Color, 1980, 103m. / Directed by Don Taylor
Starring Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross, Charles Durning, James Farentino, Ron O'Neal
Blue Undeground (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), DVD: DTS/DD5.1, BLU-RAY: DTS-HD 7.1, Dolby True HD 7.1, DD5.1 / EMS (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0, Indies (Holland R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) / DD5.1, Hollywood (UK/France R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) / DD2.0

An intriguing time travel yarn initially lost in the early '80s glut of sci-fi and disaster productions, The Final Countdown features a great story hook straight out of the Twilight Zone manual and a staggering cast for an independent feature, ranging from top-A Hollywood talent to Superfly himself. The film begins with its audience identification figure, systems analyst Warren Lasky (Sheen), arrived aboard the atomic-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz for an efficiency inspection. Captain Yelland (Douglas) steers the vessel through the ocean near Hawaii only to encounter a freak storm, complete with a swirling blue vortex that carries the ship and its crew back in time to 1941. Soon they're picking up Japanese communication signals and rescuing Senator Chapman (Durning) and his aide, Laurel (Ross), from a boating accident - both opportunities to alter history, since the Japanese are about to attack nearby Pearl Harbor and Chapman was lost at sea during the attack. Now the men face a dilemma: should they use their modern weaponry to change the course of history or allow world events to proceed as intended?

Using the real Nimitz (with Navy approval, more or less) and a variety of actual U.S. and Japanese planes for the dogfight sequences, The Final Countdown has become a notable cult favorite over the years despite its middling critical reception. True, the film could have probably done more with its concept, but the result is still enjoyable popcorn fare and the supporting cast alone is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Fresh off lovable, grade-A Velveeta like The Swarm, Holocaust 2000, and The Legacy, Douglas and Ross probably didn't have a problem with the script's drive-in aspirations; likewise, Sheen (still mostly likely exhausted after Apocalypse Now) carries his role with his usual professionalism. Of course, the real joy lies in watching scenery-chewing vets like Durning, James Farentino (just before Dead and Buried), and blaxploitation vet Ron O'Neal grappling with the historical quandries of the storyline while surrounded by a dizzying array of actual fighter vehicles blasting across the screen. Sci-fi fans might want something a little headier, but for a pre-Tom Clancy naval thriller, The Final Countdown more than delivers. Director Taylor (best known for Damien: Omen II) exhibits his usual confidence with the Panavision frame (don't even think about watching this cropped to full frame), while the underrated John Scott (Greystoke) supplies a rousing, gripping music score reminiscent of the best of Rosza and Korngold. (Grab the CD if you can find it.)

As for the story itself, the basic time-loop gimmick goes all the way back to shows like Tales of Tomorrow, with the basic idea wrapping itself around in a fashion that sometimes frustrates viewers in our post-Michael Bay society to expect a big slam-bang, pyrotechnic finale where one really wouldn't be possible. As with Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, the restrained resolution offers a narrative solution that hopefully adheres more closely to how military men would handle such a situation rather than how bloodthirsty masses would choose to see it concluded. Also noteworthy is the storm sequence itself, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the disco-light love scene from 1979's Dracula-- no surprise, really, since 007 credits creator Maurice Binder designed them both.

Early DVD versions of The Final Countdown sprang up in a number of countries in the early '00s; the German and Dutch discs offer anamorphic transfers with standard two-channel audio remixes, accompanied by the trailer, while the British/French variant offers a 4:3 letterboxed edition. An earlier, illegal U.S. disc (from a certain nasty company best avoided) also popped up in some bargain bins with a badly converted widescreen transfer and is now thankfully extinct.

This brings us to Blue Underground's multiple editions, which on DVD offer three different ways to experience the film. Their version comes in single-disc variants in widescreen or full frame, or a double-disc set containing a second DVD packed with extras. The THX-approved transfer from the original negative looks quite slick in any incarnation, and the audio overhaul (in 5.1 or DTS options, or a two-channel version) offers plenty of bombastic fun with whoosing arial effects and split surround music effects often filling the speakers. A great demo piece, this is one of the better early '80s transfers out there in standard def. The feature also includes an audio commentary with cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (who did Xanadu and Night of the Juggler around the same time - talk about diversity!), moderated by Blue Underground's David Gregory. It's a very technical but interesting track, mostly discussing the ship itself and the various challenges posed by shooting such an elaborate film with very limited special effects. The feature also contains optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish. Disc two contains two featurettes: "Starring the Jolly Rogers: Interview with the Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron," a surprisingly candid and enjoyable half-hour discussion with the men who piloted the jets in the film, and "Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood," a 14-minute chat with the notorious Troma guru who explains in unflinching terms how his stint as associate producer on this film drove him to go the completely indie route with his own company. Also included are four artwork and still galleries with a heavy focus on behind-the-scenes shots and coverage of the ship itself, an American pressbook, a Douglas bio, and a DVD-Rom feature, "Zero Pilot's Journal,"an account of the Japanese fighter plane experience during the film told in language heavy in aviation-speak. Needless to say, the unrelated hit song by Europe (whose catchy opening bars get belted out by anyone when you mention this film) is nowhere to be found here.

The advent of Blu-Ray meant this title, one of Blue Underground's strongest sellers, was first out of the gate. Some of the '80s film processing methods are more obvious with the enhanced resolution (mainly the opening credits and some peripheral distortion caused by the anamorphic lens filming), but the gains are more than worth the upgrade. Film grain is still present and accounted for to a minimal degree, but some of the more problematic areas (especially those bright blue skies during the opening scenes, which had a digitally jagged look on larger screens) now look much more natural and film-like. Obviously the detail of both the actors and the aircraft are enhanced considerably, and the boost in uncompressed audio (in Dolby True HD or DTS-HD, both 7.1) makes for a very aggressive, enveloping experience (except for scenes with the actors standing around and talking in each other's offices). All of the extras from the limited edition 2-disc DVD are carried over here, still in standard def of course, apart from the still/poster gallery and pressbook and the DVD-Rom bonus, so hang on to that version if you're a completist. The Blu-Ray certainly beats it hands down in every other department, though, and even comes with D-Box motion enhancement; try watching this back to back with the similarly enhanced Top Gun and you'll need a whole night's supply of Dramamine.

Watch the trailer here.

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