THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
by Burl Burlingame
Tuesday, Aug. 5. 1980
Aha! What we have here is probably the best bad movie of the year. Best because it’s carefully crafted, streamlined entertainment, bad because it’s monumentally silly. We know it’s awful, but we have fun anyway.
“Final Countdown” is about a paradox in time: The modern aircraft carrier U.S.S Nimitz cruising near Hawaii is tossed back through a time warp to Dec. 6. 1941. Will they or won’t they use modern technology to cream the Japanese forces attacking Pearl Harbor — and change history?
On board are the captain (Kirk Douglas, with a face as animated as a Road Runner cartoon), a civilian advisor (Martin Sheen, who has no advice about time warps) and a hotshot pilot (James Farentino, sporting the brightest teeth in the Navy). Along the way, in 1941. they pick up a senator and his beautiful assistant (blustering Charles Durning and vacant-eyed Kathenne Ross).
The real star of the film, though, is the Nimitz. Filled with thundering jets, phallic missiles and twinkling electronics, it’s a Navy recruiter’s macho dream. The very real problems the Navy has — not enough personnel, not enough money to pay those they’ve got, ships foundering in the high-tech race—aren’t in existence here. This film appeals to one of the major, though unspoken, reasons people join the military: So grown men can play around with a lot of neat stuff.
There used to be a whole squadron of films like this in the ’50s, service dramas with names like “Bombers B-52” and “Strategic Air Command,” and starring blue-eyed visions of American manhood like Jimmy Stewart (who actually is a reserve general in the Air Force), Rock Hudson and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. They were thinly disguised propaganda that celebrated the illusion of an omnipotent U.S. military, and judging by the cheers in the audience at “Countdown” whenever a sophisticated F-14 Tomcat blasted an antiquated Zero, the need for that illusion is as real as ever.
The fact it was an uneven contest doesn’t matter: the image of a powerful, yet intelligently handled American military is reassuring these days.
As for the science-fiction aspects, well, the plot is right out of a “Time Tunnel” TV episode (a show that never played with a full deck. James Darren and Lee Meriwether were cast as scientists). It’s the old paradox if you could change history, would you? Could you?
The science of time travel is woefully handled, mumbled references to Einstein and that Hollywood favorite, Mysterious Forces in the Universe. Once on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett asked writer Isaac Asimov “if there were forces in the universe that haven’t been discovered yet.”
“I don’t know,” Asimov replied, “they haven’t been discovered yet.”
The basic question in science fiction though, and the reason for this movie, is “what if…?” “Final Countdown” plays this question to the hilt, and does it slickly, never pausing over the holes in the script. If you don’t think about it too much, it’s a quickly spent two hours of thundering good fun.