The movie is essentially another variation of that old sci-fi chestnut: time travelers faced with the opportunity to alter history. In this case, the crew of the U.S.S. Nimitz, the famous nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, are sucked back into the past, right off the coast of Hawaii in the hours before the Japanese are to attack Pearl Harbor.
Though derivative, The Final Countdown is a well paced 104 minutes, with just the right balance of action, mystery, and character development. Old fashioned in the best sense of the word, it deserves credit for its emphasis on character driven story just at a time when FX-driven movies had come to dominate the science fiction/fantasy genre. The movie cleverly positions its characters in interesting ways. As it gradually becomes apparent that the ship has slipped back into time, rather than have the crew in angry denial or accepting what has happened too quickly, they simply, methodically move forward with their investigation. The ship's captain, Yelland (Kirk Douglas) is neither a gung-ho militarist, nor is he tortured by the ramifications of his possible actions (or inaction). Rather, his response to this incredible event is believable because it's so matter-of-fact, and his actions have an air of good common sense.
His dramatic counterpoint is civilian Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen, looking like son Emilio here), an "efficiency expert" working for the private firm that helped design ships like the Nimitz. In contrast to Yelland, Lasky's mind boggles at the possibilities in not only easily defeating the Japanese, but the impact the ship's technology would have in a 1940s world. (The film's trailer includes deleted dialogue that delves into this even further.)
Finally, there is Commander Richard Owens (James Farentino), an underdeveloped but interesting character that happens to be finishing a book on Pearl Harbor as the film begins. He develops a rapport with Laurel (Katharine Ross), a political aide from 1941 picked-up with then-Senator Sam Chapman (Charles Durning), along with one of the Japanese pilots (Soon-Tek Oh) who attacked their yacht. These too are well-written characters, realistically startled by the carrier's technology but frustrated at being held in isolation. Durning is particularly good at making his character believable, and the dialogue between the Nimitz's officers and the understandably confused pilot is sharp and tense. (However, neither Oh nor Alvin Ing, who plays a Japanese-American interpreter, are Japanese, nor do they speak the language. Ing is awful, though Oh, a veteran of countless episodes of M*A*S*H, fakes it pretty well by adopting a Toshiro Mifune-like bravado.)
The movie is very much like "The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms," an episode of The Twilight Zone where three soldiers and their tank are transported to Little Big Horn hours before Custer's Last Stand. Although both that television episode and the movie offer satisfying twist endings, neither had the budget to depict the confrontations both seem to be leading up to. The publicity team behind The Final Countdown were probably unwise to suggest in their advertising that audiences could expect a full-fledged, history-changing battle. Though the picture has developed a minor though well deserved following, it wasn't a big hit when it was new, and that may be part of the reason. The script does have one major flaw in that it completely avoids how traveling back in time has cut everyone off from their families and friends, perhaps forever.
The picture received full cooperation from the Navy, which rightly guessed the film would make a great recruiting tool. Nearly the entire picture was shot aboard the Nimitz, and many of the bit parts are played by real sailors (many of whom are credited during the end titles). Their shortcomings as actors are compensated by the verisimilitude they bring. Along the same lines, the work of second unit director J. David Jones really stands out and deserves special mention. There are countless, effective shots of planes taking off and landing, worried sailors in libraries, lounging in recreation rooms, watching announcements broadcast from the ship's tiny closed-circuit TV studio. All this captures the essence of daily life aboard the carrier, and the ship itself almost becomes a central character. (One wonders if this was a conscious decision on the part of executive producer Kirk Douglas, having already spent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.)
Unlike Disney's film though, The Final Countdown has little in the way of visual effects, most of which were done by Maurice Binder, the famous title designer of (among other things) many of the James Bond movies. His work here is not terribly impressive. When the aircraft carrier sails into the smoky blue vortex that will transport them back in time, one almost expects to see silhouettes of naked women bouncing on trampolines. Of course, if the picture were ever to be remade, CGI technology would allow the Nimitz to enter the battle quite easily, but this wouldn't necessarily be a good idea dramatically.
Even without showing the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film is under-produced. Newsreel and stock footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! is used to fill out the attack on Pearl Harbor. Worse, an essential scene in which an aerial recconisance photo is compared with a historical one is marred because it's all too obvious that the same photograph is being used, with its identical angle, cloud patterns, etc. However, these are minor flaws and don't distract from the general enjoyment of this above average picture.
Video & Audio
The Final Countdown was previously available panned-and-scanned on VHS and laserdisc (something of a rarity for that format). A reportedly atrocious (and possibly illegitimate) 4:3 letterboxed DVD was released by Pacific Family Entertainment. That version can now be tossed into the Dumpster (or ceremonially burned, as some may want to do). Blue Underground's THX certified, High-Definition anamorphic transfer, off the original negative, looks splendid. The Panavision photography plays much better in its original ratio, and this transfer does it justice, with a sharp image and good color. It should be noted that some interior shots have a slight fuzziness around the frame lines, but this seems inherent in the original photography. A separate, full-frame edition has been produced for the Walmart trade. Feh.
Audio options include a 2.0 Dolby Surround mix, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX, and 6.1 DTS-ES. Purist that I am, I watched the picture with 2.0 Dolby Surround, reflective of its original Dolby Stereo release. A THX Optimizer has also been included. The film's score sounds great, loud with clear separations, though the dialogue was mostly (entirely?) centered, and sound effects in the 2.0 presentation were conservatively mixed by contemporary standards. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The main feature disc includes an audio commentary with Director of Photography Victor J. Kemper, who talks enthusiastically about the film's production. Also included are two trailers and one teaser, all in 1.85:1 / 16:9 format, from its original release through United Artists. The trailers are amusingly dated with their overemphatic use of synthesizers and ominous voice-overs. Also included are two TV spots in anamorphic 4:3 format.
Disc Two kicks off with two redundantly titled featurettes, both in 16:9 anamorphic format. Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood -- Interview with Associate Producer Lloyd Kaufman, has the Troma co-chair discussing gmoonlightingh on The Final Countdown. Blue Underground's documentaries have a reputation for their frankness and unwillingness to gloss over production problems the way big studio DVDs do, and this 14-minute piece does not disappoint. Kaufman is full of praise for Kirk Douglas and his producer son Peter, but unflatteringly refers to Don Taylor a "bozo director," a drunk who fell off the wagon and who was basically incompetent. And while Kaufman admires the professionalism of Charles Durning and Martin Sheen, he has nothing nice to say about either Katharine Ross or James Farentino, both of whom, according to Kaufman at least, live up (or down) to their reputation.
Starring The Jolly Rogers -- Interviews with The Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron is an overlong (31-minute) tribute the squadron featuring interviews with a half-dozen or so pilots who participated in the production of the film. They have nothing good to say about Katharine Ross, either. Mostly though the pilots, now in their 50s and 60s, reminisce about their Top Gun days, and how the movie served as a recruiting tool.
Disc Two also includes an extensive Poster & Still Gallery, which includes images culled from previously unpublished contact sheets. Mark Wickum has written a short but concise Kirk Douglas Bio, while Zero Pilot Journal is a DVD-ROM extra featuring an article that originally appeared in the military journal CAF Dispatch.
The Final Countdown is one of those happy surprises, the kind of movie one stumbles upon and sucked into its story and ideas. What it lacks in originality is more than made up with otherwise careful writing and several fine performances. Blue Underground has perhaps gone a bit overboard making this a 2-discer, but there's no denying they've done a first class job.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.