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The Final Countdown Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 24, 2008

    The Final Countdown Review

    “This is the USS Nimitz ... where the hell are we ...?

    Almost certainly inspired by the allegedly true case of the USS Philadelphia being rendered not only invisible but relocated in time and space during scientific experiments back in the seventies - and the subject of numerous books, TV shows and a film starring Michael Pare - Don Taylor's The Final Countdown (1980) is one of those tremendously loopy “what if” dramas that were incredibly rife in the pulp sci-fi magazines of the silver age ... the Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction illustrated anthologies that became so popular, and such a splendid seedbed for the genre as it moved from the written page and into the movies. Taking the US Navy's then-premier icon of massive fire-power, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (now a floating museum), and hurling it, via a mysterious and frightening electrical storm that comes from seemingly out of nowhere, back in time to a point just before the Japanese fleet attacks Pearl Harbor in 1941, is merely the plot device that allows the makers - so in love with American military might that their film became the single greatest ad campaign for the US Navy until a certain Tom Cruise climbed into the cockpit of an F-16 with “the need, the need for speed” in Top Gun - to ponder on the type of question that war-gamers and academic strategists constantly love to address ... basically, what would happen if primitive weaponry and tactics were pitched against an enemy vastly superior in power and technology.

    Voyaging off for routine exercises in the Pacific, the Nimitz, under the command of Kirk Douglas as Captain Yelland, pretty soon encounters the type of unexplainable phenomena that the celebrated - and notorious - Bermuda Triangle usually likes to lay claim to. This phenomena - a howling, demonic portal of sub-Spielbergian light and sound - latches onto the ship even though they attempt to outrun it and catapults them back to a time when, with all the might and knowledge at their disposal, they could probably rule the world. With the shocking discovery that are all that stands between the Japanese fleet and the unsuspecting naval base at Pearl Harbor, Yelland and his trusty command team - including James Farentino and Ron O'Neal - must wrestle with the consequences of thwarting the Japs and forever altering the course of history. This dilemma is compounded further when they are compelled to rescue the survivors of a yacht that enemy Zeros have blown to bits - survivors whom the text books say should have disappeared in the eve of the attack. With Martin Sheen's official spectator from the government, Mr. Lasky, rather inconveniently on board for the ride as well, and something approaching six thousand gung-ho sailors, marines and airmen all champing at the bit to end a war that they have only ever read about, the Nimitz is sailing deep into troubled waters indeed.

    The classic time paradoxes are sort of cast to the wind as director Taylor and screenwriters David Ambrose, Gerry Davis, Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell (too many cooks there, methinks) just have fun lavishing the film with an endless succession of US military hardware and side-lining the wildly speculative scenario to quirky little hushed conversations between Yelland and his top men. The film opens mysteriously with Lasky's weird send-off by the unseen Mr. and Mrs Tideman and things, in a way, can be seen as skewing towards his involvement in the proceedings. Certainly the good Captain and his aids have no way of knowing for certain whether or not this is all just some fiendishly elaborate test that they are experiencing ... until Senator Samual Chapman (the jowly-chopped and irascible Charles Durning) and forward-thinking, bra-burning assistant Laurel (Katherine Ross) have the misfortune to find themselves right under the flight-path of the Japanese fighters on their luxury yacht. Blown out of the water about to finished off with a strafing run, they, and Laurel's dog, Charlie, are only saved when Yelland's Tomcats obliterate the nasty Zero fighters and the Nimitz's rescue chopper hauls them into a brave new technological world that they have no chance of comprehending. The drama here is quite good, actually. Yelland and co can't quite take the chance on informing the Senator exactly what is going on, but Chapman knows pretty much for certain that the US Navy doesn't have equipment like this ... just yet. When things are complicated with unexpected bloodshed on-board, the race against time to halt the attack becomes almost secondary to stopping Chapman from spilling the beans to Pearl Harbor Command about this mysterious ship named after Chester Nimitz - a still-serving commander in the US Navy.

    “Sweet Jesus, they're heading right for us ... and we've got an armed strike force just sitting on the deck!”

    In a brilliant, who'd-have-thought-it twist, a Japanese sci-fi action film came out shortly after Countdown debuted - the two going virtually head-to-head with The Empire Strikes Back didn't do either any favours. Kosei Saito's Timeslip featured an army patrol somehow becoming dislodged in time and sent back to Feudal Japan to pit their own hardware against the Samurai. Hmmmm. And, in a welcome change - although the movie isn't all that good, to be honest - there is frequent confrontation and a fair degree of bloody violence too. In fact, there is a queer sort of tit-for-tit going with this saga - the Japs attack Pearl Harbor; America defeats Japan; Hollywood makes a film about how the US could, in fantastical theory, have thwarted the Japs back in 1941; Toho Studios make a film about modern Japanese soldiers having no crisis of conscience at all with regards to altering history whilst the Nimitz crew struggle with the ramifications of such an undertaking; Japanese television retaliates to this sci-fi accusation (disrespect, you could say) by stealing John Scott's original score to the film and crediting one of their own as its composer; Scott, when he complains about this is rail-roaded by convoluted Japanese copyright loopholes. In a way, the Japs win this saga all the way around, don't they?

    Even if this is the case, the film stakes a huge claim about naval and air superiority and does so in an unapologetically “my ship's bigger than all-of-yours-put-together” fashion that, hey, you've just got to love. When Zeros plague the Senator and his chums on their yacht, Yelland is frightened about actually engaging them and giving themselves away. Only when the Japanese fire on the innocent civilians does he allow his Tomcats to get involved and, even then, for a short while, he just wants them to “play with 'em” and give them a fright. The resulting dog-fight is more of an aeronautical display of vintage versus hi-tech, but you can't help getting exhilarated by the Zero pilots' shocked expressions at jet-engine fly-bys a whisker above their cockpits and dizzyingly show-off stunts that they could never hope to emulate. Still, you've also got to admire the way that they eventually tire of such aerial acrobatics and then begin to fire on the Americans. Of course, the first time that you see The Final Countdown, this sequence builds up some mighty anticipation of the big battle you hope will be coming next between the Nimitz and the Jap fleet.

    Well, you'd better keep an eye on that horizon for big blue-fizzing storms, then hadn't you?

    “You still think it's a dream?”

    “It's a nightmare!”

    What the hell is Kirk Douglas doing in this? James Farentino - yes. Charles Durning - yes. Katharine Ross - yes. Even Martin Sheen I can buy. But Kirk “Spartacus” Douglas? No way. The problem isn't the casting. You can see him as the commander of the USS Nimitz for real, you just can't see him “acting” as that commander in this film. He even seems aware of this fact, himself, and spends much of his screen-time making ridiculous faces and asking himself, or those chosen few around him, what he should do next? In the history of big name stars delivering worthless, weightless performances in order to collect a paycheck at the end, Douglas' ranks as one of the most obvious and disappointing. Stomping around the bridge and looking every inch the part in his uniform he issues commands with horribly unconvincing casualness and a complete lack of stature and spirit. Lazy line delivery is something that you want to forgive, but this is Kirk Douglas, for God's sake - if anyone could have given gravity to the role then it would normally have been him. Yet, all these years down the line since I was first blown away by this film as a kid, he is still the only person that I can in the part, despite his obvious lack of commitment to it.

    Farentino is great though. He may not be the most powerful, or indeed convincing actor in the world, but he is one of the most likeable - and that is very often good enough. No matter what the role is - unwitting zombie sheriff in Dead And Buried, Disciple Simon Peter in Jesus Of Nazareth - he brings a workmanlike charisma and grass-roots sense of “doing his best” to everything. Here, as Wing Commander Richard Owen, he is the obvious action hero - a gifted fighter pilot and air squadron tactician, a brave air-sea-rescue maverick and, in the film's big bloody sequence, a part-time hostage negotiator, as well. Owen, or Cag as he is known by his call-sign, is also the historical conduit for the audience. As well as his gung-ho action-man credentials he is also a renowned authority on the attack on Pearl Harbor, with copious notes, journals, photos and other research material on the subject clogging up his quarters as he studiously prepares a book of his own for publication. The script quite horribly assigns him a daft-as-they-come romance that really should have been set adrift, but I will admit that it is smirk-inducing the way that the writers then use this a the paradoxical springboard for later revelations. Sadly, Katherine Ross is simply dreadful - even her dog puts in a better performance. No ... it really does.

    “Imagine I go back in time and meet my grandfather ... long before he got married and had children. Suppose we had 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 and meet my grandfather?”

    Another odd, but strangely acceptable piece of casting comes in the form of ex-Apocalypse Now Special Forces assassin Capt. Willard, himself, Martin Sheen, whose civilian observer, Mr. Laskey is placed on-board the ship and the script as the fly-in-the-ointment, the part-time annoyance, part-time audience member (well, he is an observer, after all, just like us) whose purpose is to rock the boat. The problem with this is that he doesn't do it often enough. His character is meant to challenge the time-altering authority of Douglas, Cag and the American right to become involved with a battle that occurred forty years before. Ostensibly there to see how things aboard this floating city run and report back to the Dept. For Defence, Lasky is a strange sort of hanger-on. He doesn't actually do anything at all, although some of the best lines - the hypothetical stuff, primarily - come courtesy of him. Whilst the film's narrative has a very short timescale with which to tell its surprisingly meagre story, it often seems as though Laskey had originally been intended to be a much larger and more directly involved character. As it stands now, Sheen - with hair that wouldn't ruffle in a Force 10 gale - is another likeably familiar face amongst the ships' crew. As with Douglas, he seems partially bemused by the whole thing, possibly wondering just how he has ended up in what must have slowly dawned on him as being a total waste of his talents.

    Ron (Superfly) O'Neal, once a very regular face of Hispanic threat and/or dependability on TV as either cops or baddies in The A-Team, Remington Steele and Hill Street Blues, in films as, usually some sort of Cuban or South American drug dealer, and even a Russian commando officer in John Milius' Red Dawn, is here seen as trusted Commander Dan Thurman. Soon Tek-Oh is yet another very familiar face, with copious appearances as the oriental bad guy in virtually every seventies and eighties TV action show, often with martial arts skills, but always boasting an impressively intense, take no prisoners attitude. Famously battered by Chuck Norris' quietly spoken avenger, Col. Braddock, in Missing In Action 2: The Beginning, Soon Tek-Oh plays a captured Japanese fighter pilot, downed by the Tomcats during the yacht-sortie. Commendably stoic throughout his interrogation and honourably determined to take on the entire aircraft carrier with a convenient hostage-situation and a surprising ability to understand how to cock an M-16, which would be pretty alien to him under the circumstances, Tek-Oh supplies us with a face for the enemy - an inscrutable one, maybe, but at least a human one compared with the amassed, though hardly actually seen, threat of the Japanese fleet.

    The less said about the associate producer, and Kirk's own son, Peter Vincent Douglas' Third World War-baiting cameo, the better.

    Fantastic fun, certainly. A good film, though? Well, even being charitable - and a confirmed fan of it - I can't possibly describe The Final Countdown as such. The script renders itself completely null and void by the timely return of the temporal rift and whilst the use of the genuine crew of the aircraft carrier gives the action scenes a sense of total authenticity, it makes a shambles of the drama, itself. Don't argue - there's no disbelief suspension brought into play when genuine marines - one of them with the most ridiculous pouty-lips imaginable - go through their endlessly drilled cover-and-move manoeuvres and real mess-time crewmen listen to what should be a truly momentous broadcast from their captain informing them that they have travelled back in time and are poised on the eve of Pearl Harbor's destruction without a single murmur, raised eyebrow or quizzical expression. It is a curious double-edged sword, this use of fully-fledged Nimitz crewmen. Visual authenticity is guaranteed by a real ship and crew going about their business but thematically the film comes adrift and jettisons much credibility actually by having so much of the genuine article clogging it up. In the past, such broadly militaristic films have made copious use of bonafide service-personnel extras, or liberally plundered drama documentary footage to incorporate into their own visual narrative, but, by and large, these shots have been brief - obvious, yes, but brief - and actually garnered a sense of atmospheric colour and a dramatic evocation of time, place and situation. The Final Countdown demands an altogether deeper commitment from the viewer because of the plot's own absurdities and whilst, in a horrible kind of irony, this would have worked far better on some fifties, black and white genre B-movie with stock footage and mocked-up sets, the admittedly bold use of the real Nimitz and its real crew right alongside Hollywood's acting servicemen punches a hole in the film's hull that cannot be easily plugged. The thing is that this type of authentic drama can be done much better. Universal's gloriously nasty adaptation of Peter Benchley's cut-throat-tale The Island, actually another quasi-time-trap tale starring Michael Caine (much maligned, although, personally, I love it) features US Coastguard personnel quite extensively during the final act and both Tony Scott's Top Gun and even Seagal's own Under Siege, set totally on and within the imposing might of the battleship USS Missouri, manages to utilise real-life crewmen without the glaring “fakeness” of The Final Countdown's few thousand-or-so extras. Just look at the guys on the bridge as the “actors” interspersed with them go through the motions of recovering from the effects of the storm - not working is it?

    So, why do I like it so much?

    Well, for one thing, the film has a wonderfully haunting quality to it that defies the hardware, the gung-ho attitude and the thickly emblazoned adulation for US military might. It goes beyond its blatant recruitment campaign and macho national posturing with an sharply nasty shoot-out, a genuine sense of eeriness to the paradoxical narrative bookends, a tremendously creepy storm that actually appears to be hunting the Nimitz down, oh, and the fact that Farentino risks his life to save a dog. For someone that always preferred Doctor Who when it pitted UNIT soldiers against something unearthly and monstrous, Final Countdown has that same unique quality of mass-machismo totally breached and overwhelmed by powers far beyond their lock 'n' load mentality. The two storm sequences are actually quite terrifying. This is certainly no pleasant trip through the vortex that the Nimitz is making - this is painful stuff for the crew and that fiercely hypnotic blue swirl of lightning superconducting its guests along the road less travelled is a knock-out image of memorable proportions. Maurice Binder - taking time out from those Bond title-sequences, handled these nightmarish effects. Obviously, this element would have be far better envisioned by visual fx trickery these days, but the sight of this gaping chasm in time and space swallowing the horizon - love that little sideways glide that the Nimitz appears to make once inside, almost as though it is slipping across time rather than back through it - is still amazingly potent. Taylor must also be commended for drumming up a terrific amount of suspense during the lead-up to these scenes, with the hairs on your neck actually prickling as the storm first registers on radar and then shifts course to follow the ship. And, to the film's endless credit, no matter how many times I see it, I always think that the big battle is still going to come, such is the level of excitement such impending chaos brings. The film tackles some very unsettling issues and concepts, yet it does so with the brazen attitude of the old boys' comic Battle Picture Weekly. War is good, it seems to say ... and if you haven't actually got one on at the moment, then why not travel back in time to find a convenient alternative?

    “You're cleared to fire. Splash the Zeros. I say again - splash the Zeros!”

    I have reviewed John Scott's score CD for the film already and, just to reaffirm, it is a grand and exciting component of The Final Countdown that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of sci-fi mystery and war-time bravado. It is just a shame that the score's best bits - those extensive and thoroughly bizarre and spooky cues covering the time-storm - are not actually present in the finished movie, Don Taylor dialling them out and going for simple effects instead. But the tremendous main theme and the acutely sweet and poignant love theme are still wonderfully placed to give the film some deep emotion that, perhaps, it doesn't fully deserve.

    The Final Countdown, when all said and done, is fine - if ludicrous - entertainment. For many, myself included, it was a great idea that only suffered by not having the courage of its convictions, or the budget necessary to see them through. It is a guilty pleasure and a film that has gained something of a cult following over the years, therefore it is very pleasing that Blue Underground have seen fit to release it now on Blu-ray.

    The kid in me may still love it to bits, but even as charitable as I am towards movies, it is difficult to award The Final Countdown a high mark because of its innate stupidity, a couple of poor performances - well, six thousand if you include the crew of the Nimitz - and a script that relegates most of what you see utterly redundant by the end credits. But, damn it all, it is so dumbly enjoyable, isn't it? Even so, no amount of supernatural maelstrom and military jingoism can save a movie that is all set-up and no pay-off.

    6 out of 10.