Testament (1983) DVD Review: Still Waiting for the World to Deserve It

Every single time one of my patented and less-than-stellar efforts at conversing with a fellow human being in the interest of that mysterious dating thing occurs – and subsequently fails – I often find myself devoting a fraction of my imagination and time to the possibility that somewhere, in an alternate timeline, it succeeded. This, of course, opens up the floodgates to a variety of silliness on my part, wherein I ponder what might have happened to world had various individuals and places taken different paths than the ones we know and remember them for today.

And I’m not the only one; authors and screenwriters alike have been using ideas based on alternate realities within the realms of science fiction for decades now. A quick peek at Paramount’s Star Trek reboot franchise should indicate that. When I sat down to watch Testament for the first time, I felt as if I had taken a trip back in time to my childhood to the glorious 1980s – wherein the threat of nuclear war loomed around each and every corner. But instead of returning to the present reality we currently reside in (well, most of us), had inadvertently taken that wrong turn at Albuquerque that Bugs Bunny always warned us about.

Based on Carol Amen’s story The Last Testament, the feature film version with the slightly-abridged title (a case of “Let’s not confuse and/or offend the Christians”, perhaps?) depicts the aftereffects of nuclear war on a small suburban town on the outskirts of San Francisco. San Francisco itself has been levelled (there’s a Gideon Blake joke lurking somewhere in the obscure movie reference underworld there, kids), and communication with the outside world – as well as the power – is gone. At the core of the story is actress Jane Alexander, whose dynamic performance as Carol Wetherly earned her a deserved Oscar nomination (which went to Shirley MacLaine for the overrated Terms of Endearment instead).

When the blinding flash of light appears, Carol’s husband (William Devane, the straight man’s Paul Lynde) was supposed to be on his way home from San Francisco (uh-oh). Left to tend to her three children (Ross Harris, Roxana Zal, and Lukas Haas – who made his film debut here as, naturally, the weird kid) as her community comes to grips with their fate, Carol and Co. must also deal with what very well may be mankind’s last stand as nuclear fallout begins to spread its dark, unforgiving wings over the countryside. Eventually, all signs of hope begin to dissolve, but director Lynne Littman and writer John Sacret Young aptly employ the quintessential element any story such as this needs in order to make it: humanity. All the while forsaking the usage of costly (not to mention distracting) special effects and tired old explanations of who’s responsible for the off-screen atomic apocalypse.

As Testament draws nigh, anyone who can vividly remember the fear of nuclear war during the ’80s begins to not see this as a testimony (sorry) of what might have happened, but rather what could have happened (and there is a difference). Also appearing in this feature – which was originally conceived for PBS Playhouse before being deemed cinema-worthy fare (and was subsequently aired on public television) – are the great Leon Ames, Mako (Iwamatsu), and very young versions of Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay as a couple whose futures are so bright, they should wear shades.

Testament was originally released by Paramount on DVD in 2004, before going out of print some time later. Thankfully, the Warner Archive Collection has saw fit to re-issue this title under their own label, though the only differences between this release and the old one is the artwork on the disc itself. The matted 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation with mono English sound and subtitles are the same, as are the three bonus items – a twenty-years-on featurette with cast and crew among them. And it’s more than OK with me that nothing has changed as far as that goes, as Testament is a very powerful, moving film – one that will linger in the back of your mind for a long, long time.

If this one fails to stir a single emotion within you, you probably aren’t human. Or you just slipped in from an alternate reality where feelings were outlawed, one or the other.

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Luigi Bastardo

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