I remember vividly watching this one up on the silver screen, and – though I’m not entirely certain – I may have seen it several times. (Growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere has its advantages, and one of them was seeing great films in repeat viewings … since that’s all we had to do.) I was at that age wherein Science Fiction and Fantasy releases had firmly taken hold of my senses, and this was the kind of thing that would’ve kept me and my friends jabbering about for hours after the credits rolled.
At its core, Countdown is little more than a big screen incarnation of The Twilight Zone, an episode of Rod Serling’s fantastical ‘what if’ program that inspired so many storytellers of a certain generation. It cobbled together a relatively simple framework – sailors thrown back in time with the wherewithal and firepower to change history – and then rather simply asks, “Should they?”
As a young’un, I didn’t follow the entertainment trades, so I couldn’t tell you a hill of beans about whether or not the film was a box office sensation. Those things didn’t interest me at the time, nor were they the province of my friends. We were captivated by stories, and this one did the trick.
I’m glad to have the chance to reflect upon the feature now that I’m an old dog with this limited-edition release compliments of Blue Underground. In short summary, I found it as captivating today as I did back then. It’s a marvel of bare bones storytelling that holds up almost half-a-century later due largely to the expert workmanship of all involved.
From the plot summary provided by IMDB.com: “A modern aircraft carrier is thrown back in time to 1941 near Hawaii, just hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”
The military thriller is a hard nut to crack.
For starters, it isn’t all Die Hard action. Whereas the adrenal gets pumping when John McClane engages mano a mano with a bunch of machine-gun wielding terrorists, the military thriller is driven by the minds dissecting the conflict. It’s far more chess match and far less macho dodgeball. (Don’t get me wrong: I love macho dodgeball just as much as the next red-blooded American male.) It’s more cerebral than it is visual. And in many respects, the appeal of the mind game is lost on today’s audiences, which has been dumbed down by CGI effects, quick narrative cuts, and other post-production trickery. Viewers crave John McClane over Jack Ryan because Hollywood served it up like lines on a mirror over and over again, getting them hooked on visuals instead of mental gymnastics.
Perhaps that’s why a film like The Final Countdown couldn’t be made in today’s climate: a remake would more likely have the crew of the USS Nimitz destroying the Japanese fleet before they could attack Pearl Harbor only then to have them racing to undo their own mistake in an attempt to right the timeline. It’d be a race against time within a race against time, and the end result would be an endless stream of exhaustive battle sequences all meant to garner awards in every special effects category possible.
The charm of a film like Countdown is that it was never about the effects or the action: it was about the dire situation this crew find themselves in to begin with. Somehow, miraculously, they’re thrown back in time on the eve of one of the seminal American defeats of the ages. Not only do they have enough time to alter history but also they possess the military muscle to change the next forty years! The USS Nimitz would be the global superpower to end all global superpowers, and the entirety of the conflict revolves around one simple question: should they do it?
Alas, history had other plans for the crew of the Nimitz.
Director Don Taylor was no stranger to genre material when he took the reins of Countdown. Though the bulk of his career was spent in rather conventional television drama, he transitioned into film rather effortlessly and cut his teeth on projects like Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977), and Damien: Omen II (1978). His experience with conventional storytelling certainly grounded him as a narrator and probably made him a solid choice for handling Countdown’s many expository scenes: in fact, Martin Sheen and James Farentino play opposites throughout most of the script as Sheen’s ‘improvement specialist’ matches wits against Farentino’s ‘by the book’ military professional. These are the moments when the film works best; and it’s only natural that their personal conflict be given the picture’s only true resolution in its closing scenes.
In a way, Countdown’s message was never about changing history, though the film’s marketing certainly emphasized the ‘will they or won’t they’ aspect of time travel. Instead, Taylor’s film comes full circle on the premise of accepting one’s place within the natural passage of time, even when that means shouldering more guilt and grief than any of us would like. There’s as much nobility in accepting that burden as in any other choice one could make … and Father Time be damned for making us think otherwise.
Recommended. Even though The Final Countdown never truly comes to an effective resolution, I’d argue that it’s still one of the better time travel yarns out there because the script presents the core arguments for and against temporal paradoxes simply and then focuses on the moral dilemma perfectly: if we’re given the chance, should we alter history? Should we rewrite time? Which of us hasn’t wanted to dip into the past and get that magical SciFi do-over? But do we really understand what those consequences could bring? There’s no way we could predict the possible ramifications, so perhaps we’re better off being haunted by our choices instead of unraveling the fabric of reality.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Blue Underground provided me with a 4K Blu-ray of The Final Countdown by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.