Director/Producer – Eric Steven Stahl, Screenplay – Gerald Laurence & Eric Steven Stahl, Photography – Eric Goldstein, Music – Kirk Hunter, Opticals – Apogee Productions, Cinema Research Corporation & Howard A. Anderson Co, Production Design – Ralph E. Stevic. Production Company – Filmquest Pictures.
James B. Sikking (Colonel Jason Halsey), Hector Elizondo (Dr Dio Gottlieb), Madolyn Smith (Casey Halsey), Kevin McCarthy (General Chuck Geller), Cameo Kneuer (Brooke Halsey), Wayne Duvall (Doug Slessinger)
Air Force pilot Colonel Jason Halsey is sent to a session with psychologist Dr Dio Gottlieb. Halsey suffers from amnesia and is unable to remember why he is there or even who he is. Using various techniques, Gottlieb pushes Halsey to remember details of his life. These seem to lead to a crucial moment when Halsey was to test fly Operation Black Magic, a top-secret new stealth plane that had been coated with an invisible plastic.
Final Approach is an interesting oddity. It is a film I had seen littering various videostore shelves for a number of years and had never rented it until I found a copy on a VHS remainder sale. Eventually sitting down to watch Final Approach after so long proves a bewildering experience. It is a genuine reality bender of a film – as much for the fact that you have no idea what to expect before sitting down to watch it. Certainly, the sort of film that Final Approach gives the impression of being bears no resemblance to the finished article.
For 90% of the running time, Final Approach has been construed as a two-person chamber drama between amnesiac Air Force pilot James B. Sikking and psychotherapist Hector Elizondo who employs various methods to get Sikking to remember the details of his life. That is fairly much the sum of the film. There a number of flashbacks to James B. Sikking’s life but all that we learn about the character is that he was a man with a taste for driving/flying fast and otherwise led a very dull life. Sikking, otherwise best known for his role as the redneck SWAT team head on tv’s Hill Street Blues (1981-7), gives a performance that seems more dull and colourless than the part would warrant.
Final Approach puts one off from its opening scene – nearly five minutes of incomprehensible Air Force doubletalk between pilot and controller with the entire sequence being filmed only in closeups on the pilot’s face and the instrumentation, with occasional glimpses of the terrain being flown over but oddly none of the plane itself, nor of the crash and explosion of the plane that ends the sequence. We do however get some external shots of the plane and flying footage later on, which one would swear have been taken from the Clint Eastwood film Firefox (1982).
Unfortunately, neither James B. Sikking, Hector Elizondo, nor director Eric Steven Stahl, manage to engage one much at all in the therapy scenes. The only thing that holds one’s interest during this time is of wanting to know why James B. Sikking is there and what happened to him. The writing and direction, when it is not being dull, has a habit towards the pretentious. The film’s one completely WTF moment is when Hector Elizondo starts acting out the various types of seizure that one can have, which feels like a piece of improv theatre directed and performed by people under the influence of acid.
The biggest question that hangs over Final Approach is “what is the film about?” The video cover, featuring images of a plane and a mysterious picture that seems to feature a corner of the Earth from space with the edge of the sun coming up, accompanied by the legend “It will turn your mind inside out”, gives a strong impression that we are seeing a science-fiction film of an implied conceptual breakthrough nature. The setting appears to be futuristic – Hector Elizondo in a white jumpsuit amid white antiseptic vacuform furniture that was used to represent future settings back in the 1970s. The impression of watching a science-fiction film is bolstered by a good many cryptic flashbacks to scenes of James B. Sikking being told about the ultra-secret nature of the experimental plane he is to fly in briefing sessions and the suggestion that either this secret or the plane’s stealth coating has led Sikking to where he is at the moment. (One of the great frustrations of the eventual revelation is that these flashbacks only end up being misdirection that is of no relevance to the outcome).
We keep expecting the film to arrive at some kind of reality bending ending a la a M. Night Shyamalan film or Open Your Eyes (1997). Throughout the various therapy scenes, a good many potential explanations pass through one’s mind – has James B. Sikking been abducted by UFOs? Is he amid some kind of alien experiment? Has he been snatched through time in some way? Is it some kind of futuristic reality simulation a la Final (2001)?
However, the final revelation of what is going nearly makes one fall out of their seat at the corny absurdity of it. [PLOT SPOILERS]. Here we learn that James B. Sikking is in fact dead, that Hector Elizondo is God and that we are in an afterlife waiting room as Elizondo’s God tries to get Sikking to confront his life. Here Final Approach falls into the theme of a good many films that followed on from An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1961), a short film that featured a soldier miraculously escaping from the hangman’s noose, running home to his wife, before being hung and we realising that all of this was occurring in the seconds before he died.
[FURTHER PLOT SPOILERS]. This twist ending – that strange and unusual happenings are eventually explained by the fact that the protagonist is dead or dying – has been conducted in a good many other films – see the likes of Carnival of Souls (1962), Haunts of the Very Rich (1972), Seizure/Queen of Evil (1974), The Survivor (1981), Sole Survivor (1983), Siesta (1987), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), The Others (2001), Soul Survivors (2001), The Brown Bunny (2003), Dead End (2003), I Pass for Human (2004), Hidden (2005), Reeker (2005), Stay (2005), The Escapist (2008), Passengers (2008), The Haunting of Winchester House (2009), Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009), The Last Seven (2010), Wound (2010), A Fish (2012), Leones (2012), 7500 (2014), The Abandoned/The Confines (2015), Shadow People (2016) and Alone (2017), plus the finale of tv’s Lost (2004-10) and most famously The Sixth Sense (1999). Final Approach has a number of similarities to the French A Pure Formality (1994), which similarly had an amnesiac Gerard Depardieu being interrogated in a police station as to how he came to be there, before revealing that he was dead. (For more detail see Deathdream Endings).
Of all these deathdream twist ending films, Final Approach is one where you spend the last few minutes of the film in frank disbelief at the lameness of the device. Reading through some of the user comments on Final Approach at the Internet Movie Database, there are certainly those that believe the film holds many profundities into the human condition. However, with the combination of a dull James B. Sikking and Hector Elizondo’s madly hopped-up performance that turns God into a supplicating therapist, it is hard to find anything of that nature in the film.
Director Eric Steven Stahl has only made two other films:– Safe House (1998), which has similarities to Final Approach in its story involving Patrick Stewart as a secret agent with oncoming Alzheimer’s who is struggling to remember vital data, and I-See-You.Com (2006), a satire on modern media.
Full film available online here:-