FINAL APPROACH (1991)
When I first viewed this film, I was sitting on a Turkish divan in a darkened flat at the McDonnell-Douglas Compound in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), flying high on some of my colleague’s latest batch of ‘Squeak’ (AKA: Sidiyki, a viciously potent form of Arab style white-lightning, provided by the British Aerospace guys and distilled from god-knows-what). It was a typical, blazingly hot Saudi summer day, with mid-day temps heading up to the 125 degree F. range and we had the window cooler unit cranked all the way up; so high, in fact, that it seemed (in retrospect) to be on the verge of a spontaneous mechanical grand mal seizure any second (I wouldn’t realise how appropriate THIS particular choice of syndromic analogue was until a while later, but stay tuned; more on that shortly).
Fortunately, given the need to avoid the worst heat of the day by staying indoors, we had our satellite dish trained on an orbiting TV signal relay that brought us a wide range of international programming, since TV was one of the few means we had to take some of the edge off our steadily accumulating boredom. As I languidly flipped through the channels, I was briefly elated to note a German language broadcast of that wretched (but…ahem… ‘scenic’) T&A program BABEWATCH, but elected to pass by it to see what else was on tap. The next moment, my total attention was abruptly seized (that word again) from its inertial lassitude by what appeared to be some interesting cockpit footage of an SR-71 Blackbird on an adjacent channel. In that same nanosecond I completely forgot the pleasurably jiggling twin masses of silicone-endowed chest the dopamine chemo-receptors in my brain had just registered on BABEWATCH and put the channel selector down somewhat absently, suddenly eager to see what this other program was all about. The year was 1995 and the film that was playing via satellite transmission was titled ‘FINAL APPROACH’ (as I later learned).
From the very first glance at this film I was riveted to the tube… so riveted that even the threat of a bursting bladder (from all the Squeak) couldn’t dislodge me from that divan where I watched this remarkable story unfold with rapt eagerness. My impression at that moment was that anything showing such intriguing footage of my favorite stealthy strategic recon aircraft had to be more worth watching than Pamela Anderson’s unreal fleshly assets bouncing along a Hawaiian beach. As the plot of this movie began unfolding, I recall feeling that if this weren’t some sort of action film, at least it had a science fiction/aviation theme (and I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi). Little did I know that I would end up regarding FINAL APPROACH as one of the cleverest and most interesting exercises in creatively intellectualised religious philosophy I would ever experience in film media.
The scenario that quickly emerged was quite engaging, deceptively conveying the impression at the onset of an Air Force SR-71 pilot (Col. Jason Halsey, who is suffering from severe amnesia, presumably the result of a crash he experienced while testing a highly classified ‘black’ radar-evading stealth system retro-engineered into his SR-71 aircraft) being medically debriefed. The film opens with an initial sequence of scene-setting SR-71 flight clips (interspersed with sporadic memory flashbacks) of Halsey’s highly modified Blackbird engaged in a test of the new and ultra classified radar evasion system that his aircraft has been fitted with. After these initial special effects scenes fade, we find Col. Halsey dressed in a blue flight suit and sitting in what appears to be a very ethereally sterile clinical waiting room, where he is the only patient. Ushered into an empty office by an enigmatic female receptionist dressed in white, Halsey is told the doctor will see him momentarily. Halsey sits there in the doctor’s office completely befuddled and totally unable to remember anything at all relating to his past, immediate or distant.
Looking around, he begins to examine the contents of the large, sparsely furnished office, particularly being attracted to a strange, two-part modernistic painting behind what is obviously the doctor’s office desk. Half of the painting is comprised of a starburst pattern of red and white colors, while the other half of the painting has a similar but blue and white starburst design.
After a few moments the doctor finally appears, seemingly from nowhere and accompanied by a sudden brightening effect in the room, dressed in futuristic white clinical apparel. Bald, but with a small wisp of a beard, he introduces himself as Dr. Dio Gottlieb. [It is easy, in the passing moment, to fail to register the fact that ‘Dio’ is a truncated form of ‘Dios’, the Spanish word for ‘God’, or that the German surname ‘Gottlieb’ may be literally translated as ‘God's love. One’s natural inclination is to buy into the subtle impression that Dr. Gottlieb is a psychologist who is medically debriefing the Colonel after his recovery from crash trauma.] After introducing himself, Dr. Gottlieb notices Colonel Halsey looking at the visually striking painting arrayed behind his desk and explains that he has painted it himself. It is titled, he explains with a hint of obvious pride, “Heaven and Hell.”
The scenes that comprise the next hour of the movie consist of Dr. Gottlieb working with Colonel Halsey as a psychologist would with a therapy patient. Gottlieb puts Halsey through a battery of psychological tests (such as word association) to determine, we suppose, how much of Halsey’s memory has been lost and in an apparent effort to help him regain knowledge of himself and his past. As the storyline develops, Dr. Gottlieb’s prompting stimulates a recollection by Col. Halsey that he had suffered what seem to have been recurrent petite mal seizures as a child, resulting from a collision with a tree on a swing. Despite this small breakthrough, the protracted clinical probing by Dr. Gottlieb continues to frustrate Halsey, who soon begins to think that all this is actually a very strange dream sequence (complete with flashbacks and snippets of past remembrances) and accuses the doctor of being a figment of his imagination. The doctor is not put off by this dismissal and continues to delve into Halsey’s past history of seizures, even mimicing a full-blown grand mal seizure by way of illustration. [The acting on the part of both Dr. Gottlieb and Col. Halsey throughout this extended clinical sequence is rather excellent and compelling, in my opinion.] Soon the impression that he is simply having a nightmare finally wears off and Halsey next begins to suspect that he is the victim of elaborate and extremely subtle ‘brain-washing’ by enemy agents (as recollection of his highly classified radar-evading stealth military mission partly returns) and begins to grapple physically with the doctor. In the midst of this contention, Halsey reaches out to grasp the doctor’s small tuft of a chin beard…a sequence which provokes one of the more memorably eclectic lines (by Dr. Gottlieb) from this film, as Gottlieb testily removes Halsey’s hand from his beard: “Don’t EVER touch the beard!”
Throughout the film this apparent clinical session with Doctor Gottlieb is interspersed with flash cuts back to the disastrous SR-71 stealth mission of being cleared for approach to Beale AFB via Las Vegas, of suddenly sustaining what seems to be a strange lightning strike on the aircraft that causes wide-spread avionics malfunctions (including an engine shutdown), and developing a final in-flight emergency situation that results in both crewmen ejecting just as the plane crashes. [This pattern of periodic SR-71 mission flashback sequences continues throughout the film, with each flashback being a bit more complete than the preceding one.] Further on and towards the end of the film, an even more complete flashback cut reveals that although Halsey and his partner ejected from the disabled aircraft, they were both killed, with one crewman being confirmed dead and the other’s remains not being recovered. Suddenly new speculation develops.
Very close to the end of the movie and shortly after this startling disclosure, Dr. Gottlieb, ostensibly still trying to help Colonel Halsey regain his memory asks him if he believes in God? When Halsey snorts with derision at this interjection, Gottlieb continues to develop the new approach as he casually eats a few grapes, asking him to suppose… “entirely hypothetically, of course”… that there were a particular scientist who had a huge, vast laboratory…”as large as the Universe”…that he was trying to populate with life forms, and that the Earth and everything on it was his experimental petri culture dish? What would he think of that?
As the implications of this final scene settle in on the viewers, the Doctor puts a kind hand on the Colonel’s shoulder and gently informs him that ‘ time is up’. Gottlieb points to the office door with a benign smile and says that the receptionist, ‘Ms. Peters’ (another nice little touch of ironic humor), will ‘validate you’. Halsey then opens the door and disappears into an all enveloping, blinding whiteness, as the sound track conveys vague sounds of parents delightfully greeting the birth of a new baby . All very intriguing and clever, of course, but the analogue at this point has become far more pointed and the logical conclusions, although suggesting themselves tantalizingly, leave it to the viewer to make a final conclusion.
The possibilities of the entire experience being merely a strange dream by this time seem to have been sufficient rejected, as has the likelihood that Colonel Halsey’s history of seizures is somehow involved in being the prime causative factor in all these bizarre circumstances. From my personal perspective, as someone who is a life-long, free-thinking ‘non-believer’, maintaining no faith in gods of any religious persuasion (Christian or otherwise), after-life, heavens or hells, only two interpretations of this film’s intent ultimately remain viable. “Doctor Gottlieb” is either an allegorical Supreme Being (read: ‘God’ with a capitol G) or he is a supremely advanced intelligent entity who is experimenting with sentient life forms (in this case, in the form of human beings). Either way, these two options lead in the same direction, of course.
I find that it helps here to recall the words of a well-known philosopher who once observed that “Any sufficiently advanced science that exceeds our furthest developed understanding, will, for all practical purposes appear to us to be simply supernatural ‘magic’”. It’s also also helpful to reflect on the fact that humanity has an enduring tendency to ascribe all things that we can’t understand as being divinely directed (e.g. ‘God’s Will’). One (perhaps more intellectually evolved) human being’s Christian Yahway (Jehovah) is after all another (perhaps somewhat more primitive) human being’s ‘Sacred Lightning God’, etc., etc. To a sufficiently primitive human, a highly advanced alien would likely be seen as a supernatural God and certainly human history is full of such ‘mistaken’ perceptions by lesser developed cultures.
Here is where the context of science fiction mixes so perfectly with philosophy in this film, since either of these two interpretations of the ‘point’ ultimately emerging from FINAL APPROACH is ambiguous enough to warrant equal consideration, although both are perhaps exactly the same thing. One strong conclusion that SHOULD emerge in an analysis of this story (but usually doesn’t) is that seen in the greater scope of an unimaginably vast universe (any understanding of which appears far beyond the capability of the present collective intellect of our species), human beings must necessarily be considered abysmally ignorant life forms that to date have barely attained a higher conscious awareness of any consequence.
Herein, in my opinion, resides the brilliance of a film that is invariably noisomely rejected out-of-hand by ‘uncomplicated’ people who profess extreme disappointment to find that FINAL APPROACH is not an action film, nor that it does not even deal to any satisfactory extent with aviation technology and/or exotic aerospace vehicles (these technological subjects are merely convenient window-dressing for the deeper message contained in the film). In its most meaningful context, it may only be concluded that FINAL APPROACH is a rather brilliant exploration of psycho-religious possibilities that elude (and shall continue to elude) conclusive absolute definition. The occasional positive reviews of this film one runs into on the internet at various film review sites invariably seem to focus almost exclusively on its technical resources and wizardry (digital sound track and exotic special effects), while managing to entirely overlook its most profound and possibly unsettling deeper meaning.
After viewing this film for the first (and heretofore only) time in 1995, I tried unsuccessfully for years to locate and/or source-out a copy of it. The closest I ever came in my quest was locating a new VHS issue of FINAL APPROACH for about US$ 125 through a highly specialised video media organisation (and after a lengthy search), but found the requested price appalling! Only very recently was I able to locate a lightly used (but excellent) copy in VHS Region 1 format for a far more modest cost and pounced upon it. The film has never been produced in DVD format, nor have I every heard of any plans to do so in the immediate future and the scarcity of copies, along with the high cost of a (new) VHS copy, has been attributed (by a friend in the film media business) to the fact that the film was never been released for mass-market consumption (contrary to the norm with many other, broader interest films). It should be noted that since FINAL APPROACH was produced in 1991, at least two other totally unrelated movies have been made in subsequent years with the same exact title (one in 2006 and yet another in 2008, if I remember correctly), so care must be taken in searching for this movie for that reason; the other two movies are commonly available and will populate a search menu quite readily, while this one (made in 1991) will not.
Yesterday I sat down to watch this wonderful film again, for only the second time in 15 years, and can affirm that it is as richly enjoyable now as it was that first time, sitting there in a muggy flat in the middle of Saudi Arabia, back in 1995. This is a film that deserves to be on the shelf of anyone who professes an interest in philosophy, religion, and/or science/social fiction, or who reflects on the deeper meanings of what the human life experience is all about. ‘Action movie’ fans will of course be grossly disappointed in this film, since FINAL APPROACH is about as far from that genre as Earth is from the nearest star.
With a great many clever and somewhat cerebral touches throughout (Colonel Halsey at one point in the film picks up and bemusedly regards a well-worn copy of Douglas Adams’ classic ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’; in another scene we find a variation of Doctor Gottlieb’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ painting on Halsey’s wall at home, thereby adding to the confusion), a fully digital sound track that was startlingly advanced for its time and masterfully executed special visual effects, FINAL APPROACH is one of those extremely rare and hard to find but incredibly worthwhile films that maintain their essential and highly thoughtful message despite the passage of years.
[NOTE: The two principals in this film are JAMES SIKKING (as Colonel Halsey) and HECTOR ELIZONDO (as Dr. Gottlieb), both of who interact excellently in this screenplay]