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Movies & TV

31st Jan 2023

20 years on, this is still the greatest car crash scene in cinema history

Rory Cashin

car crash scene

The car crash scene to end all car crash scenes.

If you’re specifically looking for the greatest car chase scene in cinema history, well, we’ve already covered that and you can read all about it right here.

But today, we’re talking specifically about the greatest car crash scene in cinema history. Car chases are all about not crashing, but in this case, the total chaos and destruction of the crash itself remains spectacularly jaw-dropping, even 20 years on.

And the award for best car crash scene in cinema history goes to… Final Destination 2. Not bad for a series that actually began life as a rejected script for an episode of The X-Files.

After the attention-grabbing plane crash sequence from the first movie, the sequel had to up the ante for the mass death scene in FD2. And the movie does a fantastic job of building the tension and laying out the hints of the horribleness to come. Firstly, unlike the first movie, there are no real recognisable faces amongst the cast, so aside from lead character Kimberley (A.J. Cook), all bets are off as to who might survive the opening salvo.

And then the engine warning light goes off… and then, in a different vehicle, we see a heavily pregnant driver… and then a speeding truck, a really speedy motorbike, a lorry being driven by a drunk driver (it is only at this point that Kimberley puts her seatbelt on, which… also isn’t great), a young boy crashing his toy car and truck together, a car engine spewing heavy black smoke from the exhaust, a glimpse at teenager holding two water bottles (one of them will come into play later), the speeding biker again (this time revealing that the highway is still slick from rain the night before), a jittering full cup of coffee near a driver’s lap, a driver doing a bump of cocaine, and then a loose chain hanging off the back of an articulated truck…

None of it is particularly subtle, but it does a brilliant job of ramping up the tension, before all hell breaks loose..

The movie is directed by David R. Ellis, who previously to this, had made a name for himself looking after big action sequences as second unit director in some big blockbusters: Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Waterworld, The Negotiator, Deep Blue Sea, The Perfect Storm, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Final Destination 2 was released in cinemas on 31 January 2003, and it is clear that Ellis wanted to leave an impression with this first proper action sequence within his own directing career, and with this car crash sequence, he absolutely did. There is a perfect sense of geography, as at all times you know where every person and vehicle is in relation to each other.

Once that first log pings free from the back of the truck, the sense of weight and impact is immediate, and the majority of the remainder of the scene is played out incredibly realistically. We often hear of horrendous pile-ups taking place on massive motorway systems, but this felt like the first time we were watching from the centre of the storm.

The squealing tyres, the broken glass and destroyed chassis, the huge explosions, the blood-splurting violence that reminds you, yes, you’re still watching a horror movie. The water bottle that unfortunately ends up wedged under the break peddle, the screams right before impact. It is all presented so viscerally, accompanied by a bone-rattling sound design, and absolutely no musical score whatsoever… until the final moments when it looks like Kimberley might make it out alive… emphasis on might.

Unfortunately, FD2 turned out to be the lowest box office performer of the entire series ($91 million worldwide, from a $26 million budget), and wasn’t exactly a critical darling at the time, either (48% on Rotten Tomatoes). But then none of the Final Destination series scored over 50% until 2011’s Final Destination 5.

Ellis would return to the series for 2009’s The Final Destination, which featured a pretty gnarly mass death scene at a race-car stadium, but the auto-vehicular mayhem from his first outing remains the best car crash scene in cinema history.

At the time of writing, Final Destination 2 is available to rent on Apple TV, Google Play and the Sky Store.

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