Awesome ’80s in April: The Final Countdown (1980)

the final countown

I used to be really fascinated with time travel. I guess I still am, but I used to spend a lot of time pondering whether time travel could ever be real. One of the questions I raised was that if you could travel in time then wouldn’t you try to kill Hitler? Wouldn’t you find a way to stop the Holocaust from happening? But then maybe there is such a thing as fixed points in time. Certain events have to happen and you simply cannot stop them.

Or maybe time travel is real, but it isn’t invented for many thousands of years in the future. The Holocaust is one of the more terrible events of the last century, but for those removed from it by millenea it might just become a footnote in the history books.

Or something. I’m not smart enough to understand the complications of time travel. But I still enjoy a good time travel story. The Final Countdown is about an aircraft carrier from 1980 accidentally traveling back in time to 1941 just one day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The ship’s crew must then decide if they will try to stop it from happening.

That’s a pretty cool idea, but the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.

Kirk Douglas is the captain of the ship. Martin Sheen is a civilian observer on board to make suggestions on how to improve efficiency. Charles Durning plays a US Senator from 1941 who just happens to be taking a leisure cruise on his yacht along with his assistant – played by Katharine Ross – off the shores of Hawaii on that fateful day.

The Senator is important because in real life (or at least the film’s version of real life) because he was someone who had warned of the Japanese attacking Pearl Habor and was in a position to become Vice President before the attack. But he mysteriously disappeared on that day. If the ship can save him it would impact history in unknown ways. Destroying the Japanese fleet would impact history too, of course, but there is a question of when they should attack. If they hit the Japanese before they hit the US then that could be seen as a sign of aggression, an act of war. But if they don’t then American lives will be lost.

Again all of this is interesting, but the film never makes it exciting. It is too busy moving to the next scene to allow time for the characters to chew on the dilemmas.

One of the difficulties for a film like this is how to end it. If they change history then we, as an audience, know the film is a fraud. It feels fake somehow. All cinema is fake, but alternate histories feel even faker. But if the characters wind up not changing history, then what’s the point?

I don’t mind so much when the film is good. But I found The Final Countdown to be rather dull. It doesn’t help that they gained full cooperation from the US Military and in return the film is filled with a lot of footage of the ship’s crew going about their work. If you like to see planes take off and land on a carrier (and it is technically impressive) then this film is for you. If you want some real action or drama, then you might look eslewhere.

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