Of all the themes in science fiction, from aliens, both friendly and invading, to futuristic tales of society, both utopian and dystopian, I can say that my favorite category is that of time travel. Crossing through the boundaries of time creates so many fantastic juxtapositions, be it going to the past or the future, that the possibilities are nearly infinite, creating tales that are rarely predictable.
It is quite difficult, though, to find a time travel story that intellectually puts everything into the package, showing both the consequences of the travel in the time traveled to, and if the characters return to their home time, what effects any tinkering will have done. The door is also left open for the discussion of whether the time travel to the past even altered history, that time moved forward, not going on an alternate path, no matter what, due to events being predetermined, where a man who doesn't even yet exist comes and changes a situation, only to be born later, and go back in time as destiny.
So, the chance to review a classic sci-fi involving an ethical dilemma created after a freak occurrence causes an entire Navy vessel to transport back in time forty years to the dawn of American World War II involvement was too great to pass up.
It's just another day aboard the USS Nimitz, captained by Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas). The daily weather report indicates a bright, sunny day for the crew, but out of nowhere, a storm emerges, with unusual patterns. The Nimitz is bombarded with unusual activities and sounds, that, when finished, leave the entire crew in a state of confusion. The radio system seems to have been knocked out, save for the low powered AM frequencies, that seem to be playing nostalgic advertisements, news, and sporting events. Reconnaissance planes bring back pictures of Pearl Harbor, with activity that does not match the earlier reports, bustling with vintage carriers and planes. Is this some kind of trick?
Soon, though, after a pair of seemingly classic Japanese scout planes attack a civilian yacht, the answer becomes more clear. The Nimitiz and her crew have been transported to December 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese fleet. Should the Nimitiz defend its country? Would striking the Japanese be an act of war against a country that had not yet declared war on the US? Will the discovery of a senator and his assistant who were lost at sea create an alternate future concerning the Presidency of the United States?
I cannot believe the amazing attention to detail and thoroughness in portraying the methods of the US Navy, both in times of war and in maritime shown in 'The Final Countdown.' The film isn't a pure time travel tale, as it shows routine, or as close to routine as the ship gets with Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), a civilian observer, who butts heads with his lack of knowledge of the system so many have memorized. From the details in getting planes ready for take off, to the extensive preparations for assisting their landings, the film shows a depth that many Navy films fail to reach, despite it being the secondary theme in the film.
The time travel portrayed in 'The Final Countdown' is utterly brilliant. The ship isn't equipped with some fancy gadget, and as such, when the leap in time happens, no one knows what to think. The dawning realization, and the tension it causes, from the varying viewpoints as to what action is to be taken to what consequences would be the result of the interference are debated. The rescue of Senator Chapman (Charles Durning) and his assistant is an accidental wrinkle in time, and the repercussions become quite clear to the crew, who now have an extreme moral dilemma on their hands.
'The Final Countdown' is quite possibly one of the most methodical, brooding masterpieces I've encountered in the sub-genre, but that doesn't mean it's without flaw. I won't give anything away by elaborating on my problems with the film and its resolution, but I will say this: The acting is superb throughout the crew, especially by Douglas, the heart and soul of the Nimitz, and the attention to detail cannot go without notice. Don Taylor's forgotten gem has aged gracefully in the near thirty years since its release, and has found a permanent home in my collection.
'The Final Countdown' arrived on Blu-ray as the first offering from cult distributor Blue Underground, with a VC-1 encode at 1080p in the 2.35:1 OAR. It would not be kind to judge the studio's effort based off this release.
The film has an unusual aesthetic that gives off a hazy blur on all four edges of the screen. Items and characters pass through it, going from dull and blurry to sharp and defined, or vise versa. A single zipper can go from being an ugly mess to a clearly defined beautiful piece of a shot.
Skin tones are natural, though occasionally powdery due to what appears to be makeup. Whites are less than clean, coming across as busy, with a tinge of grey to them at times. Detail is solid, well fitting of the release (save for the sides of the image), while there are some problematic soft or fuzzy shots, including one where a name tag on a uniform couldn't be read despite being centered in the shot.
Martin Sheen's pinstripe suit is a visual nightmare, constantly aliasing, moving like an optical illusion; it just isn't pretty. Grain is not an issue, but spikes dramatically for shots that appear to be stock footage, that have a dramatic decline in picture quality as well. One of these shots was so bad it was difficult to distinguish what part of the shot was air, and what part sea! There is some dirt on the print, larger in the stock shots, but somewhat random and small in the film, including a few scratches and vertical lines. Edge enhancement is present, but isn't massive or distracting. I'm not familiar with the DVD release of this film, so I cannot say how much of an improvement this release is, but I can see solid clarity and detail at times that is encouraging.
Blue Underground, take a bow, in your first Blu-ray release, you created an audiophile dream. 7.1 lossless mixes, two of them, in Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. Want to argue about what format you prefer your audio in, but cannot find a title with both? Here you go!
That said, 'The Final Countdown' isn't audio demo material, despite the advanced audio options provided. The film's age, and original mix (stereo) ensure that no amount of tender love and care would make this the perfect sounding Blu-ray. In fact, the exclusion of the stereo mix in any form may upset some fans.
Dialogue is always understandable, though sometimes drowned out and buried due to helicopter blades (which is understandable), and often has an unusual feel to it, a light feedback or crack. High end sounds are tinny, while the LFE doesn't often do much work, really only coming to the party to portray the movement of the Nimitz in the ocean in close shots.
Rear speakers get plenty of activity in exterior shots, with constant action going on, from planes crossing channels doing flybys, to helicopter blades spinning on one side or another, displacing air. These effects sometimes feel a bit forced, but are at least properly located in the sound field. Explosions lack any thud, including bass, and I got a kick out of the barking dog, as the barks sounded like something out of a 1940 television broadcast. Perhaps that dog truly is from WWII.
The differences between the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD-Master Audio tracks are somewhat minimal. In some comparisons between sequences in the film, the DTS-HD Master Audio track had a little more bass, and had a higher volume, and a bit of a clearer score, but clarity among the two tracks remained very similar. This isn't a night and day difference, just a tiny tweak. Also available is a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track, an odd decision considering the lack of the original recording in any form, and the inclusion of two other souped up tracks.
'The Final Countdown' isn't a title one would readily find at most retail stores, and it certainly isn't in the modern collective conscience anymore, but the film has a place in any great science fiction collection. The Blu-ray release, which was the first from Blue Underground, has its problems, though, preventing this from being an easy recommendation. Fans should pick up this release, as should modern sci-fi fans, to get a look at how strong a film can be without dependance on extreme special effects use.