death scenes. Everything else is a secondary concern to one of two questions: a) is this Rube Goldbergian death trap both convoluted and imaginative, and b) is it totally kewl?

Thus a part of me doesn't want to argue that the fourth film in the series is really "bad" in any normal sense. Petulantly titled The Final Destination - using up one of the two leftover "thes" from Fast & Furious, one imagines - it does not seek to reinvent the wheel or reach for the stars. It sets its aims on being a certain thing, and then it goes to be that thing. Like I said, purity. Not a noble purity, certainly, but purity nonetheless.

Now, a Final Destination picture follows a very precise template, partially adopted from the old slasher template, but essentially unique. There's a group of people gathered near a whole mess of mechanical objects, and due to a small collection of individually meaningless incidents that only become significant when they happen in a certain order, mass death ensues - in this case a race car jumps the fence and blows up, knocking down the roof on a whole seating section at a Texas speedway. Just when we're ready to pack up and leave (the whole cast is dead, right?) one of the characters we've been introduced to does that "jolt awake" thing, because hey! it was all a vision - in this case, our precog is Nick (Bobby Campo). This individual panics and begs everyone to leave, and in the ensuing fuss, some people are tossed out just for being present when the security guard got pissy. So a few moments later, when the mass death hits, everyone looks to our protagonist as a hero and a seer.

Following this, the survivors take part in a community memorial, although one designated asshole - here, Hunt (Nick Zano) - insists on perpetrating asshattery throughout. The psychic protagonist starts to have suspicions that something is wrong; suspicions confirmed when one of the survivors dies in an incredibly unlikely accident - a racist gentleman (Justin Welborn) in this case, not dignified with an in-credits name, though I am certain a name was briefly spoken. The protagonist and his/her dubious but ultimately supportive love interest - cohabiting girlfriend Lori (Shantel VanSanten) - figure out that the first death, and probably a second one by now, are taking place in the order that the survivors would have died in the accident; the protagonist is also receiving inscrutable visions about the nature of the next person's death, and he/she concludes that if he/she stops their death, the cycle of dying will be interrupted and Death's plan will be tossed in Death's circular file. That said, the other survivors are hard nuts to crack, and typically only see the protagonist's wisdom mere seconds before dying in a colossally bloody manner.

Far be it from me to question the durability of a format that has made, at this point, four virtually identical films, and every one of them a box office success. I'm just mentioning, at great length, that the Final Destinations share a great many similarities that would make even the most ardent Friday the 13th knock-off blush. The differences between the four are really so much window dressing, but the core experience is the same. And to be completely fair, if your one and only one desire at a certain moment in time is to watch extremely visceral death scenes, these films will do you up right; I'd particularly recommend Final Destination 2, which like The Final Destination was directed by David R. Ellis (the first and third were the handiwork of X-Files vet James Wong). I won't claim the moral high ground on this point: parts of all four films appeal to the caveman in me, and to anyone who'd argue against the depraved nature of a movie that exists solely to depict the messy, violent deaths of human beings, well I'd retort that the Final Destination flicks have neatly circumvented that argument by presenting characters who are far, far too simple and clichΓ©d to ever suggest to an objective third party that they are "human beings".

So if the difference from one film to another is nothing but the color of the drapes and maybe a nice swag, what do we think of The Final Destination? Because this one has one hell of a gimmick to it: it's in 3-D, if I am not mistaken only the second horror film to use RealD technology after My Bloody Valentine this past winter. And does it ever use the hell out of that technology: right from the opening racetrack sequences, where we learn exactly how disconcerting it is to have a 3-D camera set right on the ground, where the nearest foreground element at the bottom is all but touching the lens. I'll tell you, nothing in the whole movie is quite as terrifying as those early shots of the asphalt stretching beyond infinity into the screen.

And naturellement, the series' characteristic airborne viscera makes quite a splash in 3-D, as well as the cavalcade of pointy things rushing at the camera. It's honestly one of the cannier 3-D movies I've yet seen in this generation, simply because its tricks are so obvious, so cheesy, and so self-conscious that it feels not unlike watching a hyper-violent, feature length version of one of those 3-D shows at Walt Disney World (indeed, The Final Destination steals the "snake darting at the camera" bit from Honey, I Shrunk the Audience). It's goofy as all hell, and stupid, but there's enough gee-whiz there that I can't imagine anyone who'd pay to see a 3-D horror film would feel like they were getting ripped off in the 3-D department.

Which is a good thing, because if you took the 3-D out, The Final Destination would absolutely suck; at any rate, it would be (and thus, to be fair, is) the worst Final Destination in a rout. And while I get some sleazy pleasure out of them in bits and pieces, I'm not going to pretend that the Final Destination series was anything like "good" in the first place. Part of the problem is the characters: Nick and Lori don't really make a whole lot of sense as people. In the earlier films, no problem, we were following teenagers. But these two, they act like they're in their mid-20s, at least; and yet we never have any sense of them doing anything like a "job". They just sort of inhabit an apartment and try mightily not to die.

There's also the third act, which is either genius or absolute insanity, I'm not sure which. Lori and her friend and fellow-survivor Janet (Hayley Webb) are going to see a movie called Love Lies Dying (played by footage from The Long Kiss Goodnight), and the big selling point is that it's in 3-D. Haha, self-reference. Except from that point on, the movie gets absolutely crazy with in-jokes and absurdist little tweaks, like when Nick arrives at a 14-screen multiplex to find that 8 screens are showing Love Lies Dying in 3-D. There's also the fact that the movie, when we see it, is horribly parallaxed, just like it should be if a single camera were filming a projection of a stereoscopic image - except that the source material isn't, and anyway, if we're sharing the POV of the audience, shouldn't we see the film in 3-D? Or at least as one smooth image? Like I said, this is either genius or the foulest stupidity; either way, it makes the last third of the movie a completely different beast than the first two.

But the biggest problem? The deaths just aren't that good. And remember, the deaths are it. The single, sole reason to go see a Final Destination film. And this entry is just flat-out less imaginative than the others, and much less disgustingly gory. Since gorehounds make up approximately 100% of The Final Destination's target audience, this seems like a fatal lapse; why watch people die discreetly with a small amount of CGI blood when you can cue up the DVD of the second film and watch that kid get squashed like an overripe grape?