The Final Countdown (1980)

Dir. Don Taylor. Starring Kirk Douglas, James Farentino, Martin Sheen

There’s an interesting scene in The Final Countdown. (Yes, I do mean it’s the only interesting scene. The Final Countdown is a real drag.)

A yacht out on a pleasure cruise, carrying a U.S. senator, his secretary, a friend, some crew, and a mercifully invulnerable dog is spotted by a pair of Zeros running an armed reconaissance for the fleet behind it. Their mission is to destroy anything which might carry a radio able to report on the presence of the Japanese military this close to American territory, and after sizing up the yacht, the Zeros destroy it. While this has been going on, two F-14s from 1980 observe it from a distance. They are hamstrung by the commands from the USS Nimitz, but when they see that the Zeros are after the survivors as well, the Tomcats fly in and run interference for the survivors in the water. After fooling around a little, they take fire from the Zeros, and only then does Yelland (Douglas) give the order for his F-14s to “splash” the enemy; they do it quickly and efficiently. But what stands out in this sequence is the wonderful cognitive dissonance of the visuals as opposed to anything dealing with plot or, less than that, character. Apart from the technical superiority of an F-14, what stands out about this scene is how much bigger a Tomcat is than a Zero. An F-14 is almost seven times longer than a Zero, has a wingspan five times longer, weighs ten times more. We can appreciate the Japanese pilots’ hearts falling into their stomachs when they see a plane which may as well be a flying saucer for all its advantages. And we can appreciate the American pilots’ nationalist fervor, I think, in shooting down the Zeros that their fathers may have taken aim at themselves. Above all, it’s a remarkable display of camerawork to smoothly capture flight. Around the 6:15 mark, one of the F-14s makes a dive toward the ocean and pulls out of it mere feet above the surface of the water, which is an absolute thrill. In 1980, I’m sure it was probably just as fun to watch, but almost forty years later the retro quality of a movie which uses the real thing instead of a CGI version of it—or, perhaps, doesn’t allow us to wonder if that very real thing flying around might in fact be very good CGI—is welcome. In the same way that watching Buster Keaton plunk logs off train tracks while balancing precariously on the moving train’s cowcatcher is harrowing, so is watching a very real jet come close to obliterating itself in the ocean.

The Final Countdown is a better commercial for the U.S. Navy than those smarmy “Global Force for Good” ads. Not only does it focus primarily on the officers rather than the grunts, but it also sets the tone for the glamour of naval aviators that would become de rigueur in the rest of the decade. An Officer and a Gentleman hardly makes the process of joining the Navy seem fun, but it also promises a life that’s exciting and bold mostly from the point of view of the Puget Sound Debs who court them; Top Gun doesn’t really need any explanation; even The Right Stuff has the immortal line, “They call them ‘aviators’ in the Navy – they say they’re better than pilots!” A surprisingly large chunk of The Final Countdown is watching planes land and take off, and aside from those F-14s, we see A-6s and A-7s come off the flightdeck. An E-2 does reconnaisance work; an A-3 modified for aerial refueling comes on out to fill up the thirsty Tomcats. Just about everything manages to finagle a little time to go airborne, and when the rogue lightning storm which transports the Nimitz through time appears to keep it from fighting Pearl Harbor, it takes back a squadron of fighters in midair and arrayed for combat. For people so inclined to be moved by depictions of American military strength, certainly this works. Ditto for people who have a technological attraction (or a historical one, at this point) for these sort of displays.

Unfortunately, movies with plots don’t often work when the most interesting parts elide the people or anthropomorthized bunnies or whatever it is that carries said plot, and The Final Countdown is in a hell of boredom. Even though there are some good actors in here—Douglas, Sheen, Charles Durning, Katharine Ross—there’s not much for them to do. Kirk Douglas rubs his chin and looks confused; Martin Sheen’s Lasky is useful because he knows where Owens (Farentino) kept the draft of his textbook; Durning is cranky and doomed; Ross worries about a dog. (Ron O’Neal plays the XO aboard the Nimitz and starts yelling as unconvincingly as I think I’ve ever heard anyone yell.) There’s even more waste than just the stable of actors, because this movie has a fabulous premise that gets junked early on. Think about it: what if a state-of-the-art American aircraft carrier were sucked back to December 1941? If the aircraft carrier stands down, knowing that the historical record at least ended with the victory belonging to the people who weren’t Hitler and Tojo (THIS IS ME ACKNOWLEDGING IN ALL CAPS THAT ALLIED VICTORY COMES WITH AN ENORMOUS PRICE IN THEIR OWN WAR CRIMES AND THEIR FOREIGN POLICY EVER SINCE), then Pearl Harbor goes up in smoke “again” and the fallout among characters who know they could have changed history is at least very interesting. If the aircraft carrier engages, then the United States has an enormous advantage in the Pacific, and the Allies benefit from technology decades ahead of what they have. The curve of history is changed in millions of ways, and there’s no way to predict what will happen because of the presence of an aircraft carrier named after the guy who was, at the time it shows up, the chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

Naturally, the movie chooses neither course. The same bizarre lightning storm that sucked the Nimitz into the past shows up before they can alter history in any serious way, and they are sucked back into the future from whence they came. Nothing changes, nothing matters, and the story has nothing to show for itself except a two hour tour of an aircraft carrier and some rips in the time-space continuum. (The first thing that gets me: they choose not to make contact with Pearl Harbor to inform them an attack is coming. The second: somehow, Owens is in two places at once at the beginning and end of the movie and thus obliterates Einstein.) This is such a terrifically awful idea that it seems incredible that this ever got out of the drafting stage. If this were an episode of Star Trek, the Nimitz would allow itself to be destroyed in an effort to ensure that it wouldn’t disrupt the timeline; that would make for its own interesting movie as the members of the crew attempt to reckon with a death as cold and undeserved as any that combat ever distributed to a sailor. But alas, the movie gets made at all, for heaven’s sake, and nothing changes! People make fun of stuff by saying “I’d rather watch grass grow” or “paint dry,” but at least something changes if you watch that. This doesn’t even account for how dull the majority of the movie is because people tend to know anything about the movie before they see it. The elevator pitch for The Final Countdown has to involve time travel: if that’s the case, why is fully half the movie spent on Kirk Douglas wondering what happened to his ship? It ain’t Oedipus Rex. Dramatic irony is not the point of this movie, but by the end there’s not much else for us to hold onto short of our consternation as to why anyone bothered to do this movie at all.

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