For what it tries to be, about the only thing I can find wrong with The Final Countdown is the title. There really is no countdown involved and, even if there were, there would be nothing particularly final about it. We shouldn’t let that hamper our enjoyment about what has to be the best movie ever made about a time-traveling aircraft carrier.
This is one of those movies that would be nothing without its cast, as it depends upon actors with a certain level of gravitas that you need to sell a profoundly silly premise and this film has scored a jackpot in that department.
The story opens with the delivery of civilian efficiency expert, Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), to the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Lasky works for Tideman Industries, a major subcontractor on the carrier but even he isn’t exactly sure why he happens to be on board for this voyage. The captain, Matt Yellend (Kirk Douglas), is annoyed that his ship was delayed just to get this civilian on board. The carrier’s air wing commander (CAG), Dick Owens (James Farentino), is annoyed to find Lasky snooping around his research for a book his writing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Everyone is not so much annoyed as seriously inconvenienced when a freak storm appears to wipe out all of the Nimitz’s communications. The only radio signals they can pick up appear to be nostalgia broadcasts of Jack Benny’s radio show.
They begin to wonder what actually happened. Is it an exercise? Soviet first strike? A recon flight over Pearl Harbor reveals what appear to be eight battleships lined up along Ford Island and the U.S. Navy hasn’t had more than four battleships in more than thirty years. At the time this film was made, we hadn’t had any since the Vietnam War.
The only thing on the radar turns out to be a well-preserved yacht, vintage 1930s, which becomes considerably less well-preserved when it is strafed to pieces by a pair of equally well-preserved Japanese Zero fighters. In one of the more bizarre dogfight sequences in movie history, the Zeroes are chased off and shot down by two of the Nimitz’s Tomcat fighters. Their rescue helicopters pluck four survivors out of the water, including one of the Japanese pilots and the dog off the yacht. Commander Owens is stunned to realize that the human survivors from the yacht consist of Laurel Scott (Katherine Ross) and her boss, Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning), who is supposed to disappear without a trace right before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Had he lived, he probably would have been Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944 and become President when FDR died in 1945.
The evidence is all pointing toward one unbelievable conclusion and another reconnaissance flight confirms that there is a Japanese task force right where one is supposed to be on December 6, 1941. This presents them with an obvious choice about what to do. Amateur historian Commander Owens argues against tampering with history but the ship’s excitable executive officer, Commander Thurman (Ron O’Neal), only knows that there is a hostile force out there, intending to attack the United States, and they have the firepower to stop it before it happens. Needless to say, we wouldn’t have much of a movie if the captain listens to Owens.
You might have noticed that, even though Martin Sheen is the effectively the star of this movie, I haven’t mentioned his character much during my synopsis. This is because Warren Lasky doesn’t actually do much in the course of the movie. He is really just a passive observer through most of what happens during the story. There is an artificial conflict between him and Commander Owens injected into the plot but it feels forced and unnecessary. This is probably the main weakness of the story and could have been fixed easily by simply taking Commander Owens’ point-of-view and giving it to Lasky. Make him the amateur historian who argues against tampering with events that have already happened and his character suddenly has an actual role in the story.
This weakness aside, The Final Countdown plays out like a pretty nifty episode of the original Twilight Zone, complete with a required twist at the ending. The presence of actors like Douglas, Sheen, Durning and Ross do give it a level of credibility it absolutely needs. Without them, this could easily have been something like one of those cheesy movies that the Sci-Fi Channel runs on Saturday night.
One could make the case that the film is a bit longer than the plot requires, with a lot of screen time consumed by Gratuitous Shots of Really Cool Naval Hardware in Action™. Of course, the audience to which this movie was undoubtedly meant to appeal would have felt rather cheated without lots of Gratuitous Shots of Really Cool Naval Hardware in Action™. As a member of that target audience, I appreciated both them and the rest of the movie as well.