Def-Con 4 (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (23rd June 2019).
The Film

Def-Con 4 (Paul Donovan, 1985)

Synopsis:
As part of the Nemesis programme, a three-man space station orbits the Earth loaded with nuclear warheads. The intention is that these will be fired upon an enemy in the case of an attack on the United States, thus ensuring mutually-assured destruction. The three crew members are: computer programmer Howe (Tim Choate); medical doctor Jordan (Kate Lynch); and Walker (John Walsch), the leader of the mission. Howe receives regular video recordings from his family: his wife Alice (Donna King), his sister and his baby. However, as the mission is top secret, Howe is unable to reply to these messages, and Howe’s family are unsure whether he is still alive or, if he is, where he is stationed.

The crew of the Nemesis capsule watch helplessly when news breaks that Russia has fired nuclear missiles at the United States following a missile being fired at Moscow from a US naval ship – which may or may not have been commandeered by Libyan terrorists or African rebels. Life on earth is eradicated. Howe suggests they should land and try to find their loved ones, but Walker overrides him. When the computer aboard the Nemesis capsule is hacked and the capsule programmed to land, the crew jettison the bombs, setting them to detonate in 60 hours. However, one of the bombs becomes stuck in its tube.

The pod lands – or, rather, crashes. During the rough landing, Jordan is concussed. Howe tries to dig his way out of the capsule but is grabbed by someone – or something – outside. Walker manages to free Howe but at the cost of his own life. Howe is helpless as Walker is dragged outside to an unknown fate, Walker’s severed hand thrown back in to the capsule.

Time passes, and as night falls Howe makes a break for it, leaving a recording for Jordan warning her of the potential dangers outside. Sneaking through the landscape, Howe comes across a group of men butchering and cooking Walker’s corpse. Howe flees but is caught in a trap set by survivalist Vinny (Maury Chaykin), whose home is surrounded with booby traps which protect him from the cannibals, who Vinny calls ‘terminals’, that now roam the landscape. Vinny has another captive, a young woman named J J (Lenore Zann). Howe offers Vinny some of the food supplies aboard the Nemesis capsule in exchange for his freedom and a weapon, but Vinny refuses. However, Vinny changes his mind when Howe lets slip that a woman, Jordan, is aboard the Nemesis capsule. Vinny proposes that Howe hand over Jordan and the food, and afterwards Vinny will allow Howe to go free. Vinny, Howe and J J head towards the capsule in Vinny’s modified farm vehicle. However, the vehicle is trapped by a group of people that Vinny describes as ‘the lunatics from Fort Liswell’, who capture Vinny, Howe and J J.

At Fort Liswell, Howe is introduced to Gideon (Kevin King), a sadistic young navy brat who rules Fort Liswell with an iron fist. Howe learns that Gideon, with the assistance of his second-in-command Lacey (Jeff Pustil), railroaded the paralysed computer whiz Boomer (Alan MacGillivray) into hacking the software on the Nemesis capsule, causing it to fall to Earth. Howe also discovers that Gideon has found both the capsule and Jordan, taking the latter captive. Gideon needs the capsule because its computer can tell Gideon where an active survival station – where Gideon and Lacey will be safe from the radiation – is located. However, the nuclear warhead stuck in the tube of the Nemesis capsule is counting down towards certain doom.

Critique: Def-Con 4 (‘Defense Condition 4’) is a film of several genres, with three distinct segments, each of which takes place in a very different story-space. The film begins as a chamber play of sorts featuring a small cast (Howe, Jordan and Walker) in a confined space (the ‘Nemesis’ capsule). This portion of the film features some naturalistic dialogue between the crew of the ‘Nemesis’ capsule; this naturalistic dialogue marks the picture as being made post-Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), the dialogue seemingly mindful of the similarly lowkey conversations between the crew of the Nostromo in that picture. When the capsule lands on Earth, the film suddenly takes a turn into the territory of the post-apocalyptic science fiction films that were popular during the early and mid-1980s – from Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) to the various riffs on the Mad Max formula (for example, Enzo G Castellari’s 1990: The Bronx Warriors, 1982). When Howe encounters Vinny’s heavily fortified home, defended with booby traps, tripwire explosives and punji sticks, the film also alludes to the iconography of films about the Vietnam War. (The implication is that Vinny is a veteran of that particular war.) Finally, the story moves to Fort Liswell, when Howe, J J, Jordan and Vinny are captured by Gideon’s crew. There, the film becomes something slightly different – moving into an examination of a post-apocalyptic society that is rapidly reverting back to a feudalist state. These jarring shifts in focus and location, and the lack of a strong narrative trajectory (from the moment the bombs drop, we know that protagonist Howe’s family are most likely dead so there’s no chance of reunion with them), can make Def-Con 4 seem unfocused and episodic in its structure, and this is a criticism that has often been levelled against the picture.

Via its depiction of the Nemesis programme, which seems to consist of a manned capsule orbiting the Earth that is able to fire on enemies of the United States in the case of a nuclear war – thus ensuring a path of Mutually-Assured Destruction – Def-Con 4 takes place firmly at the fag end of the Cold War, in a decade that was dominated by talk of Reagan’s Star Wars programme (SDI/Space Defence Initiative). Certainly, a number of other pictures of the 1980s focused on the role of new technological warfare within the context of Cold War tensions – from the computerised warfare of John Badham’s WarGames (1983) to the military robots of Badham’s later Short Circuit (1986). It’s not a stretch to include James Cameron’s original The Terminator (1984) – whose chief antagonist is Skynet, the sentient computer defence programme built for the US military by Cyberdyne Systems – within this paradigm. Certainly, like those other films – which show defence technology running amok or betraying its programming – Def-Con 4 displays a profound cynicism towards the Nemesis programme. The film opens with a title card that, with deliberate irony, reads: ‘It is the day after tomorrow. The ultimate nuclear defense system has been perfected. Security has been achieved. Global conflict is now unthinkable’. Certainly, the Nemesis programme is not a sufficient deterrent to America’s enemies launching nuclear missiles against the United States: they do so anyway, in retaliation for a missile (with a dud warhead) being launched from an American ship and landing near Moscow. (The news broadcasts Howe listens to claims that the missile was fired after the American naval ship was commandeered by pirates from Libya or perhaps an African rebel group.) The Nemesis capsule, it turns out, is also capable of being hacked from Earth: Gideon orders Boomer to hack the programme, sending the capsule spiralling back to Earth.

Like many post-apocalyptic films – especially the post-Mad Max Italian exploitation movies such as the aforementioned 1990: The Bronx Warriors and its sequel, and Joe D’Amato’s Endgame (1983) – Def-Con 4 suggests strongly that after nuclear holocaust, survivors will resort to feudal, almost feral, behaviour. This is underscored by how quickly the surviving men resort to chauvinistic and cruel treatment of women. Vinny keeps J J in his cellar, presumably subjecting her to all sorts of abuse, and upon discovering that a female (Dr Jordan) has survived the Nemesis capsule’s crash, Vinny’s first question to Howe concerns the colour of Jordan’s areolas. Vinny then bargains with Howe, offering Howe his freedom in exchange for handing over Dr Jordan and the food supply of the Nemesis capsule. Similarly, in Fort Liswell, when Jordan is held prisoner Lacey roughly grabs her breast and whispers to her, ‘The rules have changed’. Other regressive behaviours are evidenced by the ‘terminals’: in the vicinity in which the Nemesis capsule lands, at the very least, the survivors are split between those who practice cannibalism – having seemingly reverted to very primitive behaviour (including, apparently, losing any sense of language) – and the more hierarchical society, ruled by the threat of violence, that has taken root in Fort Liswell. This society is presided over by Gideon, a former ‘Navy brat’ who survived the bomb because he was airlifted from his school, along with his then-girlfriend J J, in a military helicopter commandeered by his father. (The helicopter subsequently crashed, leaving only a handful of survivors – Gideon, Lacey, J J and the paralysed Boomer.) The character of Gideon seems designed to skewer the authoritarian rhetoric of the Reagan era: ‘Come on, J J’, Gideon protests when J J calls him a ‘snake’, ‘You think I’m being ruthless because I want to be. It’s the only way to administer limited resources in an unstable situation’. Gideon arranges a kangaroo court to pass judgement on Howe, Jordan, Vinny and J J, accusing Howe and Jordan of ‘crimes against humanity’, and charging J J with treason. Of course, the crowd find them guilty, leading Gideon to stage a public execution of the quartet, the inhabitants of Fort Liswell cheering like a medieval audience attending the execution of a group of heretics.

The film begins with Howe separated from his loved ones. He cannot communicate with them because his mission is top secret. His wife, who sends messages to Howe via video recordings, has resigned herself to not being able to converse with Howe, saying in one of the videos that ‘It’s like you’re dead and I’ve gotten over it [….] I’ve decided that you are dead. I’ve put that in my mind so I won’t be too disappointed when you don’t come back’. Arguably, the film’s most impactful moment comes when, whilst the Nemesis capsule is still orbiting the Earth, Howe receives an audio recording from his wife that describes the after-effects of the nuclear explosions. Howe discovers that his sister was blinded when she witnessed the detonation, and both Howe’s sister and wife are suffering from radiation sickness. Howe’s baby similarly exhibited signs of radiation sickness and was shot, her body burned. These revelations, delivered simply by the human voice, are much more impactful than showing this devastation onscreen would be.

Video

The 1080p presentation of Def-Con 4 uses the AVC codec and fills approximately 23.8Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc. The film is presented uncut, with a running time of 87:55 mins. This presentation uses the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Shot on 35mm colour stock, the photography in Def-Con 4 is often fairly ‘flat’ and uninspiring. There are some interesting shots here and there, mostly involving judicious use of coloured lighting during the low light scenes and a few inspirational moments which frame the actors as silhouettes against a subtly luminescent backdrop. However, the bulk of the film unfolds in economical mid-shots. It’s not a poorly-photographed picture by any stretch of the imagination, but simply an economically-photographed film.

Much of the film takes place at night or in fairly low light settings, and it seems a fast-ish colour stock with a fairly coarse grain structure was used. Detail is pleasing throughout this presentation, with fine detail being present throughout. Contrast levels are good: midtones are defined, and there is sometimes a sharp fall-off into the toe with some shadow detail feeling very slightly ‘crushed’. The presentation is apparently sourced from the interpositive, and this can be deduced through the slightly coarse grain structure and the sometimes mildly crushed blacks that are present here – all suggesting a source removed from the original negative by a stop or two. Colours are consistent and naturalistic. Finally, the encode to disc presents no problems and ensures the presentation retains a filmlike appearance.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.



Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track. This is rich and deep, functioning well in the action scenes. Good range is on display throughout the film. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read, accurate and error-free.

Extras

The disc includes:
- ‘Brave New World’ (9:45). Michael Spence, the film’s associate editor, talks about his work with New World Pictures. Spence discusses his journey from still photography to film editing. Spence began by working on television shows such as The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, assembling teasers for various programmes before progressing to editing the shows themselves. After this, Spence moved on to working on features with New World Pictures, assembling trailers. One of Spence’s jobs at New World was re-editing pictures to make them more viable for distribution. Def-Con 4 was one such picture, a Canadian film bought by New World for distribution which needed some attention in the editing to ‘make it better for their sales’.

- ‘Nemesis Descending’ (11:07). Christopher Young talks about the music he composed for Def-Con 4, reflecting on his association with New World Pictures which began with providing the score for the trailer for The Philadelphia Experiment in 1984. Young discusses some of the other New World projects on which he worked before examining in detail the music he composed for Def-Con 4.

- Interview with Chris Poggiali (16:30). Critic Chris Poggiali offers a potted history of New World Pictures that encompasses the origins of the company and explores some of the personnel associated with it.

- Trailer (1:40).

Overall

Def-Con 4 is an interesting film though it is one which is, admittedly, unfocused and inconsistent. The first third of the film, set aboard the Nemesis capsule, is handled very well – the naturalistic dialogue between the crewmates aboard the Nemesis capsule is well-observed and the tensions between Walker, Howe and Jordan expressed sensitively. As Earth faces nuclear annihilation, the effects of the news broadcasts upon the crew are explored efficiently, and the message Howe receives from his wife detailing the effects of the nuclear detonations on Earth – including the death of Howe’s child – shows that less is truly more: this moment is so impactful because it is played out through a description delivered solely by the human voice, the filmmakers having the confidence to allow the horror of this outcome to play out solely in the imagination of the viewer, the impact of these words consolidated by Howe’s onscreen reaction. However, when the crew land on Earth this approach is abandoned and the film substitutes subtlety for something bordering on high camp – from the attack of the cannibalistic ‘terminals’ to the atavistic and authoritarian society within Fort Liswell. In these sequences, the film draws on the paradigms of Mad Max and the other post-apocalyptic movies of the 1980s, but in Howe the film lacks a protagonist like Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky – Howe has little to do but escape the vicinity of the impending explosion of the warhead that remains stuck in the Nemesis capsule, and a number of times he makes decisions that, are at best, highly questionable and, at worst, threaten to undermine the audience’s identification with him.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of Def-Con 4 contains a satisfyingly filmlike presentation of the film. The contextual material, including the interviews with editor Michael Spence and composer Christopher Young, focuses on Def-Con 4 only tangentially (Spence admits that he recalls fairly little about the work he was asked to do on this specific picture) but offers a fascinating insight into the approach of New World Pictures.

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