The Final Countdown (1980) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

We’re leavin’ together but still it’s farewell. And maybe we’ll come back to Earth, who can tell?

The Final Countdown is an atypical time travel story that helped pave the way for other, weirder jaunts through time. It also is an early attempt at filming an alternate take on history. How does it fare? Read on in 5…4…3…2…1!

First Impressions

The trailer sets up a simple premise for the film. What if a modern-day aircraft carrier with its planes and weapons, were transported back in time to December 7, 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor? Can they change the past? What will happen to them and history? Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen and others star in this military sci-fi film of a potential alternate history.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The Final Countdown

The Final Countdown title card.

The Fiction of The Film

At the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1980, Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) who is a systems analyst for Tideman Industries, boards the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. He is on special assignment to observe the crew for any efficiencies he might be able to recommend for his mysterious employer, who helped design and build the ship. The launch of the Nimitz was delayed two days so that Lasky could join them. He is shown aboard and directed to his cabin, which is shared with the CAG, Commander Richard Owens (James Farentino).

Lasky notices a manuscript on Owens’ desk for a book about the war in the Pacific. As the ship sets sail, strange weather moves in with heavy clouds, electrical interference, and some sort of blue vortex. Captain Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas) gets a situation report from his officers, which aside from having no expected radio signals, appears to be normal. Some of the crew think that a nuclear strike may have occurred, but the communications officer picks up some old Jack Benny radio shows. Capt. Yelland sends out two reconnaissance fighters to investigate.

Photos come back from the planes showing Pearl Harbor, but not as expected. A number of battleships are lined up just as they were in the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Lasky asks Owens to confirm that the photos are similar to the ones in the books he’s writing. They have somehow traveled to December 6, 1941. Two F-14 jets spot a pair of Japanese Zero’s approaching a civilian yacht offshore. Onboard is Senator Sam Chapman (Charles Durning) and his aide and speechwriter Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), who manage to jump off the boat with their dog before the Japanese planes strafe and blow up the boat.

The Final Countdown

Mr. Lasky is all smiles as he’s brought on board the “Nimitz.” He’s just doing his job, even if that means pissing off the Captain.

The F-14s make quick work of the Zero’s, blowing one up and crashing the second in the water. A pair of helicopters from the Nimitz arrives to collect the three survivors, with Owens supervising the operation, and even jumping into the ocean to rescue the dog. Back aboard the Nimitz, the Captain meets with Lasky, Owens and Commander Dan Thurman (Ron O’Neal) about what their plan would be. Owens argues that things only happen once, so they shouldn’t even try to intercede with the Japanese attack. Yelland decides to head towards the Japanese fleet to stop them if possible.

In the infirmary, Senator Chapman is upset and demanding to know what’s going on. The Japanese prisoner gets hold of a gun and shoots several guards before himself being killed. Chapman demands to be taken back to Pearl Harbor, and Yelland capitualates–sort of. He directs Owens to take Chapman and Ms. Scott to an out of the way island where they will be safe during the attack. Realizing what is happening when the helicopter sets down, Chapman steals a flare gun and directs the pilot to fly away leaving Scott and Owens on the island. The flare gun accidentally discharges, blowing up the helicopter, Chapman, and the crew.

As the Nimitz launches fighters to intercept the Japanese fleet, the strange weather arrives again. No matter how the ship turns the vortex follows them. Yelland recalls his fighters, and once again the naval ship experiences strange forces, which returns them to 1980. With nothing apparently altered, except the loss of Owens, Lasky decides to leave the manuscript in Owens’ cabin. As he departs the ship, his boss’s car arrives for him. Inside the car Lasky finds an aged Owens and Ms. Scott–now Mr. and Mrs. Tideman–who smile and say that they have a lot to talk about.

This time, with God’s help, it’s going to be different.” – Captain Matt Yelland

The Final Countdown

A strange meteorological occurrence appears off the main deck of the aircraft carrier.

History in the Making

The Final Countdown is an interesting movie for several reasons. It was the last film for actor turned director Don Taylor, who had previously directed The Island of Dr. Moreau and the 3rd film in the Planet of the Apes franchise, Escape From the Planet of the Apes. The plot revolves around time travel, but not the standard kind depicted in films to-date where the traveler uses a time machine. It’s also more of a military fiction film, taking place in 1940s Pearl Harbor. In fact, the science-fiction aspect of the film is rather small with the focus being more on the conundrum of what is the correct thing to do in a situation like this.

Six years before the popular action film Top Gun was released, The Final Countdown made extensive use of the U.S. Navy and the ability to film on their aircraft carrier, Nimitz. Made with the Navy’s permission and facilities the filmmakers decided to use a lot of the footage. As such, the 102 minute film contains 20 or more minutes of “glory shots” of the aircraft carrier and the jet fighters taking off and landing. This turns the film from what could have been a solid time travel film into a mediocre sci-fi story that looks like a glorified advertisement for the Navy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the extended moments seem oddly out of place and more like filler shots.

The biggest and most notable difference that the film provides is its methodology of time travel. The majority of time travel films released to this point dealt with time travel forward, to either the distant future or to present day. Films like The Time Machine, Planet of The Apes, and Time After Time all have the protagonist moving forward into the future. Whether it’s with a specific time machine, or some faster than light travel spaceship, these films allow man to catch a glimpse of the wondrous or frightening things to come. There had been a couple films that showed time travel into the past, but that was not a popular type of film in 1980. Disney’s Unidentified Flying Oddball was one of the films, and was based on Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” It was fantasy at best, and not historically accurate. Another example was Escape from The Planet of The Apes. It brought Zira and Cornelius back to Earth circa the early 1970s from their far off future. Again, this is a different type of story than what The Final Countdown tries to present.

The Final Countdown

Laurel and the Senator marvel at the superfast Navy airplanes which they don’t recognize.


By this time, time travel was becoming more of a popular sub-genre for science-fiction films. The 1980s would produce some of the best and most acclaimed time travel films to date. Unfortunately The Final Countdown is not counted among them. The time vortex or time storm is a unique way for the characters to make their way into the past, but there’s no explanation made as to why the storm occurs or how it works, which is really beside the point for this story. What The Final Countdown does is present the first example of alternate history fiction in film.

Alternate history, sometimes referred to as historical “what if’s,” is a form of sci-fi where famous events in history turned out a little differently. The most famous example is still Philip K. Dick’s story of “The Man in the High Castle” from 1962, where Nazi Germany won World War II. This is a subsection of science-fiction that has been popular in sci-fi stories, but not embraced by movies and television. The 1980s were about to change that fact. Time travel films about returning to the past to change the present and create alternate timeline and history became very popular in the 80s and include such films as The Terminator, Peggy Sue Got Married, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and (of course) Back to The Future.

But unlike later films in the time travel category very little happens in this film. After a brief setup, the Nimitz is transported to the past–a point anyone who saw the trailer or read a review at the time would have known. But once in 1941, their interactions with the locals is minimal, and nothing actually happens, which is apparently what happened all along. While not as fun, or as exciting as later time travel films would become, The Final Countdown does address these paradoxes of time travel head on. Time travel movies either ignore paradoxes completely, or make mention of them, to only later ignore them. But here the main thrust of the film’s plot is the paradox, and the question on whether time can be altered or not.

The Final Countdown

Captain Yelland shares his concerns with Lasky about just what is happening to his ship.

Societal Commentary

Why do things happen? Is it because of choices that people make, or is it instead a higher power that makes the decisions? Fate versus free will is a common theme in time travel films, and The Final Countdown is no different. Lasky explains what has become a common sci-fi trope for time travel films, the Grandfather paradox. This is the idea that if one were to time travel and kill their own grandfather, would that person have been born? And if they’re not born, how could they have time traveled and killed their grandfather. His apparent take on the situation is that they are there for a reason so they should at least try something. “There are always alternatives,” he tells Commander Owens.

Why would they be brought back in time to the Battle of Pearl Harbor if they weren’t there to do something? Since it was not a trip of their choosing, someone or something must want them at this point in time. But Owens argues against this stating that he has “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.” The point is moot however, since as Captain Yelland attempts to intercept the Japanese fleet the vortex re-appears and takes them back to 1980. The only things they were able to accomplish is to shoot down two Japanese planes, save the Senator and his assistant, strand Owens on an island, and accidentally get the Senator killed (which also appears to have always happened). Owens’ own manuscript stated that the Senator went missing around the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so apparently this was always his fate. And since Owens turns out to be Mr. Tideman, the man that designed and built the Nimitz, that too was always the plan. But whose plan?

So the film appears to be taking the stand that Fate is the winner in this particular round. No actions that the crew took would have been out of place, as the actions they took were the actions they had always taken. But it still leads to the paradox of, how could the Nimitz have been built if Owens hadn’t gone back in time on the Nimitz to become Mr. Tideman and design and build the Nimitz? A confounding and circular logic puzzle that has no answer. Unfortunately the film seems to explore these themes at only the most superficial level, leaving any other debate for the viewer at a later time. Additionally stories in which the characters have no apparent free will of their own are less interesting than the ones where they can make their own choices, and mistakes, such as Back To The Future.

The Final Countdown

On the bridge of the “Nimitz,” Thurman, Yelland, Owens and Lasky are having trouble believing that they have been transported to 1941.

The Science in The Fiction

Mr. Tideman designed and built the Nimitz so that it would be ready to travel back in time, just as he remembered it when he was Commander Owens. But how could he know what was needed unless he had already traveled through time? These issues of causality are the central meat of the story. Causality is the idea that one thing must follow another. For example, if you are holding an apple and let go it should fall to the ground. It doesn’t fall before letting go. These are some of the fundamental laws of the universe, which never apply in stories regarding time travel.

Aside from the mystical aspects of the order of the universe, the film also posits an interesting question, but fails to offer any resolution. Would a 1980s aircraft carrier be able to take on the entire 1941 Japanese fleet? There’s a short segment where two F-14s take on the Japanese planes, but nothing beyond this. It’s a shame that the story didn’t get fleshed out a little more to include scenes of the US planes engaging with the Japanese fleet. Understandably, the point of the film is that Pearl Harbor is still attacked, so having the Nimitz interceded would have changed history, so this was obviously not the story the filmmakers wanted to tell.

The Final Countdown

Laurel is taken hostage by the Japanese pilot who is just as confused about what is happening as the “Nimitz” crew.

The Final Frontier

For an actor like Kirk Douglas, whose body of work consists of period dramas, westerns, and war films, it seems odd that he would make two science-fiction films back to back. Just six months prior to the release of The Final Countdown, Douglas starred in Saturn 3, which was reviewed a couple of weeks ago. These films were the extent of his work in sci-fi, unless you also count 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, 25 years previous.

The film also served as an inspiration for the song of the same name by the rock band Europe. Unfortunately the song really has nothing to do with the film except a shared title. The song is about people leaving for a space trip with “so many light years to go.” It’s a catchy tune to listen to, but not the tie-in that one might expect.

Be sure to come back next week as Sci-Fi Saturdays explores another kind of time travel film with an entirely different perspective. And if that’s not your style, there’s plenty more time travel films coming as I continue to look at films from the 1980s.

Coming Next

Somewhere in Time

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