(EDITOR’S NOTE: While having some headline formatting issues recently, I’ve had to add a hyphen to the title. I’m aware of this and know that The Final Countdown shouldn’t be “The Final Count-down”, but bear with me as I figure out these formatting issues for the time being. Thanks.)
Summer of the 80s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980s that I’ve never seen before. Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site. So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.
About the movie
The Final Countdown was released on August 1, 1980 by United Artists. It was directed by Don Taylor who has directed other genre films such as Escape From the Planet of the Apes and Damien: Omen II. The film stars Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, James Farentino, Katharine Ross, Ron O’Neal and Charles Durning. This PG-rated film’s production budget is unknown but it grossed $16.6 million domestically. It is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.
On December 7, 1980 — The nuclear carrier USS Nimitz disappeared in the Pacific…and reappeared December 7, 1941…the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
The Final Countdown is unlike a lot of the cheesy 80s movies that I’ve done for the Summer of the 80s column. It’s a legitimate science fiction film with time travel being the aspect at the center of it. The movie follows the men aboard the USS Nimitz, along with a civilian observer (Sheen), during exercises in the Pacific near Hawaii on December 6, 1980. They encounter a bizarre storm, unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and travel through it, not realizing they have passed through a portal. They soon become aware that something is amiss and slowly come to terms with their current predicament; they have traveled back in time to the exact location they were in, but it is now December 6, 1941. They must make the choice between going into battle to fight off the incoming Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or to let history take its course.
I actually really love the premise of The Final Countdown. I would think that most people who have thought about the effects of time travel and altering the past would say to stay out of the way and let the events happen as they once did. You don’t know what the repercussions would be if you intervened. However, having the opportunity to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor, to save the lives of all the people who died and more than likely prevent the atom bomb from being dropped over Japan, one has to really think about the possibility. You could save so many lives but you could also in turn prevent people from ever being born, changing the course of so many people’s lives, and even, as this film suggests, change the nation and who leads it. I know that I would be on the side of letting history run its course but the film made me want to see what would happen if they stopped the attack. How different would the world be if Pearl Harbor never happened? Would it be drastically different or just in small ways?
Another aspect of the film that really captured my interest was the (then) modern aircraft carrier fighting off the Japanese planes and ships from the 40s. There is a scene where two Japanese Zero planes are flying around the outlying area of Pearl Harbor destroying anything with a radio so that the Japanese can take the Americans by surprise. The aircraft carrier crew discover these planes and have two of their F-14s follow them before toying with them and ultimately shooting them down. I really liked seeing the juxtaposition between the old and new and how easy it was for the F-14s to confuse and scare the hell out of the Japanese pilots before taking them down. It was absolutely an unfair fight but that situation proposes the prospect of the single aircraft carrier taking on the entire Japanese fleet that is sneaking up on Pearl Harbor. The warship, along with its planes, could take on all of the Japanese, being outnumbered, and could potentially annihilate them and cease the invasion entirely. I think that is why I was rooting for them to interfere with history and decide to stop the attack. I wanted to see that battle. The overwhelming numbers of the Japanese fleet being blown out of the sky by a single warship; that would be amazing to watch!
I’m not going to reveal too many specific things in regards to what exactly happens in the movie as I think you should check out the film for yourself. The time travel paradox that is presented in The Final Countdown has had me thinking about it for a couple days now trying to piece it together to see if I can make sense of it. Time travel stories are always complex and require a lot of thought in order to try to figure out how everything would fit together in any given story. Some time travel stories may be more complex than others but at their cores they always seem to elicit a lot of ideas on how it would work or even perhaps why it should never be invented. It’s definitely an interesting subject and I always enjoy a good movie that incorporates it into its story well.
The Final Countdown is a bit of an undiscovered gem. I had only heard of it in passing a few months ago and most people I know haven’t ever heard of the film. The movie has only really been given a second chance to be discovered by an audience after Blue Underground decided to release it in a special edition DVD and now Blu-ray (the high-def transfer looks spectacular by the way!). While watching the film, I also discovered that Lloyd Kaufman (of Troma fame) was an associate producer on the film and even had a small speaking role as one of the ship’s crewmen. That was fun to discover as I had only thought of Kaufman as being involved in Troma productions solely. (Did you know he also was a pre-production crew member in Rocky and had a cameo as a drunk in that film as well?) So for me, The Final Countdown was full of fun discovery. If you haven’t heard of it, I suggest seeking it out, it’s an entertaining flick.
When the F-14 in the film does a steep dive and pulls out just before crashing into the ocean while toying with one of the Zeroes, the screaming noise the F-14 made was created by mixing the sound of the jet engines with the actual scream of the pilot’s wife when she saw that clip for the first time.
The Zeroes and black & white Pearl Harbor attack footage were reused from the movie, Tora, Tora, Tora!
Kirk Douglas wanted his son Michael to play the Martin Sheen role. This proved impossible however as Michael was heavily involved in post production and publicity on The China Syndrome.
During the filming of the opening shot where the CAG’s Tomcat is taking off from Pearl Harbor, the film crew underestimated the blast radius of the Tomcat’s exhaust and one of their cameras was blown over when the plane went to full afterburner. This resulted in the shot being filmed from a slightly different angle than originally planned.
by Ben McBride