The Final Countdown (1980) — The U.S. Navy gets caught in a time paradox puzzle box

“If the United States falls under attack, our job is to defend her in the past, present, and future.”

Chad’s rating: I’ve traveled back in time to write this review. Twice.

Chad’s review: The idea of time travel has long been a Hollywood staple. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which hypothesizes that traveling through time has its basis in science, has proved fertile ground for many filmmakers. Of course, when you dabble in time travel, you run the risk of the dreaded time paradox, the contradicting cause and effect within a timeline that few films have managed to dramatize effectively. Not to mention inducing a migraine when you start thinking about the endless possibilities.

The original Terminator by James Cameron is still a clever time paradox film, where John Connor must send his father back to 1984 to fall in love with Sarah Connor so he can be birthed. A more comical approach was the Back to the Future trilogy, particularly the second installment, which has time paradox stacked on time paradox, causing the plot to go off the rails. I would place The Final Countdown as an early and effective exploration of the time paradox theory wrapped up in a B-movie premise.

Released in 1980, The Final Countdown follows Warren Lasky, a Department of Defense assistant assigned to the U.S.S. Nimitz by his mysterious boss Richard Tideman. He’s given vague instructions to “observe the routines” of the heavily armed aircraft carrier commanded by the prickly Captain Yelland. As they head out to sea off the coast of Hawaii, the USS Nimitz is engulfed by a strange electrical storm that sends them back in time nearly 40 years. The date? December 6th,1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The crew manages to gather evidence that they have indeed returned to 1941, including saving Senator Chapman and his assistant Laurel Scott after Japanese Zeros destroyed their motorboat. Chapman and Laurel are stunned by the advanced weaponry on display, which poses a tantalizing proposition to the crew of U.SS. Nimitz. Since they are near the Japanese fleet that will cause America’s “day of infamy,” why not intervene so they can save the 2,400 souls that will perish in just a few hours? Captain Yelland states they are under orders to protect the United States, regardless of the timeframe. But Lasky warns that such a drastic intervention would change the war’s outcome and, where you guessed it, the possibility of a time paradox on this new timeline.

This is a grounded and low-key exploration of the pitfalls of time travel, and the film mostly pulls it off. I was impressed that the project attracted some big names, with screen legend Kirk Douglass joined by Martin Sheen and Kathrine Ross. I also enjoyed James Farentino, who went on to star on TV’s Dynasty as the ship’s CAG, Richard Owens. It’s a treat to see these prominent stars doing this high concept film. And they all give grounded and naturalistic performances that help audiences buy into the scifi trappings of the production.

The Final Countdown has a slow burn pace, much like an episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s a contained film, with nearly all the action taking place on the U.S.S. Nimitz, showing the crew slowly realizing their predicament. Although we do get an exciting sequence of two F-14 fighter jets taking on a pair of Japanese Zeros, along with a few cutaway scenes to the 1941 characters of Senator Chapman and Laurel. Otherwise, most of the movie is focused on Lasky, Owens, and the rest of the crew trying to figure out who or what has sent them to this historic date.

The production was made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy, with many real-life crew members playing background characters and bit parts. While much of the technology on display is outdated, the film effectively shows the inner workings of an actual aircraft carrier, lending this scifi tale an air of authenticity. I just wish director Don Taylor, whose credits include Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Damien: Omen II, had more of a visual flair behind the camera, as the movie has a simple, workman-like style. It makes one appreciate the talents of Tony Scott, who directed the iconic 1986 hit Top Gun like a music video, giving that film a propulsive, propaganda-style kick.

While I applaud the movie’s sober, realistic tone, the film desperately needed some of that wild Maverick energy. Instead, we have Martin Sheen, looking bored and sleepwalking through his performance. This was one of his first productions following Apocalypse Now, so maybe he was still recovering from that film’s notoriously hellish shoot. Also, there is compelling drama to mine from the question of whether we should intervene in world-altering events and the power that would unleash. But the film takes the easy way out, with the mystery electrical storm reappearing in the nick of (ahem) time and returning our heroes to 1980.

And there’s a fun, brain-tease side effect when watching this production with 2023 eyes. The movie is now 43 years old, longer than the 39 years between 1980 and the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Yet the U.S.S. Nimitz tech still looks familiar to our modern-day standards. But when Chapman and Laurel stare in awe at the jet fighters battling the archaic Zero planes, you realize how radically the world changed since World War II. Thanks to the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union, the advances in jet propulsion technology made leaps and bounds that still reverberate today.

The Final Countdown is a fun, smartly written time travel puzzle box. It’s also a time capsule of the U.S. Navy during the final decade of the cold war. There’s not much filmmaking ambition as it plays its high concept cards close to the vest. But I was genuinely surprised by the film’s final shot, one I won’t reveal here, that solves the time paradox riddle of why Lasky was placed on the U.S.S. Nimitz. Just have a bottle of aspirin handy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s