Final Countdown, The

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Oct 24, 2008
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Don Taylor

Release Date(s)

1980 (October 28, 2008)

Studio(s)

United Artists (Blue Underground)

Review

The Final Countdown is a 1980 B-movie classic.  The story is pretty straight-forward action, but with a cool sci-fi hook.  The basic premise is this: What if a modern, U.S. Navy aircraft carrier were suddenly to find itself sent back in time to the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941?  Now imagine you’re the Captain of that ship.  Do you honor your duty, and launch your fighters to wipe out the Japanese attack force and naval fleet, thus changing the course of history?  Or do you let events play out as history says they must?  Is it even possible to change history?

Matt Yelland (Kirk Douglas) is the captain of said aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered U.S.S. Nimitz.  After waiting two days to take on civilian observer Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), the Nimitz departs from its home port in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on a routine cruise.  Lasky has been sent by the mysterious Mr. Tideman, the head of a major defense contractor, to observe the ship’s operations and report on efficiency.  This doesn’t sit too well with Yelland and his crew, especially the commander of the ship’s F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron, Richard Owens (James Farentino).  Things get more tense when the ship passes through a strange electrical storm at sea.  All of a sudden, radio contact with their escort ships and Pearl is lost, and there’s nothing but vintage broadcasts coming in over AM radio.  Yelland and Owens suspect that it’s all an exercise that’s being staged for Lasky’s benefit.  But when their reconnaissance planes take pictures of WWII-era battleships moored back at Pearl Harbor – pictures that match those taken on December 6th, 1941 – they have to start facing the very real prospect that the storm might actually have been a time warp, and that the Nimitz is the only thing standing in the way of an all-out Japanese attack.

Three things make The Final Countdown an effective film.  First of all, the sci-fi hook is simple, and yet highly clever.  Other than the actual scenes in which the ship passes through the time warp, there’s virtually none of the usual trappings of sci-fi in this film.  That means The Final Countdown is mostly straightforward action/drama, as the characters react to the situation they’re in.  The second thing that works here, is that this film was shot entirely on location on the real Nimitz, and in and around the actual vintage and modern aircraft depicted in the film, with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.  The ship’s operations you’ll see are very accurate – more so even than what was featured years later in Top Gun – because they’re the real thing.  There’s a scene in this film in which a pair of F-14s plays tag with a pair of vintage Japanese Zeros, and you’re watching the real F-14s and Zeros in the frame.  There’s almost no special effects involved.  All of this gives The Final Countdown an immediacy and authenticity that most sci-fi films lack, particularly the B-grade ones.  Finally, this is a first-rate cast of actors, each of whom is excellent in their respective rolls.  In addition to the players listed above, you’ll also find Charles Durning and Katharine Ross here, as a U.S. Senator and his assistant.  Producer (and Troma legend) Lloyd Kaufman even makes a cameo.  This flick is just damn good fun from start to finish.

As many of you long-time readers might recall, we crusaded for years to get this film released on disc.  Blue Underground finally obliged in 2004, rescuing the film from rights limbo and delivering an excellent 2-Disc Limited Edition on DVD.  This new Blu-ray Disc is basically an upgrade of that release.  Its 1080p high-definition image quality is generally quite good.  The optically produced opening titles are rather soft-looking and washed out, but after that, the quality and clarity improves significantly.  Light to moderate grain is present throughout, but detail, color and contrast are, on the whole, impressive.  The quality varies from shot to shot, and you’ll notice focus problems here and there (specifically during a few shots on board the carrier), where the center of the image is crisp but the outer edges are blurry.  But the quality gets better and better as you watch, and ultimately we were more than satisfied with the transfer, especially given the film’s age, its indie status and its convoluted history of ownership.  Audio is available in both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA, and both mixes are excellent.  The fidelity does tend to reveal the age of the materials, and this film has never exactly been a sonic achievement, but it’s also certainly never sounded better.  Bass is good, music and dialogue are clear at all times, and there’s nice surround play during shots on the carrier deck as fighters take off and land, for example, and also during the F-14/Zero dogfight.  The staging is more front-biased that you’ll find on newer films, but the audio quality matches the visuals nicely.

Most, though not all, of the previous DVDs special features have been ported over, including the 14-minute Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood featurette and the 31-minute Starring the Jolly Rogers documentary.  The former looks at the film’s origins and production, while the latter features retrospective interviews with the original “Jolly Rogers” F-14 pilots who worked on the film.  Both are worth your time and are presented in anamorphic widescreen (in standard-definition).  The disc also features a full-length audio commentary with cinematographer Victor Kemper, along with a set of theatrical trailers and TV spots for the film.  Missing from the DVD are the poster and still galleries, the Kirk Douglas bio and the Zero Pilot Journal DVD-ROM feature.  So if you want any of that, you need to hang on to Disc Two of the original DVD release.

The Final Countdown is one of our favorite guilty pleasure films.  This new Blu-ray version – like the DVD before it – makes us very, very happy. Sure, the disc is unlikely to win many awards, but being the pleasure of enjoying this film in high-definition is something we certainly never expected to have.  It’s abundantly clear that the team at Blue Underground loves this film as much as we do.  I’ll tell you: With this film and Capricorn One both now available on Blu-ray, well... we’re pretty darned surprised.  Dare we hope for The Last Chase or Hangar 18 next?  Enjoy!

- Bill Hunt

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