Time Travel Thursday: The Final Countdown (1980)
Time travel tropes6
Bit with a dog5
Matthew Turner | On 28, Apr 2022
Director: Don Taylor
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, James Farentino, Charles Durning, Katharine Ross
Has Boss Level whetted your appetite for more time travel titilation? Transport yourself no further than Time Travel Thursday, our column devoted to time travel movies. It’s on Thursday.
The plot of this 1980 time travel thriller is essentially The Philadelphia Experiment in reverse. Made four years later, in 1984, that film saw a 1940s warship transported through time into the 1980s. Here, the plot is the exact opposite. However, while The Final Countdown gains points for its Hollywood star power, it feels like a lost opportunity.
The film begins in 1980, with civilian systems analyst Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) boarding the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to observe a standard naval exercise for his enigmatic, unseen boss, Mr Tideman. Under the command of Captain Yelland (Kirk Douglas), the ship begins its mission in the Pacific Ocean, but a mysterious storm appears and a glowing, crackling circle in the sky transports the ship through a time vortex.
Through radio transmissions and aerial photography, the crew of the Nimitz deduce that they have travelled back in time to 6th December 1941, the day before the attack on Pearl Harbour. After rescuing two civilians (Charles Durning and Katharine Ross, plus her very cute dog) who were bombed by Japanese planes, Yelland and his crew have a dilemma on their hands – should they attempt to change the course of history by intercepting the approaching Japanese fleet?
In addition to the time vortex – a not particularly exciting special effect – the film gets in a couple of decent time travel tropes, especially considering the majority of the film takes place aboard the ship. For example, the first clue that the Nimitz has travelled through time is that the radio suddenly starts broadcasting The Jack Benny Show, and later news bulletins about the war. Similarly, you get the reverse angle on the trope, as Durning and Ross’ characters (who have government connections) are stunned to see F-14 jet fighters in the sky.
For a moment, the script looks like it’s really getting to grips with its concept, as Sheen’s Lasky and history buff Commander Owens (James Farentino) argue about time paradoxes and whether or not time is fixed. However, it turns out that neither of those characters are actually prepared to say “Hey, you know what, maybe we shouldn’t actually prevent Pearl Harbour”, so there’s no sense of threat or tension in the potential repercussions of Yelland’s actions.
Ultimately, the plot is frustrating, as the ideas are clearly there but never properly followed through. For instance, it’s established that Durning’s character (a Senator) disappeared the day before Pearl Harbour and would have gone on to become President had he survived, but the script never gets close to suggesting that his continued existence might pose a catastrophic threat to the future.
On a similar note, Yelland initially baulks at intervening when the Japanese planes attack Durning’s yacht, but he then orders the planes shot down, with nobody piping up to point out that they’d be messing with history in a pretty big way. Basically, the Nimitz has an entire crew of people who have clearly never heard of the butterfly effect.
Ultimately, the film seems much more interested in showcasing its military hardware than engaging with the implications of its plot, which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that the production secured the full co-operation of the United States Navy and the United States Department of Defense. In fact, the overall impression is that key parts of the script got jettisoned altogether in favour of what comes close to a commercial for the Navy.
A number of further irritations reinforce that impression. The first is that the time vortex appears to actively intercede when Yelland is attempting to prevent Pearl Harbour by attacking the Japanese fleet, suggesting that Time itself is resisting change, broadly in line with Owens’ argument. However, the implications of that are never discussed, which is doubly annoying as it also suggests the time vortex had a reason for transporting them in the first place. Similarly, it’s established that the time vortex induces crippling agony while the crew are passing through it, yet the still-in-flight planes apparently pass through it with no consequence for the pilots. Finally, there’s no sense of what the audience is supposed to take away from the ending. Also, at the risk of sounding churlish, there’s no actual countdown, final or otherwise.