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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Final Countdown (Blu-ray)
The Final Countdown (Blu-ray)
Blue Underground // PG // November 4, 2008 // Region Free
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 25, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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"We can't ignore it any longer. Every man on this ship knows that we have radar and visual contact with the Japanese fleet approaching Pearl Harbor on December the Sixth, 1941. Now -- what do we do about it?"

That's the
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question plaguing Captain Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas) and the crew of the U.S.S. Nimitz. Hours earlier, the colossal aircraft carrier just off the coast of Hawaii had been bombarded by a bizarre electrical storm. The aftereffects at first seem like more of a curiosity than cause for alarm: communications are useless across the board, and the entertainment band is belting out Jack Benny and ringside commentary of boxing matches from decades past. Yelland and systems analyst Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) initially suspect that this could just be some sort of Navy test -- to disorient the Nimitz and gauge the crew's response -- before they turn to more dire thoughts of war. It's not until a plane is dispatched to Pearl Harbor that the true answer starts to take shape. The photos it returns with are an exact match for the state of the base on December 6th, 1941: the day before the Japanese attack that would awaken a sleeping giant and embroil America in the conflict of World War II.

It's an impossible situation with no easy answers. The Nimitz has the foreknowledge and firepower to dismantle the Japanese fleet, saving thousands of American lives and bolstering the Navy's strength in the Pacific if the U.S. were later to still go to war. What course would this have on history, though? The crew of the Nimitz is sworn to protect the United States, but by defending America in 1941, would the world of the 1980s they left behind still exist? Most of the men on the Nimitz look to be in their twenties or thirties, not even a glimmer in their parents' eyes when Pearl Harbor was attacked. With the long-ranging effects an initiative like this would surely have, would their parents still meet? Would they be born? Would they be preventing one tragedy but possibly be spurring on something far, far more devastating? Because the United States and Japan were technically still negotiating for peace at this point in time, would the Nimitz' intervention be viewed the world over as an act of American aggression? Even aside from the assault on Pearl Harbor itself, how would the injection of modern technology and four decades of knowledge of what's to come impact the course of history? The Nimitz' best intentions are already risking the future -- by fishing Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning) and his assistant (Katharine Ross) out of the ocean after their yacht was strafed by Japanese gunfire, they may have inadvertently set into motion events
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that'd put a different man in the White House within a few years.

The Final Countdown isn't about dazzling aerial acrobatics pitting bleeding-edge F-14 fighters against a legion of kamikaze pilots. There's some of that, yes, but the movie deftly mixes the action in with a thoughtful response to the impossible question it poses, with each side of the equation making intelligent, well-reasoned arguments about what course to take. Despite the looming shadow of the Japanese armada, there really isn't a villain in The Final Countdown; the true adversaries are the ticking clock and a situation that has unacceptable consequences no matter how it's addressed. The screenplay is sharply written enough to present this question with the gravity it deserves, and it's matched with equal thoughtfulness and sincerity by a wonderful cast. The inexperience of some of the background players occasionally shines through, and some overacting sporadically creeps in, but the bulk of the cast does a commendable job of sincerely presenting each side of the argument without ever slipping into comfortable clichés.

The true star of the movie, though, is the United States Navy. Virtually every frame of the film was shot on the U.S.S. Nimitz, and that coupled with the use of so many then-modern fighters -- as well as planes doubling for the Japanese armada -- adds a sense of verisimilitude that a soundstage, miniatures, or clumsy optical effects couldn't hope to reproduce. The Nimitz isn't just a backdrop: it's a living, breathing character in its own right, and the movie does such a wonderful job conveying the size and scope of this sort of floating, self-contained city that it adds an additional sense of scale to the conflict.

Admittedly, some stretches of The Final Countdown haven't aged particularly well, if in kind of a charmingly dated way, and the limitations of its very modest budget are occasionally apparent. Having pilots marvel at the size of the Japanese fleet and then cutting to scratchy, ineptly tinted newsreel footage isn't altogether convincing, for instance. Associate producer Lloyd Kaufman mentions elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc that director Don Taylor wanted all of the scenes with the Japanese Zeroes to be pieced together from stock footage, and it sounds as if The Final Countdown as a whole was only a few missteps away from being entirely unwatchable.

The Final Countdown is a much more compelling movie than it could've been, and even though it failed to make much of a splash when first released, its many appearances on cable and, later, a terrific two-disc special edition DVD from Blue Underground have earned it a solid following over the past quarter-century. I've watched The Final Countdown again and again over the years, and its intriguing concept, well-drawn performances, and sharp screenplay have held up remarkably well despite its budgetary limitations. Although Blue Underground may be best known for its extensive library of gialli and Eurohorror, The Final Countdown is a personal favorite and a fantastic choice for their first Blu-ray release, and here's hoping it's the first of many. Recommended.

Video: The Final Countdown isn't a knockout in high definition,
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but as a long-time fan of the movie, I'm impressed with the way it's turned out on Blu-ray, and it's a strong first showing on the format by Blue Underground. I'll admit to pessimistically expecting something with the same filtered, overly processed look as Anchor Bay's first wave of Blu-ray discs, but that's not an issue at all here. A grainy texture is thankfully still visible throughout, with the weight of the film grain varying substantially depending on the scene. The scope image isn't dazzlingly crisp or detailed, but even with just a casual glance, this is noticeably a high definition presentation. I'd imagine much of the sporadic softness dates back to the original photography; the lighting has kind of a diffused look to it, and the edges of the anamorphic lens occasionally appear soft and lightly distorted. Actually, depending on the shot, the softness can radiate fairly intensely from the center of the frame, but it's still nothing I'd consider to be a flaw specific to this Blu-ray release. This isn't a disc I'd pull off the shelf to show how startling a movie can look in high definition, but I'm still very pleased with the work Blue Underground has done here.

Doing an A/B comparison with the DVD, The Final Countdown is kind of a modest step up, but the improvements are definitely noticeable. For one, the DVD's edge enhancement is entirely gone in this high definition presentation. The gradations in shadows and lighting are smoother and more expansive on Blu-ray, and there's a moderate boost in crispness and clarity. In most of the medium shots of Kirk Douglas on Blu-ray, I can clearly see the wrinkles and texture to his face. There's a certain authority a Captain in his mid-'60s exudes, and that's reflected better in high definition than on DVD, where much of that detail has been smoothened away.

The Final Countdown is presented on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been encoded with VC-1. The bitrate is given plenty of room to breathe on this dual-layer disc.

Audio: The Final Countdown piles on two lossless, 24-bit, 7.1 soundtracks -- one in TrueHD and the other in DTS-HD Master Audio. (The menu and packaging list
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only DTS-HD, but I can confirm that this is a Master Audio soundtrack.) Although the original audio hasn't been included, this remix seems to be faithful enough to the original intent. The multichannel setup seems natural and appropriate, not bombarded with gimmicky, awkward surround effects just to keep the rears chattering throughout.

The Final Countdown shouldn't be mistaken for an action flick -- it's much more intensely focused on these characters coming to grips with an impossible situation, and accordingly, the dialogue that drives the film is rooted front and center. The mix springs to life when appropriate, though, using the surround channels and pans across the front speakers to further flesh out the sounds of aircraft in flight and the violent, deafening roar of this rip in time. Bass response generally doesn't pack all that much of a wallop, but there are a few colossal low-frequency pulses, and the low-end doesn't sound overcooked just to keep the subwoofer rattling. Dialogue and certain effects can't entirely shrug off their age -- there's never really any doubt that this is a nearly thirty year old movie -- but the fidelity is fine. A light hiss is audible but isn't quite enough to distract. This isn't demo material by any stretch, but it's a quality remix and almost certainly the best the original audio stems would allow.

Along with the pair of eight-channel soundtracks, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track has also been included. Subtitles have been provided in English (SDH), French, and Spanish, and The Final Countdown is enhanced to take advantage of D-Box rigs.

Extras: This Blu-ray disc carries over all of the key extras from Blue Underground's two-disc DVD release, including a fourteen minute interview with Lloyd Kaufman,
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who was onboard The Final Countdown as an associate producer as well as popping up in a bit part on the Nimitz' crew. Kaufman chats pretty damned candidly about the movie, describing director Don Taylor as a pot-bellied burnout, the crew Taylor brought onboard being grossly unprofessional and "absolute shitheads", Kirk Douglas and his son salvaging The Final Countdown by ensuring that new aerial footage was filmed for the Zeroes in flght rather than leaning on stock from the archives, and how many of the scenes on the Nimitz were shot while the carrier was docked due to some sort of Three Mile Island-style mishap. It's one of the most critical and unflinchingly honest interviews I've ever heard on a DVD or Blu-ray disc, with the only one coming close being the bitter, resentful audio commentary on A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell by -- hey! -- Troma. Speaking of which, Kaufman talks about how it was Troma's cash-strapped early days that had him seeking out gigs like The Final Countdown, and he does a pretty solid job describing the scale of shooting on this sort of floating metropolis.

The Navy pilots featured in the movie's aerial photography are the focus of the half-hour featurette "Starring the Jolly Rogers". Their comments are kind of general at first -- the skill and difficulty behind executing rescue operations, landing on a pinprick of a deck without any visual point of reference, and how bleeding-edge these aircraft were at the time -- before settling into the film shoot. All of these pilots have a hell of a lot of personality, laughing about teamster van drivers raking in more a year than a seasoned F-14 pilot, distinguishing the realistic maneuvers in The Final Countdown from every other action flick, running through the logistical headaches in shooting the movie's dogfights, ingeniously taunting Katharine Ross after she snubbed the pilots, and debating
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how they'd react to slipping back in time and having the chance to avert the tragedy of Pearl Harbor.

It's kind of a drag to sit through a pair of pretty great interviews and then settle into a slow, uninvolving audio commentary. The track with director of photography Victor J. Kemper isn't bad, exactly, but it's fairly quiet and subdued, even with Blue Underground's David Gregory doing his best to prod him on. It's a more technically oriented commentary than usual, describing the challenges of shooting in a ship with so many fluorescent lights, detailing why the camera operator has the best possible job on-set, chatting about frame rates, and noting how essential it is that cinematographers be involved in the DVD process. Kemper gives a decent sense of the logistical difficulties in shooting on a working aircraft carrier, speaking at length about Navy restrictions, regulations, and procedures that even involved the occasional kidnapping (!). The tone is much more pleasant and upbeat than Kaufman's critical rant, but Kemper does point out some of the missteps made, such as the shoot burning through so much money that there was a sincere fear that there might not be enough leftover to tackle the film's visual effects. It's an okay track, but I really wish one or two other people could've piled into the recording booth with Kemper and Gregory to infuse the discussion with a little more energy. Annoyingly, the commentary is hidden under the "Setup" menu and isn't available under "Extras", despite the fact that it's...y'know, an extra.

Two theatrical trailers, a pair of TV spots, and a teaser round out the extras. All of these bonus features are presented in standard definition, and all but the two TV ads are in anamorphic widescreen. Missing from the DVD set are a still gallery, the 'Zero Pilot Journal', and a Kirk Douglas bio. The lenticular animated cover from the limited edition DVD has been nixed as well.

Conclusion: The Final Countdown lives up to its cult status thanks to a compelling concept realized by a fairly strong cast, and it's a movie that's held up extremely well to many, many viewings over the years. Blue Underground has assembled a solid release for the film on Blu-ray, and although I wouldn't say it's an essential upgrade over the already-impressive two-disc DVD edition, this is a film worth discovering in high definition. Recommended.
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