The Final Countdown (1980)
Directed by: Don Taylor
Written by: David Ambrose & Gerry Davis and Thomas Hunter & Peter Powell. Based on a story by Thomas Hunter, Peter Powell, & David Ambrose
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross, James Farentino, , Charles Durning, Ron O’Neal, Soon Teck-Oh, Victor Mohica
Lasky: Think of the history of the next forty years…
Commander Richard Owens: I have a suspicion history will be a little more difficult to beat, than you imagine, Mr. Lasky.
Lasky: I’m talking about the classic paradox of time. Imagine, for example, I go back in time and meet my own grandfather. Long before he got married, before he had children. And we have an argument, and I kill him. Now if that happens, how am I ever going to be born? And if I can never be born, how can I go back in history and meet my very own grandfather?
Commander Richard Owens: [angrily] I’m not half the theorist you are, Mr. Lasky. But I still have a gut instinct that things only happen once. And if they have happened, then there’s nothing we can do to change them. Nor should we try.
Lasky: Well, how are you going to avoid it? It’s already happening, and we’re already involved!
Commander Dan Thurman: For Christ’s sake! What is this, some half-assed Princeton debating society? We are in a war situation! This is a United States warship! Or, at least, it used to be. Or will be. Or what the hell ever! Oh, Goddammit, you can drive yourself crazy just trying to think about this stuff!
Commander Dan Thurman: Jesus, I must be dreaming!
On August 1, 1980, three months after its world premiere in London, then-independent United Artists released The Final Countdown, a science fiction war drama in which the USS Nimitz, the lead ship in her class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, encounters a freak phenomenon that sends her back to Saturday, December 6, 1941 – the eve of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy, The Final Countdown was produced by actor Kirk Douglas’ The Bryna Company; Douglas not only had the lead acting role as Capt. Matthew Yelland, USN, but he was the film’s uncredited executive producer. His son, Peter Douglas, and associate producer Lloyd Kaufman assisted the credited executive producer, Richard St. Johns, in the day-to-day duties of putting this $12.5 million (in 1979 dollars) together.
In addition to Kirk Douglas, the main cast includes Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), James Farentino (Ensign Pulver, The Pad and How to Use It), Charles Durning (The Sting, Tootsie, To Be or Not to Be), and Ron O’Neal (Red Dawn).
The plot of The Final Countdown is straightforward: While on naval maneuvers in the Pacific Ocean near Pearl Harbor Naval Base, the USS Nimitz encounters what at first glance is a freak storm. Captain Matthew Yelland (Douglas), who is preoccupied with an aerial emergency involving one of the planes in his carrier’s air group, orders his escorting warships to return to Pearl and avoid the storm while Nimitz recovers the problem-prone plane.
Alas, the “storm” is not your ordinary out-of-the-blue line of squalls or newly formed tropical wave. It’s a freaky, Maurice Binder-created occurrence – its nature is not explained in any detail in the movie – that is all (electronic) sound and (visual) fury, signifying…. a time warp?
As Captain Yelland, civilian contractor Warren Lasky (Sheen), Nimitz Commander Air Group (CAG) Cdr. Richard Owens (Farentino), and the ship’s executive officer, Cdr. Dan Thurman (O’Neal) soon discover, the weird storm leaves the Nimitz, her 5000-sailor crew, and her 102-plane air group undamaged and mostly unharmed, but it also throws them backward in time – 39 years back – to Saturday, December 6, 1941.
As in most time travel stories that involve actual historical events – such as the recent Hulu miniseries 11.22.63 – Yelland, Lasky, Owens, and Thurman must grapple with the question of whether Nimitz, which was named for Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific Fleet after the attack on Pearl Harbor, should attack the approaching Japanese carrier force – the vaunted Kido Butai – before it can launch its planes the next morning, or simply do nothing.
Things get complicated when two Japanese Zero fighters – which were rebuilt AT-6 Texan trainers modified to look like the legendary Japanese aircraft for the Pearl Harbor movie Tora! Tora! Tora! – destroy a U.S. civilian yacht with the powerful Democratic Senator Samuel Chapman (Durning) and his ambitious aide Laurel Scott, a woman who knows politics inside and out and longs for a chance to prove herself as a power broker instead of being seen just as an attractive woman.
Two of Nimitz’s F-14 Tomcat fighters intervene and destroy the two Zeros, and a Navy helicopter rescues Chapman, Scott, and her dog Charlie from the sea. This is, of course, a humane thing to do, but it also complicates Yelland’s situation, as Chapman and Scott start asking questions about the carrier – Chapman observes that the ship bears the name of a serving rear admiral and freaks out over the discovery that the Japanese are going to attack the U.S. at dawn the next day.
Meanwhile, Lasky is getting on Cdr. Owens’ nerves, first by snooping in the CAG’s quarters and reading the officer’s unpublished manuscript about the Pearl Harbor attack, then, after realizing that the Nimitz is less than 300 miles away from the Japanese fleet, by urging Yelland to use the 1980 era air group to attack the unsuspecting Kido Butai and prevent the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
[Trying to warn Pearl Harbor of the impending Japanese attack]
Senator Chapman: This is, uh, Senator Samuel S. Chapman, of the United States Senate on board the aircraft carrier Nimitz. Captain Yelland is here with me.
Pearl Harbor Radio Operator: You’re on a what?
Senator Chapman: I repeat. I am Senator Samuel S. Chapman onboard the U.S.S. Nimitz.
Pearl Harbor Radio Operator: Alright, whoever the hell you are. Use of military frequencies by unauthorized personnel is a felony.
Senator Chapman: Now listen here, sir!
Pearl Harbor Radio Operator: As we have no aircraft carrier Nimitz and no Captain Yelland I suggest, asshole, that you stop impersonating some other asshole and get off the air! You’re wasting our time!
Senator Chapman: How dare you talk to me that way!
As is the case with many time travel stories involving pivotal events in world history, The Final Countdown places its main characters – and the real-life crew of the USS Nimitz – in a classic “paradox puzzle” situation.
On the one hand, here we have one of America’s most modern warships – the Nimitz was only five years old when the movie opened in mid-1980, and the F-14 Tomcat was replacing the venerable Phantom II fighter-bomber as the Navy’s primary naval fighter – with all kinds of weapons that did not exist in 1941, including B-61 nuclear bombs. Everyone aboard knows they’ve been thrown back in time to December 6, 1941. Here’s a chance to ambush Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s First Carrier Striking Force before its 353 planes are launched and sent off to attack the 1941 U.S. Pacific Fleet.
On the other hand, if America preemptively destroys the Japanese carriers, won’t that change the path of history that led to the creation of the Nimitz during the icy years of the Soviet-American Cold War? Won’t the Nimitz and her crew vanish – in the words of British humorist and novelist Douglas Adams – in a puff of logic because World War II as we know it ended more quickly and every consequence of the Pearl Harbor attack never happened?
Even the name of the ship – Chester W. Nimitz being a brilliant but obscure rear admiral with a Navy Department billet at the time of the attack – is problematic. Won’t changing history affect that, too?
How do the writers (David Ambrose, Gerry Davis, Thomas Hunter, and Peter Powell) treat the paradox dilemma in The Final Countdown? Do they follow the “restore the original timeline at all costs” path? Or do they go “Harry Turtledove” and create an alternate history in which Nimitz intervenes against the Japanese and precludes not just the Pearl Harbor attack but also the fall of the Philippines, the Battle of Midway, the Guadalcanal campaign, and – more importantly – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
That question, Dear Reader, I will leave unanswered in case you have not seen The Final Countdown, although I suspect that most savvy movie – and history buffs – will guess how the film cuts the Gordian knot of the time travel paradox before the third act of director Don Taylor’s final theatrical feature.
As for what I think of The Final Countdown….
I did not see the movie during its original theatrical run, which coincided with back-to-school preparations since my first year at South Miami Senior High School was only four weeks away when it reached Miami-area movie venues. I wanted to see it after I saw a TV trailer for The Final Countdown, but 1980 was when I was more into Star Wars than “regular” science fiction and I really wanted to see The Empire Strikes Back again before the school year started.
I eventually saw The Final Countdown when it made the cable TV circuit; we did not have a subscription to HBO or Cinemax – not even cable TV – at the time, so I must have watched it at a friend’s house that had a cable subscription and a premium movie channel.
I was not then – nor am I now – impressed by the sci-fi element in the movie. It’s easy to see which route the writers chose to go to solve the problem of what Nimitz does if you know your movie tropes well, so I was like Yeah, I knew that’s how this was going to happen when the movie – which is only 103 minutes long – ended.
The big draw – and the reason the Navy used The Final Countdown as a recruiting tool to entice young high school graduates to take the ASVAB test and sign up for a stint in the naval service – is the fact that the film was shot mostly aboard the real USS Nimitz late in 1979. When The Final Countdown is at sea in “the Pacific” – it’s really the Atlantic Ocean off Key West, folks! – and the cast is shown as being aboard the carrier, it looks authentic and believable because the Navy allowed the producers, led by the legendary Kirk “I am Spartacus!” Douglas himself, to shoot the film aboard the supercarrier.
Thus, only a few of the naval characters in The Final Countdown are played by actors – the rest of the Nimitz crew is played by, well, the real Nimitz crew as it goes about conducting air-and-sea operations.
All the aircraft seen in the movie – except for the ones “splashed” by two F-14s in the second act – are real. The F-14s, A-6, A-7s, S-3As, and naval helicopters that “co-star” in The Final Countdown are actual Navy aircraft, not models or CGI. (CGI was not even a mature technology in 1979, so….)
The pacing of the movie Is sometimes a bit slow, making its 103-minute runtime seem a bit longer than that, but the script is good (but not great), and the story is better than average for a science fiction movie made in the late ’70s and early ‘80s.
The acting is, I must say, good, considering that many A-list actors often don’t give their best performances in science-fiction movies that are not directed by either Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg.
Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross, Charles Durning, James Farentino, and Ron O’Neal play their roles straight, although there’s one scene in The Final Countdown where the usually reliable O’Neal (who would later convincingly play the Cuban Col. Bella in Red Dawn) overemotes in a cheesy line reading that is a bit jarring, considering that in most of his scenes he is believable as the Nimitz’s second-in-command.
As for Kirk Douglas, the lead actor as well as the (uncredited) big boss of the project, there are a few scenes where you can see him giving the audience a knowing wink and nod to suggest a vibe of “This is a strange and a bit silly premise, but let’s have some fun with it anyway!” Otherwise, when he is onscreen and especially on the bridge of the carrier, he is 100% a Navy man in charge of a warship.
Now, that’s great acting.
It’s certainly no Star Wars or even a Time After Time – another contemporary time travel story written and directed by future Star Trek film director Nicholas Meyer which had come out a year before – but The Final Countdown is still a fun bit of escapist fare mixed with realistic “Your Navy at Work” stuff that will make Tom Clancy fans rub their hands with glee.
Heck, in that respect, The Final Countdown is far better than the later (and much overrated) Top Gun, another film that the Navy used as a recruiting tool back in the late 1980s.
The Blue Underground 4K Limited Edition Set
Until I bought the Blue Underground three-disc Limited Edition Set from 2021 with the feature film on both 4K and 2K Blu-rays and the original soundtrack album on compact disc last week, I had never owned a home media release of The Final Countdown. Not on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, or even digital. I’d watched it on cable TV no more than twice, and even though I enjoyed it far more than I did Top Gun, it just was not one of those titles that cried out to be added to my video library.
I am not sure even now why I bought The Final Countdown, other than the fact that I do like some movies even if they are cheesy, not-really-well-known, and certainly not Academy Award-worthy. It was, like my decision to add Maid in Sweden to my Blu-ray collection, purely impulsive, although I will admit that getting a movie set that includes the soundtrack album was an excellent choice since I am a fan of film scores.
Here’s what Blue Underground says about The Final Countdown three-disc set on the product’s Amazon page and the package’s promotional blurb:
‘‘ THIS IS THE U.S.S. NIMITZ WHERE THE HELL ARE WE?…”
The time is now. The place is aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz, America’s mightiest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on maneuvers in the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, a freak electrical storm engulfs the ship and triggers the impossible: The Nimitz is hurtled back in time to December 6, 1941, mere hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the enemy fleet speeds towards Hawaii, the warship’s Captain (Kirk Douglas), a Defense Department expert (Martin Sheen), a maverick Air Wing Commander (James Farentino) and a desperate Senator in the Roosevelt administration (Charles Durning) must choose between the unthinkable. Do they allow the Japanese to complete their murderous invasion, or launch a massive counterstrike that will forever change the course of history?
Katharine Ross and Ron O’Neal co-star in this spellbinding sci-fi action hit filmed on location aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz with the full participation of the U.S. Navy and the ship’s crew. Now Blue Underground is proud to present THE FINAL COUNTDOWN in a stunning new restoration, scanned in 4K 16-bit from the original 35mm camera negative, with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio, for the ultimate in explosive home theater excitement!
- WORLD PREMIERE! New 4K Restoration from the original 35mm camera negative
- Ultra HD Blu-ray (2160p) and HD Blu-ray (1080p) Widescreen 2.40:1 Feature Presentation
- Audio: English: Dolby Atmos; English: 5.1 DTS-HD; English: 2.0 DTS-HD; French: 2.0 DTS-HD
- Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
- Audio Commentary with Director of Photography Victor J. Kemper
- Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood – Interview with Associate Producer Lloyd Kaufman
- Starring The Jolly Rogers – Interviews with The Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron
- Theatrical Trailers
- TV Spots
- Poster & Still Galleries
- BONUS! THE FINAL COUNTDOWN Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD by John Scott
- BONUS! Collectible Booklet featuring The Zero Pilot Journal
- BONUS! Moving Lenticular Slipcover (First Pressing Only)
- Compatible with D-BOX home theater systems
- REGION FREE
Special Features May Not Be Rated, Closed Captioned or in High Definition.
I got lucky and snagged a first pressing of the Limited-Edition set; my three-disc set comes with a moving lenticular slipcover, which is better than when I bought the Best Buy exclusive Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hoping to get the unique slipcover with it, only to get a standard-issue Blu-ray with no slipcover at all.
Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded if Amazon had sent me a set from the second pressing, but I was pleased to see that my Limited Edition set not only includes the 4K Blu-ray and 2K Blu-ray, which means I can watch The Final Countdown on either of the TVs I have access to, but also the CD with John Scott’s score and the lenticular slipcover, too.
The movie itself looks good on the 2K (or high-definition) Blu-ray, but it looks even better on my 36-inch 4K UHD set. I can’t make any comments about the audio on my personal TV since no one has yet connected it to my soundbar, but the quality of the video is excellent – worth the $37.99 I shelled out for The Final Countdown Limited Edition set.
The exterior scenes that show off the Nimitz at sea and her air group in the sky are gorgeous and so detailed that you swear you can smell the salty air in the seas off Key West and feel the cool sea breezes as the carrier sails majestically in front of the camera.
And in the aerial scenes, even though you know that it’s only a movie and that no Zeros – real or recreated – were harmed in the making of The Final Countdown, you’ll believe that you’re seeing real dogfights, albeit one-sided ones, between 1980s era American naval aviators and their 1941 Japanese counterparts
While I do not recommend either The Final Countdown or this set to most of my readers, I do give it a strong endorsement for fans of either time travel stories or movies about the U.S. Navy that are not vehicles for Tom Cruise playing a naval officer.