Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980)

Since my brain has been turned to mush from watching Top Gun 52 times last year, I thought I’d make the transition from Maverick to McFly with the tale of a time-traveling aircraft carrier. Predating both Top Gun and Back to the Future, this ’80s adventure is about the USS Nimitz (the same craft from the PBS doc Carrier) passing through a big blue electrical storm and ending up in a year when the military was not quite as advanced.

THE STORY:
This falls under a Twilight Zone sort of “what if?” time travel magic, so if you’re looking for something more scientific, you won’t get it here. The scenario of the movie only happens because, hey, wouldn’t it be neat if a modern aircraft carrier were around in the past, stocked with a hell of a lot more weapons and a knowledge of future wars? That being said, there’s some brilliance to what plays out. We’re treated to scenes of completely anachronistic aircraft dogfighting each other. That alone is worth the premise.

It makes a hell of a lot more sense than Aces: Iron Eagle III.

The standard questions of “can we change anything?” come up, though, oddly, one problem isn’t on anyone’s mind: how do we get back? I listened very carefully, but it never seemed to be an issue for a single character. I know they’re in the middle of a pretty stressful situation, but you’d think somebody would want to see his wife, kids, and Foghat again.

While the pacing can be a bit of a drag in spots, overall, there’s lots of mystery and plenty of surprises. The action unfolds in a very human manner; when stepping on a butterfly in the past can purportedly change the course of history, what can a ship with over 3,000 people on it affect? You may try to predict what’s going to happen as you watch, and while you might be right a couple times, what you get wrong can be a pleasant revelation.

THE ACTING:
Ouch. Okay, sorry, that’s not fair. Martin Sheen, Kirk Douglas, James Farentino, and Charles Durning all turn in acceptable performances, but when it comes to the rest of the crew, the term “community theatre” was murmured quite a bit within my viewing circle.

Here’s a test: can you pick out the worst actors from a single frame of The Final Countdown?

Hint: you aren’t allowed to wear a hat in a movie until you earn your SAG card.

Some of the line reads are so bad, you’d think they used actual Navy personnel… oh.

Honestly, though, even Kirk Douglas didn’t work for me in certain moments. He plays Capt. Matthew Yelland, and he’s in charge of the Nimitz. While it’s nice to see a leader who keeps his cool in any situation, he’s just pierced the fabric of time, for Christ’s sake. I’ve seen people more flabbergasted when the waitress forgets the mustard. Maybe I’m just used to Marty McFly struggling to keep his hands on the steering wheel of the DeLorean, but a little more freaking out, from any characters, would have added some human moments. And it’s not as though they can’t act; when guns are being waved around or a pilot’s life is threatened, then some serious shit is going down. But a giant rip in the fourth dimension? Yawn. Must be Tuesday. Probably will be tomorrow, too.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
I want to be nice. I really do. Here, look at this.

“Sir, we’re being followed by what appears to be a large duck. Entirely rubber, sir.”

Your first instinct is to laugh. You can’t help it. Yet, some shots do have their merits. I was particularly mesmerized by the use of silhouettes on the deck.

Basically, if you can enjoy classic Doctor Who for the story over the whiz-bang-zooms, you can give a pass to these effects, which take up a very small portion of the run time. You may even find them charming.

OTHER STUFF:

  • Many interior shots in the film look blurry, like the camera is out of focus, or the lens is coated with Vaseline. I couldn’t think of any logical reason for this.
  • The captain blames the electrical storm on an American Indian member of the crew doing “unauthorized rain dances again.” His reaction is appropriate.

  • The music sounds a bit like the brassy score from Airplane! Sometimes it gets too over-the-top to take seriously.
  • There’s a dog! He’s cute! Who’s a widdles?

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
At one point, Lasky (Martin Sheen) pretty much gives the Wikipedia description of the grandfather paradox, and Commander Dan Thurmond (Ron O’Neal) finally hits his breaking point with all the time travel gobbledygook.

“For Christ’s sake! What is this, some half-assed Princeton debating society? We are in a war situation! This is a United States warship! Or, at least, it used to be. Or will be. Or what the hell ever! Oh, goddammit, you can drive yourself crazy just trying to think about this stuff! Jesus, I must be dreaming!”

FINAL THOUGHTS:
I really enjoyed this movie. It’s by no means flawless, but it always leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next, and that’s a key part of any time travel movie. And I’ll admit, some of the curveballs it throws at you could exist purely for budgetary reasons, but in the long run, that doesn’t matter. The Final Countdown benefits from its restraint just as much as its willingness to indulge in a true fantasy scenario. It comes up a little short on character, but it’s ultimately a gripping story with some thrilling action scenes and it’s a treat to watch the mystery unfold. Check it out.

NEXT WEEK:
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.