DVD - Image A Sound A- Extras B
BD - Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross, James Farentino
screenplay by David Ambrose & Gerry Davis
directed by Don Taylor
by Walter Chaw The first nine times I saw The Final Countdown, I was on a blanket on the hood of my parents' car, a chimichanga in one hand and a Coke in the other. This was August and September of 1980, and earlier that year I thought I'd seen the best movie ever: The Empire Strikes Back. The next summer, I'd take in--at the drive-in, at the Cooper, at the Lakeside Twin--Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, and Dragonslayer. I believed this to be the way movies naturally were, unaware then that I was poised at the cusp of a decade of filmmaking that would redefine fantasy and science-fiction, setting precedents for the genre with films like Back to the Future and Predator, E.T., and Blade Runner, Near Dark, and Miracle Mile--the well was as deep for flights of fancy in the Eighties as it was for incomparable character-driven paranoia in the Seventies. It was an amazing and specific time to come of age in the movies, I see in retrospect; and I owe the embarrassing chills I still get watching big-budget mainstream previews to this day to my maturation in the church of the blockbuster.
The tenth time I saw The Final Countdown was on Blue Underground's loving, Limited Edition 2-DVD set--and it's a viewing I approached with trepidation: the joys of childhood seldom reach across into the sober cynicism of adulthood. But there's a respect given to the time-travel premise of this film that remains affecting--charming, even--to this day despite the second-unit Naval recruitment techno-love and an ending that can only be seen as something of a cop-out. The picture raises the philosophical and practical conundrums of time travel while being precisely an artifact of its place on the genre timeline, replicating an outfitting scene from The Empire Strikes Back's Hoth dock sequence prior to the Imperial ground invasion while duplicating a moment of accidental temporal knowledge from another contemporary fantasy, Somewhere in Time. Neither homage nor coincidence, the parallels suggest zeitgeist. There was magic in the air that had nothing to do with the Miller moths caught in the projected light from the drive-in projector--some combination of militarism, a new resolve to always be prepared, and a romantic idea of trust in felicity.
The USS Nimitz travels back in time to the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Its commander, Capt. Yelland (Kirk Douglas), favours smiting the Japs where they sleep; Cmdr Richard Owens (James Farentino) falls for the secretary (Katharine Ross) of a 1940s senator the time travelers save from a Zero attack; naval intelligence officer Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) argues for the prime directive; and the senator in question, Chapman (Charles Durning), demands the opportunity to warn Pearl Harbor. More the forefather of Crimson Tide than of Back to the Future, The Final Countdown unfolds through a series of debates and hypotheticals, with the key exception being a patently unfair dogfight between two Zeros and two F-14 Tomcats (cribbing some B-roll from Tora! Tora! Tora!)--so unfair, in fact, that it's possible for a moment to feel a bit of sympathy for the outmatched aircraft, and more's to the film's credit for not painting the Japanese in shades of one-dimensional villainy.
More in the posing of questions than in any kind of resolutions or consequences, the pleasures of The Final Countdown also lie in the performances of Sheen (still doing voice-over work for Apocalypse Now between camera set-ups) and Douglas, as well as the delicious "what if" of a time-travel scenario married to a particular breed of unfettered patriotism and military fetishism. A scene in which crewman on the Nimitz clasp their hands to their heads as they travel through a wormhole, juxtaposed with newsreel footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor, elicits genuine pathos, however intentional, at opportunities squandered and historical tragedies re-experienced. What disappoints ultimately is a deus ex machina so bankrupt that it makes the philosophical musings of the body entirely moot. Though it's been offered that the lack of any actual conflict is a product of the picture's miniscule budget, it feels a lot more like an unwillingness to take a chance at the moment of crisis, despite the film's generally uncompromising attitude. The Final Countdown is a solid movie with a lousy ending--at the least, it has the distinction of being firmly the product of a place and time in our cinematic history. A great shame that a film about time travel very much a product of its time is ultimately more a footnote than a thesis.
Blue Underground, gaining momentum on Anchor Bay in the area of extensive catalogue cult releases, offers The Final Countdown in an astounding, THX-certified anamorphic widescreen presentation that preserves the picture's original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio for the first time on DVD legitimately. Some interiors have a fuzzy band on top and bottom (likely a lens-related artifact), but the colours are vibrant, edge-enhancement is minimal, and grain is practically non-existent. The source print, meanwhile, looks freshly minted. The three audio options--DD 2.0 (i.e., Dolby Surround), DD 5.1 EX, and DTS-ES 6.1--are each crystal clear, with dialogue eminating primarily from the centre channel in all three cases but with the climactic carrier lift-offs (too many for my taste, really) occupying the rear and side channels at a sometimes-startling volume. Though I had trouble telling much significant difference between the two discrete remixes, sufficed to say that enough imagination went into the splitting that it's a shame that The Final Countdown's loudest moments are almost exclusively from the huge amount of second-unit stuff.
The first disc of the two-platter set* features a yakker from director of photography Victor J. Kemper and an uncredited facilitator I'm going to assume is the disc's supplementals producer. It's something of a disappointment (particularly in comparison to the Lloyd Kaufman interview on the second disc), as Kemper chooses to wax rhapsodic (and interminably) about the wonders of the technology on the aircraft carrier. He can't seem to shake the memory of being on the war machine and witnessing firsthand how the jets landed and took off when more time should have been spent, for my money, on the shots he personally framed and lit. A pair of trailers converted non-anamorphically at 1.85:1, a teaser that gives far too much away, and two television spots cap Disc 1.
Disc 2 gets off to a tremendous start with "Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood - Interview with Associate Producer Lloyd Kaufman" (14 mins.), a rousing snark-fest wherein Troma head Kaufman talks about how much of a whiner Farentino was, how much of a princess Ross was, and how much of a crotchety old inspiration Douglas was. He reserves the bulk of his bile for director Don Taylor, however, calling him in turns "incompetent" and "a lush" who hired on a bumbling crew that Kaufman eventually had to fire en masse. A second documentary, "Starring the Jolly Rogers - Interviews with the Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron" (31 mins.), is less about the film than a hagiography for the pilots and more of an opportunity for career naval men to recruit fledgling naval men. (Top Gun, eat yer heart out.) An exhaustive posters and stills gallery is nevertheless sort of disinteresting to navigate, but Mark Wickum, the best in the DVD bio biz, weighs in with a nicely moderated piece on Kirk Douglas that hits the highs and the lows for a plugger's knowledge. A historically fascinating article ("Zero Fighter Journal"), accessed via DVD-ROM, rounds out the package. Although the necessity for a second disc is debatable, the extra space afforded the video transfer certainly wields impressive dividends. More, the Limited Edition features a lenticular cover design that is cheesy in exactly the right way. Originally published: March 29, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Blue Underground pops their next-gen cherry with the Blu-ray release of a previous best-seller for the company, The Final Countdown. Forgoing the THX certification of the SD platter, the 2.35:1, 1080p transfer speaks for itself. The increased resolution brings into relief an inconsistent grain structure that perhaps causes stock and optical shots to be more obvious than usual (and there are a lot of both in this movie), but it also makes the crystalline beauty of the bulk of this presentation that much easier to appreciate. And the straight second-unit stuff--like the shot of an F-14 in flight from 17:01-17:09 in chapter 4, or the refuelling of the Tomcats in chapter 9--is what home-theatre nerds had hoped Top Gun would look like in HiDef. I was less bowled-over by the surprisingly flat trio of listening options, with the caveat being that my receiver can't decode hi-res audio at the full bitrate. Neither the 7.1 DTS-HD track nor the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD and 5.1 DD-EX alternatives sounded radically different from each other to me after level-matching, though I noted slightly stronger LFE support in Dolby. Curious to know whether the D-BOX Motion Control option makes an adequate substitute for the subwoofer, given how infrequently the picture engages the LFE channel. This disc recycles the commentary and all the video-based supplements of the Limited Edition DVD (in 480i and 16x9 where applicable) but unfortunately discards the bios, galleries, and ROM content. Originally published: November 3, 2008.