In what has become something of an ‘80s cult favourite, Kirk Douglas leads a stellar cast in the tale of the U.S.S. Nimitz, a highly-advanced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on maneuvers near Pearl Harbor that makes an unexpected journey. Martin Sheen plays systems analyst Lasky, working for the mysterious Tideman Industries, who is on assignment to observe the Nimitz crew in action and recommend efficiencies. After Lasky boards, the Nimitz sets sail, running afoul of some unexpected weather. More than a nasty storm however, the rotating, phantasmagorical whirlpool of light turns out to be a time warp. When emerging on the other end, the ship loses radio contact other than unusually low-powered signals and picks up Jack Benny on the AM band, seemingly indicating that they have been deposited back in 1941, just before the Japanese attack that brought the U.S. into WWII.
When the radar picks up the Japanese attack fleet heading towards Pearl Harbor, Captain Yelland (Douglas) is forced to acknowledge the unbelievable reality of their situation. Which leaves them with an atomic bomb-sized dilemma: do they intervene to foil the Japanese attack, thereby altering history and potentially erasing their own existence, or stand down and watch as hundreds are killed?
Like Tony Scott’s later Top Gun (1986), The Final Countdown essentially serves as a lengthy Naval recruitment film. The producers were given access to the Nimitz to shoot the movie, in the process being handed a massive floating movie set. A considerable amount of interior shooting was done while the ship was in dock, with the remainder while the ship was in the open ocean (remarkably, the U.S.S. Nimitz could be at sea for 13 years before coming in to refuel its nuclear reactors).
In what could perhaps have made a decent Twilight Zone episode, the central dilemma of the story is unfortunately left at a surface level, with the climax of the film handily delivering the protagonists from the potential consequences of their actions. Aside from some obligatory Einstein name-checking delivered by Martin Sheen’s character, the ramifications and possibilities of time travel and alternative histories are sadly unexplored. Four screenwriters are credited for what is more often than not a collection of naval jargon spat at various underlings. Writer Ellis St. Joseph contends that the basic plot of The Final Countdown was stolen from his script for an episode of Irwin Allen’s tv series Time Tunnel, called Sky. That episode involved the protagonist attempting to save his father when he time travels to his hometown of Pearl Harbor hours before the Japanese attack. Regardless, The Final Countdown is somehow never not entertaining, and the cast delivers, but the movie leaves nothing of substance to chew on.
Where the film excels is in its visuals. Shots of the technological terror that is the Nimitz are impressive, giving a tangible sense of the size and power of the naval titan. Scenes filmed in the interior of the ship are all, of course, completely authentic and believable as they were captured on the real deal. Fighter Squadron Eighty-Four aircrews handled most of the F-14A flying sequences, which were shot with pilot-operated cameras mounted to the planes. The aerial footage is what shines most impressively on Blue Underground’s 4K disc. Interestingly, in 1986 the three production companies behind the film agreed to pay the U.S. government $400,000 “for failing to reimburse the Navy for use of F-14 fighter planes.” Apparently the Navy was falsely told that the planes had flown 32.5 hours when the total was actually 200. And Bond title designer Maurice Binder is credited for the visual effects of the storm sequence that transported the U.S.S. Nimitz back in time. You can certainly tell, as you expect a silhouetted beauty in a bikini to step into frame during some of the swirling, smoky lights that represent the time tunnel.
This is my first viewing of The Final Countdown, so I have no frame of reference from previous versions, but I can only imagine that this is the best this has looked on home video. The picture quality really pops during the exterior shots and the aerial sequences look so dynamic that the F-14s just about fly off the screen. Blue Underground have done yet another stellar job of 4K presentation.
Audio Commentary with Director of Photography Victor J. Kemper — As would be expected, this is more of a technical commentary, with Kemper recalling how and where various shots were captured, but it’s reasonably engaging.
Lloyd Kaufman Goes Hollywood, an interview with Associate Producer Lloyd Kaufman (14 mins.) — While Troma studios was in its infancy, Kaufman took production jobs to make money, one of his assignments being The Final Countdown. It’s a hilarious and occasionally foul-mouthed interview.
Starring the Jolly Rogers, interviews with the Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron (31 mins.) — The naval aviators who were on board the Nimitz when the film was made talk about their experiences on the shoot. One of the aviators says flat out that one of the goals was to make a movie that could be used for naval recruitment.
Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots, and Poster & Still Galleries
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD by John Scott
Collectible Booklet featuring The Zero Pilot Journal — A teaser article on the film, originally published in 1979 in the Commemorative Air Force Dispatch.
A gorgeously presented 4K transfer, interesting extras, and a well-presented package make this an easy recommend for Final Countdown aficionados and for die-hard fans of ‘80s genre cinema.