Here’s an interesting “what if…?” for you: What if you took a modern-day United States Navy aircraft carrier, complete with its 5,000-plus person crew and 100-plus jet fighters, and suddenly transported them all to another time in history? And what if that warship, with all its awesome firepower, turned up in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii on December 6, 1941 – the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
That’s the premise of The Final Countdown, a 1980 science fiction film starring Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, James Farentino, Charles Durning, and Katharine Ross. Sound far-fetched? I remember thinking so the first time I watched it – on TV – many years ago. I also remember thinking at the time that the movie was actually pretty good.
I recently found a DVD copy of The Final Countdown at our local used bookstore, so, of course, I decided to buy it. I figured it would be interesting to watch a science fiction movie that was made before the advent of computer generated imagery (CGI) and therefore couldn’t rely solely on spectacular special effects to entertain audiences. Besides, I wanted to see if The Final Countdown would still seem like a “pretty good” movie to me 25 years after I first watched it.
Our story begins in 1980, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The USS Nimitz, one of the U.S. Navy’s newest and most powerful aircraft carriers of that time, has recently departed Pearl Harbor for the open Pacific in order to participate in maneuvers. Her commanding officer is Captain Matthew Yelland (played by Kirk Douglas). His senior officers include Commanders Dan Thurman (Ron O’Neil), and Richard Owens (James Farentino). Also aboard is a civilian systems analyst named Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen).
The ship’s first day at sea is uneventful until a strange electrical vortex suddenly appears and engulfs the ship. The massive “storm” departs as quickly as it arrives, and things aboard the Nimitz appear to return to normal. But the ship’s situation is now anything but “normal.” The aircraft carrier can no longer communicate with its home base at Pearl Harbor. The carrier begins receiving radio broadcasts of news bulletins reporting that the world is once again at war in far-off Europe.
At first Captain Yelland and his senior officers are stupefied. They suspect they may be unwitting participants in some kind of psychological war game, with Lasky there to observe and report their actions and reactions. But Lasky seems to be as much “in the dark” as Yelland, Thurman, and Owens.
Whatever the situation is, Captain Yelland decides to handle it “by the book.” He orders alert fighters aloft to protect the carrier. The fighters’ aircrews soon report the presence of two Japanese Zeroes, “old, but in pristine condition,” in the vicinity. They seem to be preparing for an attack on a nearby civilian yacht.
On board the yacht are Senator Sam Chapman (played by Charles Durning), his administrative assistant Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), and the vessel’s crew. When the Japanese Zeroes attack, everyone on the yacht is killed, except Chapman and Scott, who have jumped into the sea. They watch in amazement from their watery vantage point as the Zeroes are shot down by those F-14s.
The rest of The Final Countdown follows the course of events as Captain Yelland and the crew of the USS Nimitz must decide whether or not they will attempt to thwart the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that they know is coming, thereby altering the course of history.
After viewing The Final Countdown for the first time in nearly 25 years, I am happy to report that I still think it’s a “pretty good” movie. It’s well written and acted, has good solid production values, and is both thought-provoking and fun to watch.
Whenever you see a film that has the likes of Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, and Charles Durning in it, you can be pretty sure the acting is going to be outstanding. The Final Countdown does not disappoint! Not only are Douglas, Sheen, and Durning at their best, but outstanding performances are also delivered by James Farentino and Katharine Ross.
The story line is good, but not outstanding. The premise of a modern-day warship going back 40 years in time was a novel one in its day, but it’s now grown a bit tired and hackneyed. Still, The Final Countdown did a reasonably good job of holding my interest throughout its 1 hour 45 minute run time.
No modern-day science fiction film should be without world-class special and visual effects. This is one area where The Final Countdown was a disappointment. The scenes showing the electrical vortex engulfing the USS Nimitz were positively abysmal, reflecting perhaps the movie’s budgetary constraints. Certainly, three years after the release of the visually dazzling Star Wars, the production team for The Final Countdown should have made an effort to make their film more visually appealing. Other special effects were somewhat better. Scenes of fighters taking off from the Nimitz’s flight deck were excellent, and accurately showed what goes on during aircraft launch operations. The dogfight scenes between the F-14 fighters and Japanese Zeroes were also noteworthy.
MY VERDICT: Twenty-five years ago, I watched The Final Countdown on television and thought it was a “pretty good” movie. That was at a time when CGI was in its infancy and only a very few big-budget blockbuster science fiction/fantasy films were being produced. Now, a quarter of a century later, with CGI the norm and a plethora of science fiction/fantasy films being released every year, The Final Countdown manages to hold its own. Although it now appears a bit dated, it’s still a “pretty good” movie. Enjoy!