The scenario and set-up are almost perfect for an alternative history science fiction story: a fully loaded modern (in 1979) aircraft carrier on maneuvers outside Pearl Harbor is, through some anomalous storm, thrust back in time. The date, December 6th, 1941. It’s a ship with enough planes and firepower to perhaps single-handedly defeat the incoming Japanese war fleet and prevent the disaster that forced the United States into the Second World War.
And for much of The Final Countdown‘s runtime, the story moves the pieces into position to be that perfect alternate history science fiction story. The set-up is deftly handled: a department of defense contractor, a civilian, is placed on board the Nimitz. He’s there to observe and report, with the innocuous and not entirely believable title of “efficiency expert.” But the captain of the ship knows that he’s in the employ of a shadowy and reclusive businessman, Mr. Tideman, who has connections to the defense department. His presence on the ship is a mystery, and then a storm hits and the Nimitz suddenly finds itself alone in a previously populated ocean. No one’s on radio contact. The only thing they can get on any bandwidth is AM radio broadcasts, and they’re all ancient.
Tensions rise between the civilian, Lassky, and Captain Yelland. Played respectively by Martin Sheen and Kirk Douglas, they bring both charisma and conviction to some pretty utilitarian dialogue. But the jist is something strange has happened. No one knows what it is, and everyone is suspicious. Yelland doesn’t trust Lassky. The ship’s lower decks know the officers aren’t telling them something, and it might be that war has broken out. And the information the ship can get, from its observational and intelligence flights, paints a picture that’s as convincing as it is unbelievable. They’re back in time.
What makes The Final Countdown‘s premise and build-up so intriguing is the documentary aspects of the production. The film was made on a real life, functional nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. All variety of modern weaponry and aircraft, including a pair of F-14 Tomcats, are filmed for real in some amazing aerial footage. It’s almost mesmerizing, watching the real workings of these war machines, filmed in beautiful close-up 35mm, and that’s where this new 4k UHD release really shines.
Eventually, the F-14s encounter a pair of Japanese Zeroes who have just sunk a pleasure yacht and are strafing the site, trying to kill any survivors who might be bobbing about. The F-14s are eventually allowed to engage, and the dogfight that follows might be the best sequence in the film. Not only is it the apex of the exciting aerial footage we’ve seen so far, it also shows the immense technical superiority that 40 years of technological progress have afforded the modern jets. The Zero was the best fighter plane at the start of the war, and the F-14s literally dance around them.
The survivors from the yacht include a senator and his aide (along with her trouble-making dog) who is recognized instantly by a fighter pilot who is also a historian. He’s writing a history about the Pacific conflict, and he knows this senator disappeared before the Japanese attack. They’ve already changed history by rescuing him from the sea.
The Senator and the aide themselves are completely at sea (excuse the pun) by their futuristic rescues. The Senator, played by the always excellent Charles Durning, is on the Naval committee and knows ships. He’s never seen anything like this carrier. And he wants it to turn around and take him to Pearl Harbor directly.
The groundwork has been laid for a pretty fantastic set of conflicts. What’s the captain’s responsibility? What will the Senator think when he learns these men are from America’s future, and that they know what’s going to happen for the next 40 years? And do they have the right to bring their modern might to a fight that was already decided before many of them were born?
These are fascinating questions. The Final Countdown… then doesn’t really do much with any of them. There’s some contrived intrigue, way too few actual conversations between characters, and that’s it. While never a masterpiece of tension or pacing, the film has been ably working toward some really intriguing plot developments… and then nothing interesting happens.
There are developments, some entertaining, some preposterous. But none of the potential of the situation is realized. So what is The Final Countdown, ultimately? For about 70 minutes of its runtime, I was intrigued, excited at the possibilities of the story and looking forward to where it would lead. So disappointment is my primary feeling. Still, there’s a wealth of beautiful and exciting aeronautical footage, and in this film from the age before CGI turned everything into a cartoon, the sheer reality of the footage is remarkable on its own. Especially when contrasted with a few special effects shots that have truly aged terribly. And if The Final Countdown is an old favorite, this is a terrific home presentation of a unique, if frustrating, film.
The Final Countdown 4k Ultra HD has been released by Blue Underground. This is a three disc set, which includes the film on 4k UHD, also on Blu-ray, and the film’s score by John Scott on CD. The extras are replicated on both video discs, and include a commentary by director of photography Victor J. Kemper. Video extras include “Lloyd Kaufman Goes to Hollywood” (14 mins), an archival interview with venerable Troma owner Lloyd Kaufman, who was an associate producer on the film, and “Starring the Jolly Rogers” (32 mins), an archival featurette about the F-14 fighter squad who did the flying for the film.