The Final Countdown (1980)

As I’ve noted in previous reviews, I’m something of an Aircraft Nerd…especially military aircraft. It’s been that way for as far back as I can remember. My inner 8 year old takes over anytime an exotic or military plane appears in the sky, and I get giddy and excitable. It’s probably embarrassing for anyone with me at the time…but it is what it is. What’s kinda strange though, is the fact that as much as I love planes and their ‘workings’…I don’t like flying. I’ve been on a couple commercial flights and 3 short military trips (on the CP-140 Aurora, thanks to my kick-ass bro-in-law!). As fun and as interesting as they were, deep inside I was a bit of a nervous wreck. So I try to avoid being on the things with wings…while also trying to watch them from the ground as often as possible. In keeping with the voyeuristic nature of my airplane fandom…I also love movies that feature cool and exciting aerial cinematography. Late one night, when I was halfway through a six-pack and aimlessly scouring random videos on YouTube, I came across one that detailed the notable instances in film that glorified the 80’s era McDonnell Douglas F-14 Tomcat. Two of the titles brought up, ‘Top Gun’ (1986) and ‘Executive Decision’ (1996) made perfect sense to me, especially ‘Top Gun’. The story itself sucks in a major way, but it does feature some of the most dynamic footage of the F-14 (and others, including one of my favorite fighters, the F-5 Tiger 2) ever filmed and edited. But the list didn’t end with those two titles. There was one other…’The Final Countdown’. Based on the little snippets of footage I found, and the ‘What if…’ scenario behind the plot…I felt it necessary to seek this flick out.
‘The Final Countdown’ opens with the arrival of a civilian efficiency analyst named ‘Lasky’ (Martin Sheen) at the Naval Shipyard at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He’s been tasked by his government-subsidized corporation to travel aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, in order to prepare a report on efficiency in the Navy’s operating procedures. He’s introduced to the ship’s senior commander, ‘Capt. Yelland’ (Kirk Douglas) and his men. In short order, the carrier puts out to sea. Later, while maneuvering out in the Pacific, the ship and it’s battle group are suddenly besieged by a mysterious atmospheric phenomenon. Once passing though this glowing vortex and returning to normal operations, it becomes apparent that something has changed dramatically. Soon, the realization dawns onto the men and they are forced to accept that somehow, the Nimitz was transported through an unexplained time-warp, and is now standing between the oncoming Japanese Imperial Navy and the unsuspecting and unprepared naval base at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941.
The main reason for checking this flick out was to take in some (hopefully) sweet aerial footage of jet fighters doing their jet fighter thing…and I wasn’t disappointed. This MAY sound like blasphemy, especially given how devoted I am to the films of the late Tony Scott, but I would have to say that the F-14 sequences in THIS flick were more impressive than ‘Top Gun’, which came out 6 years after. Whereas Scott chopped the shit out of his million or so feet of aerial footage in a rapid-fire style that clearly echoed the MTV / ‘Miami Vice’ flavour that was SO prevalent in the mid to late 80’s, THIS movie took it’s time with it’s edits and gave us a ton of very cool, obviously real, airborne cinematography. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Tony Scott used this flick as the stylistic ‘spring board’ for ‘Top Gun’ a half decade later. ‘The Final Countdown’ features the same wide angle, telephoto, ‘on the deck’-style of footage that Scott embraced (and I love!) and, in my opinion, it HAD to have had some kind of effect on the aesthetic of ‘Top Gun’. The big difference would be the editing. ‘The Final Countdown’ features nice, long takes of naval aircraft doing specific things that were clearly scripted, whereas ‘Top Gun’, when really analyzed, feels like the aerial action was cut based on whatever aircraft footage they happened to have in the editing room that day (the continuity errors are crazy!…if you bother to look for them). From an Attention Deficit Disorder perspective, it works just fine, given how kinetic it all seems. But I find myself respecting ‘The Final Countdown’ a bit more, as there’s no denying that some of the stunts and maneuvers performed ‘in camera’ are damned impressive.
What’s a little less impressive is the script. When the credits rolled (over fetishistic footage of US Navy personnel working the flight deck of the Nimitz), I had to admit that the story was actually pretty lazy and ‘one note’. I say lazy because some key plot points are never fully explained, or explained at all, for that matter. Like the time warp which kicks the story into gear. We are given NO explanation for what it is, where it came from, or how it works. At least twice, the ship is pulled into this space / time rift, while it has inbound aircraft still miles out. The carrier pops out the other side…and the aircraft are just fine. Even though we never see a plane get swallowed by the big swirly timey whimey thing, all aircraft in the air just happen to pop through as well, despite being miles away from where the time travel action is. It felt like there was no fear of anyone being left behind as the ship disappeared. There’s also a big build-up to the modern (for the time) jet fighter group taking on the approaching Japanese Navy head-on, only to have the ‘glowing swirly’ abruptly show up and force a ‘Mission Abort’. Big, dramatic lead-up to…nothing. It was like this movie was brought up as a juvenile wish fulfillment; the fantastical notion of what could a modern air force do to an antiquated one. Producer (between rails of blow) -“What if some F-14’s went back in time and kicked the shit outta some dirty Japs in WW2?!! Wouldn’t that be awesome to see on The Big Screen?!!”, but when the time comes to get into the ‘awesome’, they couldn’t pull it off so they came up with some weak-ass excuse for ducking the Main Show. Sure, we do get a cool sequence midway through where a pair of Tomcats toy with a pair of aggressive Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes, after they strafe and destroy an American yacht carrying a prominent US senator, but that’s really it for the Nimitz vs Japanese Navy action. It also didn’t help that the models used for the downed planes were SO obvious, especially when shown back-to-back with the outstanding real aerial cinematography they managed to catch. So there was a lot of promise of spectacle that the film just couldn’t follow through on, for some reason.
The acting is…ok. Martin Sheen is kinda just…Martin Sheen. His character doesn’t really have a lot to do and mostly just sits on the sideline watching everything happen around him. Kirk Douglas seemed almost openly amused by his role and probably by the overall silly concept. The supporting characters were all right, and I did appreciate the footage of obviously real pilots and deck crew doing their thing. Word is, this movie had the full cooperation of the US Navy…and it shows.
All in all, ‘The Final Countdown’ was a lightly entertaining sci-fi / US Navy Recruitment flick. It boasted some superior aerial footage and choreography, but was undermined by a weak script and some very questionable acting. It’s amusing that the US Government lent as much resources and support to this story as they did, which is really just a Big Budget episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘The Outer Limits’. But the obsessive eye of the camera did love all the military activity that it caught…and it caught a lot! Some of the compositions and edits seemed ahead of their time and in a couple of instances, I had to remind myself that this one was released back in 1980, as it does have a certain ‘slickness’ that would’ve seemed more at home at the end of that particular decade. If you’re a fan of cool jet fighter footage and don’t want to think too much, this would be a safe bet if you happen to stumble across it.

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