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The Final Countdown - Complete Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 31, 2008

  • Movies review

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    The Final Countdown - Complete Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review
    “There are forces in nature that we're only just now beginning to understand, I mean understand through science not superstition. There are black holes in space, anti-matter, curved space. Things that are as strange to us as ... electricity would have been people in the Middle Ages. Or this ship in World War II.”

    Here's a blast from the past - quite literally when you consider the militaristic time-travelling plot of the film, Don Taylor's The Final Countdown from 1980. Now, although released on CD in this complete version - after a couple of malformed bootlegs had done the rounds - way back in 2004, I found myself digging it out and replaying again today after reviewing Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet. There's no connection, really, except for the fact that I regard both movies as guilty pleasures. Daft but irresistible. The Final Countdown has been a favourite of mine since I was a kid. The inane story, about the USS Aircraft Carrier Nimitz voyaging back in time to a point on the eve of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the crisis of conscience that its Captain, played by a slumming-it Kirk Douglas, a Defence Dept. expert played by Martin Sheen, and a heroic air commander played by the always-great James Farentino undergo when faced with the ability and the might to change history forever by taking out the enemy fleet, was clearly inspired by the alleged paranormal events of the so-called Philadelphia Experiment, itself the subject of a later movie. Once a TV evergreen, The Final Countdown was a flop upon its theatrical release, but has since gained something of a cult following. Much like Steven Seagal's first Under Siege flick, the film is basically a vast propaganda project for the US Navy, with filming actually made upon the famous vessel itself and most of the running time spent showing us its immense firepower and technological superiority over everything else on the water.

    Still, I love every silly minute of it.

    But one thing that cannot be argued about the production is that without John Scott's superb score, the film would almost certainly sink under the weight of its own lunacy. I still adore that crazy storm and the big blue time-warp. I'm still quite astounded by the level of splashy gore during the shootout below decks with a captured Japanese pilot. And I still love/hate the fact that the film is stuffed-to-the-gills with real-life crewmen from the USS Nimitz - none of whom can even remotely act. “A ... big ... fish!” one of them guffaws in the most phoney fashion imaginable when Martin Sheen enquires as to what the Russian “trawler” across the waves is really looking for. Big names and a super-hot concept makes for a memorable movie trip - memorably good or bad, you decide. I know that I love it immensely, but even this devout fan wouldn't dream of defending its patently absurd “what if?” scenario when the script, after going to such great lengths to ponder its feasibility and position itself just before what would surely be an amazing battle, then renders the entire adventure completely null and void by returning the Nimitz back to its own time just before it can actually intervene in the course of history.

    Scott, though, takes the whole thing enormously seriously and composes a full-blooded score that is rousing, inventive, exhilarating and also incredibly moving. His Main Titles, which form the strident theme that the score will revolve around, are a classic seafaring motif which, much like Klaus Doldinger's quick version of his theme for Das Boot, Horner's Titanic and The Perfect Storm maritime abandon, the shanty-esque bravado for Master and Commander from Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti, and Korngold's The Sea Hawk among many others, totally places you on the surging ocean waves. Incorporating a full symphony orchestra, Scott is emboldened by brass, energetic percussion and the foaming crests of a powerful string section. Tumultuous cymbals clash and a pounding motif that recalls the glorious Old School scoring from the likes of 633 Squadron and The Battle Of Britain. But Scott does a marvellous mid-point tone change that brings in a deadly earnest drive that signifies the heavy implications of war and the delirious events that are about to take place. Track 2 is full of shivering strings and deep dread mingled with the soul-searching strains of fate and destiny. It is a great piece that combines military devotion with aching tragedy. A grim delight, to be sure, but the track serves as a salute to a couple of the characters in the film who will come to play an enigmatic role at the story's somewhat head-scratching denouement.

    Track 3 is a shrill, string-scorching flotilla of wind-borne nautical expression. It is like The Onedin Line without the bombast, until halfway through, Scott brings in some big guns and blasts with trumpets, horns and vents nuclear-powered bravado with big bass drums and some furious tympani. His brazen use of brass is actually quite refreshing and provides an altogether different type of sound to that which most American composers would have brought to the table. British-born Scott (which sound weird, doesn't it?) has had an incredibly long and largely unsung career in film scoring. With such classics as A Study In Terror, Greystoke, The Shooting Party and Black Rainbow amongst hosts of lesser-known but equally dazzling scores, he brings a decidedly English flavour to his compositions that conspire to create unique and diverse sound designs and orchestrations that can often sound unusual and eclectic considering the visuals they are playing against. His score for Taylor's bizarre action/mystery is a powerful and spellbinding conglomeration of styles and form. There are definite hints of his native contemporaries Roy Budd and Laurie Johnson. Budd's pulsating dynamics for Who Dares Wins and closed, angular elegance for Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, and Johnson's tremendous Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (score and DVD reviewed separately) can be discerned within the intense fabric of Final Countdown.

    The celebrated electronica-infused three-track composition that comprises the sequence in which the Nimitz is overtaken by the strange storm and then whisked off through the time-warp - Tracks 4,5 and 6 - is a pure standout trio of ominous portent, riotous orchestration and splendidly eerie sound design. It is worth mentioning that a lot of this section does not actually appear in the finished movie, director Taylor mistakenly opting for sound effects over the hellishly unsettling material that Scott came up with. After encountering the unearthly storm on the radar, the aircraft carrier tries to outrun it, but the storm alters course to pursue them, eventually enveloping them within the spiralling electromagnetic coils of its time-collapsing energy. What Scott does with this sequence of musical events is to create a whirling maelstrom of sound that builds and builds as the Nimitz's crew try all they can to evade the mysterious phenomena, until we enter a stretch wherein the design goes utterly haywire. All manner of disturbing effects engulf the Track 6, Entering The Time Warp. Fabulously spooky oboe and bassoon roll about menacingly whilst some incredible synthesised wailing rises up like a siren call, bathing the cue with yet more sinister cadences. Something very similar to this was done by Bernard Herrmann in his score for The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, but Scott seems to take it into even more demented waters, amping up the otherworldly aspects. Throughout this, you will also hear a clear descendant of John Williams' Jaws theme, a fierce and relentless undercurrent whose beat edges the jeopardy and excitement all the more. And, adding to this nightmarish musical squall, is the amazing sampled hooting of some ethnic-type of instrument. Paradoxically - which is totally apt, of course - this weird new sound which opens the track and then appears throughout calls to mind some exotic jungle and the swirling, dervish-like denizens within. Perhaps, in its voyage through time, the Nimitz passes by other vessels, other people and creatures caught within the vortex and the crazed litany of these era-snatched prisoners echoes across the decks. Either way, Scott created a wonderfully memorable track that wastes no time at all in transporting us through a gateway that opens up all sorts of possibilities. In a way, it would have been much better if the story had then taken on a more sci-fi trajectory. After all, Scott had done this type of thing before in AIP's The People That Time Forgot and the earlier Trog (about a hairy missing link going on the rampage in rural England), and would go on to provide suitably outlandish music for the otherwise lousy TV version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

    Scott then alternates between mystery and tension as the crew discover just where and when they have arrived after the nerve-shredding freak storm. Moments of heroism intermingle with ominous disbelief as their predicament becomes a reality. Landing stray craft back safely bring rapid-paced flurries for brass and searing strings. Track13, Splash Two is alarmingly frenetic - tom-toms smack against a rising wall of super-heated brass and churning strings weave around a crystal clear chime that marks time towards disaster aversion. The clash of East and West, 1941 Zero versus 1980 jet fighter roars with noble glee in Shake The Zeros, the main theme returning for a justifiably boisterous encore.

    But Scott's next track is when he breaks all bonds so far created and unleashes a simply gorgeous and heartbreaking lament that is so damn haunting, tragic and exquisitely put together that the very fact that it seems to come out of nowhere only magnifies its resonance tenfold. Beautiful woodwinds evoke a bygone love affair and the film's secondary theme - of the time-lost lovers who have waited decades for this trip to be made - filters gently but poignantly across the track. There's a vague hint of menace laced within the track, but the overriding sense is of a sweet agony, an itch that can never be scratched. It is one of the score's most memorable elements and the clarity of the recording here only provides it with more of a yearning intensity. The screenplay's attempts at conveying such matters was nowhere near as affecting.

    More mystery follows with the exotic sounding Climb Mount Nitaka, and the love theme then briefly returns for star-strafing strings before percussive bombast pummels its way to the fore once more with an adrenal overkill that is pure foot-tapping, macho swagger. Scott plays around with his dominant military theme, bringing in driving drumbeats, punishing percussive barrages and jingoistic brass statements that is are definitely designed to hearken back to the war flicks of the sixties and seventies - bold and valiant but undercut with a darker edge that marvellously denotes the knowledge that this really won't be Boys Own stuff if it actually all goes down. It is clever writing from Scott that keeps the pace and delivers excitement yet courses with danger and dread throughout, effectively piling-on the suspense.

    Back Through The Time Warp is a much less frightening episode than the first encounter with the freak storm, but is no less exhilarating. Shrill brass plays over heavy chords of deep boiling bass. A sense of the relentless inevitability is imbued by Scott, which is fortunate in that the events in the film become hugely frustrating for the viewer who, by now, has accepted the fact that the Nimitz - and America again - is going to win the Second World War single-handedly and actually wants to see some righteous kick-ass. Denied such spectacle in return for the hazy blue spiralling cloud that will conveniently deposit the ship back where and when it started from, it is left to Scott to reassure us with heroism that is heard if not seen.

    The composer then can't resist the opportunity to herald the gallant boys with some serious pomp and ceremony for The Admirals Arrive, Track 22, which is a piece that, although fun for the orchestra and certainly befitting the story is best skipped over. It doesn't gel with the tone of the rest of the score, being too regimented, conventional and familiar. But Scott then serenades us with an epic overture to see the album out. Track 23 commences with another great slice of that heart-aching doomed romanticism, but listen to those whimsical, twisting chimes echoing away at the start - somehow he manages to bring a lump to the throat and chill the blood with such an exotic sound - it is almost like glass whistling ... which sounds really odd, I know, but that is the queer, but delightful noise that he creates. Then, the bold, adventurous main title motif returns for an ocean-swelling signature sign-off to what has been a rich musical experience that utterly defies the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise.

    John Scott provides the true time-vortex for The Final Countdown. Somehow, listening to this score transports me back to a time when, as a child eager to believe any amount of escapist adventure, I was sold, whole-heartedly on the tale of a ship that could take on a World War and win. Hell, with Spartacus commanding it, I still believe it!

    JOS's disc contains liner notes from Scott, himself, who discusses with some humour how he came onboard and how the score was put together in editing suites on both sides of the Atlantic. He also mentions the bootleg versions and how, in a great slice of ironies, the Japanese market had stolen his score and put it out as a soundtrack for something else entirely. Perhaps they were getting their own back for their portrayal as nothing but ruthless villains in the movie.

    Full Track Listing is as follows -

    1. Final Countdown - Main Titles 3.54

    2. Mr. Tideman 2.25

    3. USS Nimitz on Route 3.29

    4. The Approaching Storm 4.23

    5. Pursued By the Storm 2.46

    6. Into the Time Warp 3.58

    7. Rig The Barricades 2.16

    8. Last Known Position 2.13

    9. An Hour Ago 1.01

    10. December 7, 1941 0.46

    11. The Japanese Navy 0.36

    12. Shake Up The Zeros 2.14

    13. Splash Two 1.07

    14. Laurel and Owen 2.23

    15. Climb Mount Nikata 2.11

    16. On The Beach 0.40

    17. General Quarters 1.48

    18. Operation Pearl Harbor 1.00

    19. The Storm Reappears 3.28

    20. Back Through The Time Warp 3.41

    21. The Planes Return 1.27

    22. Admirals Arrive 1.30

    23. Mr & Mrs. Tideman 4.20

    Verdict

    John Scott created a magnificent score for The Final Countdown, one that is exciting and powerful and contains themes that are ominous, bravura and hauntingly beautiful. The movie, itself, is pure schlock and a sheer guilty pleasure for many. This disc represents the full score to the film, providing many cues that were either shortened, dialled-out or chopped altogether. Alongside the movie, Scott's music enhances it considerably. Away from the visuals, it simply soars with creativity and vigour. Scott has always been a somewhat overlooked composer, although he has worked tirelessly for decades. For me, this score is his greatest and most passionate. It evokes the majesty of the sea and the mysterious elements that might lurk upon it. It also imbues a terrific sense of military might and the sheer indulgence that such power can have.

    An electrifying tour de force that delivers so much more than the film it surrounds. Scott's finest hour and a brilliant showcase for doom-laden mysterioso and grave war-time clout. Very highly recommended indeed.

    The Rundown

    Movie

    9

    Overall

    9

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