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The Final Countdown (1980): Blu-ray

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Saturday, Nov 1, 2008

It holds a sacred place in the science fiction fan’s heart. It’s also the source of much engorged geek consternation. Science aside, the narrative joys and plotpoint illogic of time travel has fueled a great deal of future shock cinema. From assassin androids traveling to the “past” to erase the human responsible for their eventual destruction to present practitioners running through history rewriting the record book, the notion of messing with space and chronology has delivered a fair amount of speculative sturm and drang. For many, one of the best examples of the genre is The Final Countdown. It’s ‘world at war’ storyline seems to avoid many of the pitfalls while supplying a good amount of realistic revisionism.


While on maneuvers in the Pacific, Captain Matthew Yelland receives civilian observer Warren Lasky on his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Under strict orders from his boss, Mr. Tideman, Lasky is supposed to observe, then report back to the mysterious man responsible for the vessel’s design. This bothers Air Wing Commander Richard Owens a great deal. After passing through a freak storm, the Nimitz suddenly finds itself lost in time. The year is 1941, and the world is in chaos. In fact, the date is December 6th, one day before the Japanese attacks and destroys Pearl Harbor. Thus, a quandary is created. Does the Nimitz and its crew prevent the surprise ambush, thereby rewriting history? Or do they let events play out, recognizing that any interference could condemn their own existence? Over much onboard handwringing, a surviving Senator and his daughter may also play an important part of the overall equation.


A prime example of enthusiast devotion circumventing some dated cinematic approaches, The Final Countdown is one of the best examples of the “what if” genre ever attempted. And because of its subject matter, it’s also one of the most frustrating. For those with a knowledge of America’s battle-weary past, the concept of a modern aircraft carrier arriving in the Pacific in time to stop the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is just too good to be true. A whole set of futuristic free associations come from the juxtaposition of contemporary technology with 1940s fighting power. Once the Japanese had been defeated, would Germany have been far behind? Would we have needed the A-bomb and millions of deaths to finally stop the Axis rampage, or could a group of misplaced modern warriors wipe out war once and for all? Or maybe, interference would have aided in a Nazi triumph?


It’s this sort of speculation that makes movies like The Final Countdown work, and for a while at least, actor turned director Don Taylor indulges them. A true Tinsel Town journeymen, the filmmaker responsible for everything from a musical version of Tom Sawyer to the first Omen sequel has a wonderful way with actors. He brings out the best in such top flight talent as Kirk Douglas (Yelland), Martin Sheen (Lasky), James Farentino (Owens), Charles Durning (the Senator), and Soon-Teck Oh (an enemy prisoner). Their seriousness and sense of purpose really drives the authenticity of what could have been contrived and rather unrealistic. For those who like action and effects however, The Final Countdown is sort of a let-down. Indeed, in those pre-CG days of 1980, the aerial dogfights and ship to shore spectacle can feel a tad…antiquated?


But thanks to the cooperation of the US Navy, which went out of its way to help the production, and Taylor’s no nonsense cinematic approach, The Final Countdown succeeds. It may be more provocative than thrilling, and does raise questions that the otherwise solid script (a group effort by four separate writers) fails to fully address, but it’s the internal mechanisms, the ability to wonder about the effect on history - and consequentially, our current global situation - that really sell the situations. Tempers may flare and scenery might occasionally get chewed (with Douglas, Sheen, and Farentino around, that’s a given), but Taylor’s matter of fact filmmaking keeps everything comparatively in check. That’s why fans keep coming back to it even after nearly three decades. 


All of which makes this, the first blu-ray release from exploitation experts Blue Underground, both completely understandable and a tad curious. With a huge stockpile of material to draw on, The Final Countdown seems like a surreal choice for the fledgling format. Indeed, when one thinks of high definition releases, a movie from 28 years ago doesn’t typically draw one’s immediate attention. Sure, fans will celebrate, but getting the uninitiated interested will take something more than definitive technical specs. Luckily, the updated transfer is truly excellent. As part of the HD process, the 1080dp image is very strong. The colors are smooth and there is a decent amount of grain. There are nice black levels, a strong sense of detail, and an impressive “modern” feel to the filmmaking.


As for the aural aspects of the release, the lossless 7.1 DTS HD Master is excellent. The speakers get a real workout during the infrequent but effective battle scenes. There is also a 7.1 TrueHD and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround mix. The DTS is the best. When it comes to added features, however, the Big Blue U grabs a few extras from previous standard DVD releases and makes them available here. The full length audio commentary is interesting, but since we are only getting the limited purview of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (no other member of the cast or crew participates), it can be very dry at time. On the other hand, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who acted as Associate Producer and played a small cameo role) gets a chance to vent about his ‘horrific’ experience on the film. The pilots involved in the production also get a 30 minute featurette that is quite fun.


Sure, some will argue that the movie is nothing more than a dolled-up propaganda film for the US Navy, the magic hour shots of planes circling the Nimitz inspiring enough jingoistic joy to get even the most sensible citizen oiled up and aiming for their nearest recruitment center. And then there’s the whole space/time continuum argument, a bubbling brain buster than can have even the most learned MIT graduate crying cinematic “Uncle”. Still, for all its specious sci-fi friction and old school stuntwork, The Final Countdown is actually quite entertaining. It may not satisfy those still smarting from their own time travel trauma, but it does meet with the genre’s provisional motion picture aims. And on the new digital format, it’s never looked better.


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