Thursday, August 28, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Final Countdown (1980)

Imagine, for just a moment, that you could travel back in time seven years to the morning of September 11, 2001 - in an armed jet fighter. Say you should happen by Manhattan, around morning rush hour. A passenger jet -- no, two! -- are barreling towards the Twin Towers.

What would you do? Utilize the technology at your disposal to prevent a full-scale national tragedy? Or "preserve" the flow of history as we have already experienced it...and sit on your hands. Doing nothing.

That's the debate, essentially, that informs this clever 1980 science fiction film, The Final Countdown. The narrative concerns the "modern" nuclear air-craft carrier, U.S.S, Nimitz, as it is mysteriously hurled back in time to December 6, 1941 -- immediately preceding the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The ship's captain, Yelland (Kirk Douglas), recovering from the "storm" that has sent the ship backwards forty years, debates with his officers about what his next task might be. Should he prepare for battle with Japanese Zeroes and the naval task force in wait? Or should he set course for calm waters and let history repeat itself?

On board the ship is a civilian named Mr. Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), an advisor and consultant for the Tideman Company, which built the Nimitz. Lasky is the first and most adamant to suggest that the ship's movement through time is real; not some trick or war game scenario. More than that, he believes strongly that every tactical and national mistake from 1941-1980 could be undone by the presence of the militarily-superior Nimitz in the past. Imagine it: Hitler would be defeated in hours, not years. There would be no reason to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, because the ship (and the numerous jet air craft it carries...) could make short work of any mid-20th century war machine. The Cold War might never have happened either, with America getting a forty year head-start on new military technology.

Another officer, the CAG, Commander Owen (James Farentino), has been - conveniently - writing a novel about Pearl Harbot and so just happens to have a lot of information about this time period at his command. He is in favor on non-interference. Owen is especially concerned that the Nimitz has rescued at sea one Senator Chapman (Charles Durning) and his assistant, Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), because Chapman could be the next Vice President of the United States. History records he disappeared on December 6, 1941...what would happen if he survived? (And if Harry Truman didn't assume the Presidency?) In Owen's argument, we're asked to countenance the idea that time unfolds in a certain way for certain reasons, and that it is best to step-aside and let the tides of time have their way.

I love these time paradoxes, and The Final Countdown, directed by Don Taylor, has some wonderful fun playing with time travel concepts. I have to admit that amongst all the characters and viewpoints, I admire most the pragmatism of Captain Yelland. He balances Owen and Lasky well. He doesn't need to know the "whys" "hows" or "what for." His job, as he sees it, is to defend America - anytime, anywhere - and to make decisions in "the here and now." That might sound like tunnel vision, but there's a certain clarity to it. Especially because there's no guarantee the Nimitz can return to the 1980s. Everybody else seems paralyzed, afraid to act, but Yelland weighs everything intelligently...and chooses. I felt a patriotic chill when Yelland, selecting his course of action, issued the order: "Splash the Zeroes!"

The Final Countdown also tends to hint at a deeper universe than it actively explains or depicts, which is an approach I always prefer. Ambiguity can do wonders for building tension in a screenplay, and here it is the enigmatic nature of the "time storm" that is left deliberately unresolved. In one creepy moment near the end of the film, it is revealed that the time storm is actually following The Nimitz across the sea; as though it boasts an intelligence and purpose. There's no follow-up to this throwaway line, but the notion of a "phenomenon" with sentience is tantalizing.

My biggest problem with The Final Countdown is that it ultimately doesn't boast the courage of its convictions. Yelland makes a fateful decision, to defend the United States and go to war with the Japanese. In other words, he has decided to change all of modern history and undo the "day that will live in infamy." He commits his planes, his men and his ship to the cause. But then, the pesky time storm returns and takes the Nimitz back to 1980 before the battle can be joined. This anti-climax smacks of a deus ex machina, no question about it. It reduces the entire movie, essentially, to a hypothetical question rather than a practical application of the scenario. Had I been writing the screenplay, I would have followed through all the way and permitted the men and women of the Nimitz to see the ramifications of their actions; to live in the "brave new world" their actions created. Alas, that's not what occurs.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a very cool twist at the end of the film, involving the Tideman Company, the design and construction of the Nimitz, and Commander Owen's fate. But still, even this personal resolution feels like we're getting the icing and not the cake. I wanted the damned cake. I wanted to see modern jets (with their guided missiles), blowing the outmatched, surprised zeroes to smithereens. Not because I'm anti-Japanese or anything, but because this "attack" is the promise of the movie; the very "what if" scenario we want to see. The Final Countdown doesn't deliver that, and so there's an undeniable disappointment factor here.

Another concern: The Final Countdown (1980) often plays like a protracted advertisement for the U.S. Navy. The film apparently elicited the support of the military, and yay for that. The film seems very authentic in military procedures and so forth. But how many times do we need to see planes launching and landing on the air craft carrier deck? It is a time consuming process and grows incredibly tiresome by the third or fourth go-round. The obsessive focus on the hardware does something inimical to the film. It shorts some essential human aspect of the story, in my opinion. Again, I would have loved to see the Nimitz in battle; or the jets in aerial combat. What I'm discussing here is not my preferred denouement, but rather the rote, routine launches and landings, which are...snooze-worthy. The Final Countdown needed a good editor. Seriously, you could lop off about ten minutes of "tech" stuff in the film and have a taut, engaging movie instead of an occasionally dull one.

I understand, of course, that the film was made in the late 1970s, when American military muscle was taking a beating around the world, and Iranians were holding American hostages, dampening our national morale. The country felt impotent to a large degree (paving the way for the ascent of jingoistic Reagan), so it is understandable that The Final Countdown focuses so much on our impressive military hardware. It's always nice to strut, but it still isn't very dramatic in human terms.

Finally, I want to return to the possibility I posed at the beginning of this post. What if you flew through that time storm on or around September 11th, 2001? After years of watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, I suppose I subscribed unthinkingly to the idea that you shouldn't "disrupt the timeline." However, considering The Final Countdown, Yelland's decision, and recent American history, I truly feel differently today. In other words, I would interfere. I would disrupt the timeline. Absolutely. I'd shoot down the three planes (as terrible as that sounds), and prevent at least some of the devastation of 9/11. Just think: several thousand lives would be saved, and though the hijacking (and shoot down) would still be incredibly traumatic, it would not be so traumatic that we - as a nation - would feel it necessary to bloody the nose of a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with the attack. In other words, I think the Bush Administration would have rightly pushed for retaliation in Afghanistan (against Bin Laden), but would not have been able to so easily sell the American people on an invasion and occupation of Iraq if the towers had not fallen. And that would certainly be a historical "plus," don't you think?

I believe Yelland makes the right decision in The Final Countdown. It's just a shame he isn't able to execute the battle.


  1. Anonymous11:19 AM

    Hello Mr. Muir, I've surfed across your writings a number of times over the years and appreciate many of your insights. I agree with you that "The Final Countdown" welshed on the big event, but it's not by an means a bad film.

    I thought however, that you might appreciate a more philosophical & intellectual version that comes from the *Japanese* end of things-

    Not sure if you're up on anime, but I think this is definitely one of the better ones to come out in the past decade.

    I find the contrast between the american execution of the concept, "We gotta beat those japs, HooRah!", and the Japanese, "Who *are* the good guys? Who should we support?!" to be very telling about our two cultures. Especially since 30 years after TFC, we've probably become even *less* reflective...

  2. There is something to be said about script approval if you want to illicit the cooperation of the US military. There is a possibility that in some original version of this film, there was indeed engagement. But the late 70's was a tricky time geopolitically and who knows if, for whatever reasons being stated, that the film was forbidden to show the US Navy engaging a imperial Japan, Japanese sensitivities about their actions in WWII being what they are. (They just recently acknowledged the Rape of NanKing). I don't know this, of course, it is just a possibility. I love time travel films, they always, well...usually, make you think about what-if.

  3. If Yelland's attack had been able to proceed, the annihilation of Nagumo's fleet would have created a massive "butterfly effect" that would have undone the evolution of US naval aviation. The Nimitz herself might have vanished like Marty McFly almost does in "Back to the Future."

    Also, as "Zipang" ably demonstrates, a futuristic ship in an earlier time era would have become hot property. Yelland is depicted as being willing to have the Nimitz be put at the disposal of the 1940s navy, but what if The Powers that Be had gotten greedy and decided to have the Nimitz attack Soviet Russia as well as Japan and Germany? The chaos would have been worthy of what happens in "Zipang."


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