The Final Countdown
Don Taylor’s time-travel movie has a decent premise, but it’s hamstrung by everyone knowing the inevitable outcome – short of turning the proceedings into an alternative timeline tale, which would certainly be something but far beyond its creative remit. The result is a “They get there and come back again”, albeit with a very minor twist you can see coming, if you consider why the benefactor in the limo in the opening scene won’t show his face to Martin Sheen. I’m not suggesting knowing the ending is an inevitable disaster for narrative tension – I don’t doubt it would have been possible to elicit genuine thrills from this scenario – but The Final Countdown hasn’t figured out how to do it.
Perhaps the movie’s most impressive credential now – if “impressive” is the appropriate term – is its unfettered US Navy support (as Time Out’s David Pirie suggested, Taylor “handles most of the aircraft carrier material like a recruiting film”. He’s also on point when he compares its overall effect to the “tease level of a TV movie”; this was Murphy’s final cinema feature. His career continued until the end of the decade, during which time he churned out more than a dozen small-screen movies). Sure, this wasn’t a Top Gun-style enlistment booster – rather than “You too could fly an F-14”, the best The Final Countdown can offer is that “You too might be sucked up by a random vortex/portal and transported to December 6 1941 for a short spell” – but in its own way, it might be argued as a salutary portrayal of the armed forces in a tricky situation. Popular Hollywood alleged-rapist Kirk Douglas’ Captain Yelland, commanding officer of the USS Nimitz, must weigh up his options: to attack the Japs or refrain from anything that might mess with the established scheme of things.
The plot would appear to make things easy for itself, then. Thomas Hunter (also credited with story – mostly an actor, but he was previously credited on The “Human” Factor), Peter Powell (the same screenplay credits as Hunter), David Ambrose (also story, and a wealth of credits including the seminal Alternative 3, and the less-so Amityville 3-D, D.A.R.Y.L. and Year of the Gun) and Gerry Davis (none other than the co-creator of the Cybermen and Doctor Who’s script editor for much of seasons 3 and 4, as well as co-creator and script editor of Doomwatch) take the approach that the events the Nimitz becomes embroiled in are part of the “web of time”, such that the US Senator (Charles Durning’s Samuel Chapman) who disappeared before the attack and was considered Roosevelt’s potential VP (and thus a potential future President) initially encapsulates a conundrum when he is rescued from a demise at the strafing of Japanese Zeros. Have they altered history? It turns out they haven’t, as Chapman, enraged that the Nimitz knows of an attack in advance and is doing nothing about it, attempts to commandeer a helicopter at flare gunpoint and succeeds only in blowing himself and the helicopter up with it. Events are unfolding exactly as they have done in the established timeline, just with additional gaps in knowledge now understood.
This would thus, on the face of it, appear to be a closed loop. The closed loop is, at first glance, very tidy, as it intimates the impossibility of changing the past (the role the traveller has is the role the traveller has always had). The tester becomes whether it involves any level of causal paradox in its construction. The most recent Indiana Jones, as execrable as it may be, appears fairly consistent and light on paradoxical content; some have seen Archimedes’ creation of the dial as reliant on Indy’s trip to the past, but aside from actually meeting someone(s) from the future and a record of this appearing in that future (in a tomb), the effect is minimal (I am, of course, assuming that scaring away the Roman army was a temporary thing and did not affect the final outcome of the siege; the movie is entirely unhelpful on this point, though). By which I mean, had Indy and co not gone back in time, nothing would have discernibly shifted in the historical record (that the Roman Empire is a fabrication is neither here nor there in this regard).
The Final Countdown isn’t quite so ‘robust’, unless one wishes to select any given event the Nimitz impacts as a substitution for another where the outcome would be the same. In the case of the senator, this actually makes sense; Chapman would surely have died at sea, riddled with Zero bullets, had the Nimitz not intervened, so his subsequent (effective) self-immolation could be construed as the timeline “healing” itself.
The situation with Commander Dick Owens (James Farentino) isn’t nearly as tidy, however, since it can only scan if he substitutes for another Richard Tideman – or an individual responsible for the same innovations – in the original timeline. Because any time-travel scenario, whether it admits it or not – which is often where the paradoxes come into play –logically requires – causally requires – an original timeline before the time travel occurred; whether or not events in that timeline are consistent with the “actual” timeline of The Final Countdown – where Senator Chapman dies and doesn’t get to bid for President per the intrusion of the Nimitz – is another matter.
Lasky: …I’m afraid Mr. Richard Tideman is as much a mystery to me as he is to the rest of the world… Perhaps the fact that Tideman helped design and build this ship affords him some special privileges.
Logically, this has to be at least the second time the Nimitz has been sucked through a portal. That is, if you don’t just wish to smile, intone “Paradox”, and think no more about it. There had to be a Dick Owens on a Nimitz, a Nimitz not designed by his future alter-ego Richard Tideman (of DOD-contractor Tideman Industries), who travelled back in time, in order that he could assume the Tideman role and send his systems analyst Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) to join the Nimitz. Indeed, one must speculate that Lasky was, in whatever capacity – not with Tideman Industries, I’d hazard – on the Nimitz on the first trip, which is why Owens/Tideman goes out of his way to ensure he is there on the second go round.
It’s with this kind of progression that one must adjust oneself to the theoretical application of a perpetual series of timelines overwriting themselves (go back, change the timeline, and you in the new timeline will have to go back and change the timeline, and so on etc). This is, to my understanding, how the rule actually works. Unless you’re Anunnaki and so have an innate or organic facility with time travel/traversing portals. The variable here is that Owens doesn’t, presumably, even have the knowledge of loose marks he needs to hit. The only definitive target he aims for is ensuring the Nimitz’ return through time, something it did anyway, so his involvement is surely a nervous point (in each new timeline, he may or may not choose to become Tideman, and he surely has no guarantee that his version of the Nimitz will be pressed into the same service as the Nimitz upon which he first embarked).
Owens: I have a suspicion history will be a little more difficult to difficult to beat than you imagine, Mr Lasky.
It’s a neat touch that the picture, by implication, has Owens betray his own philosophical instincts. Owens is a history buff, whose manuscript on Pearl Harbour proves a ready resource for Lasky to swipe and reference (including photo referencing that seems the same, but for one image being closer up… but it can’t be!) It’s Lasky who proposes the “possibilities for the future”, given the Nimitz firepower in 1941: “Think of the history of the next 40 years” he urges Owens. Owens retorts with the above quote, averring that history will be as history wants to be, regardless of one man’s (Lasky’s) designs.
Owens: I don’t have your appetite for playing God with the world. What was I supposed to do, throw him back in the sea?
Lasky: At least that would have preserved the natural order of history as you’ve written it.
In practice, however, he’s running on instinct rather than logic. Lasky, playing devil’s advocate (since he’s otherwise continually floating the potential of their opportunity), scoffs at Owens for saving the senator, and so, in theory, changing history. Mostly, though, it’s Owens who entirely calculatedly – rather than an impulsive act of saving a stricken man – uses all the future knowledge he has to make a fortune as an industrialist and innovator in the military sphere.
Lasky: We’ve got an incredible opportunity here. We know where all the mistakes are going to be made in the next 40 years, and you’ve got the power to correct them.
Indeed, leaving aside the conception of an Elite/Dark Forces-run world where any demonstrative change would have been out of bounds, one might suggest Owens is far less altruistic in bent than Lasky, when the latter moots all the things they could change and improve. If Owens were dead set on ensuring history wasn’t beaten, he’d have kept a very low business profile, perhaps lived out his years quietly on a farm – or desert island – or similar. Instead, he’s made a fortune and contributed to his country amassing weapons of destruction. He might have struggled to contain the nuclear threat (mention is made of the Nimitz as a nuclear carrier) or campaigned for world peace. Arguably, he has taken the path of greatest profit and least resistance.
Yelland’s role in this is curious. He’s initially cautious, lacking confidence that the situation presenting itself is the one Lasky claims it is. Such as the recon photos of Pearl Harbour. He resists direct intervention when the Zeros attack the yacht and only allows his planes to “throw them off… but don’t fire”, subsequently permitting them to open fire when they are heading straight for them. It’s only really with the confirmation of the Japanese fleet’s location that he becomes decisive, while debating that “they haven’t attacked Pearl Harbour yet” (at which point, Lasky helpfully fills us in on the Grandfather Paradox and Yelland comments “I still have a gut instinct that things can only happen once. And if they have happened, then there’s nothing we can do to change them. Nor should we try”).
F-14 Pilot: Shit, they’re gonna let the Japs do it again.
And yet, then Yelland orders an attack, based on an overriding logic that “If the United States of America falls under attack, our job is to defend her, in the past, present or future”. Which is, I admit, an impressive swerve in terms of excusing himself from any philosophical onus or temporal responsibility. The senator, meanwhile, neatly illustrates why warning Pearl Harbour Command will do no good (“I suggest, asshole, that you stop impersonating some other asshole and get off the air. Stop wasting our time”). Of course, the part where elements of the US hierarchy had advance knowledge of attack is itself something that is now part of the record (something Oliver Stone conspicuously failed to mention in his sop The Untold History of the United States).
Yelland then proceeds to absolve himself of his stated job when the anomaly returns (“Maybe we oughta be asking ourselves ‘Should we even be trying to outrun it?’”). He appears to treat the storm as a higher power, responding to being told that “When we changed course, the storm changed course. It’s following us and growing at the same time” with “I’m recalling those planes”.
One curious aspect of The Final Countdown is that it functions as a kind of inverse of The Philadelphia Experiment, at least in terms of some of the latter’s accompanying lore. Instead of transportation to the 1980s (from 1943), there’s transportation to the 1940s (1941) from 1980. Obviously, the former featured a destroyer rather than an aircraft carrier, didn’t travel in time – but two of its crew, allegedly, did; see The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time for the notion that the movie’s events have a basis in truth) – and was intended, rather than representing Bermuda Triangle-esque happenstance, but this navy/portals/time-travel thing was evidently in the air (or soft disclosure).
It seems the novelisation revealed the phenomenon had an ET origin but wouldn’t be drawn further, which isn’t very helpful (these days, if there are unforecast, uncanny weather systems, one instantly runs to HAARP, pointing an accusatory finger). I don’t have much to say about Taylor’s “workmanlike” direction, but I’m happy to credit him as being responsible for the best Planet of the Apes sequel (Escape). I will big up Maurice Binder’s optical effects, though, since the time portal still looks very cool today, in a lo-fi, makeshift way. The producers were Peter Vincent Douglas (son of Kirk, half-brother of Michael) and Lloyd Kaufman (who continued to the lofty heights of The Toxic Avenger; it should come as no surprise that this is the most respectable movie for which he has a producer credit; one could almost regard it as an aberration).
Performance-wise, Kirk’s fine, grizzled etc (he was on a bit of sexagenarian SF run at this point, with The Fury and Saturn 3 making a less-than-estimable trilogy). Sheen’s post-Apocalypse Now years represent something of a quiet life after the trauma of Coppola, but he’s good value, as is Durning. Katharine Ross was essaying only nothing parts by this point, and instead it’s her co-star Charlie (her faithful Lassie dog) who bounds off with all the attention and honours (he heroically survives the Zero’s assault, and Owens, realising this is a way to a girl’s heart, rescues him from the drink. He also weathers a trip 40 years into the future with remarkable alacrity).
I was never a great fan of The Final Countdown at the time, wearing on its sleeve its status as one of a multitude of sci-fi/fantasy boom cash-in titles and not one of the best ones (again, the concept was striking, what it did with it, markedly less so). I actually found myself nursing a little more respect for it this time, however, since yes, it conveniently bottles it when it comes to repercussions and logistics, but it earns points for a willingness to discuss its conceptual ramifications.