“The Final Countdown”: WWII history repeats when the U.S.S. Nimitz enters a weird time warp

By on April 5, 2019

Something very strange is going on during a freak electrical storm in Don Taylor’s The Final Countdown (1980) — now streaming on Night Flight Plus in our Blue Underground section along with other great cult titles — when thermonuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz on routine exercises in the middle of the Pacific Ocean enters some kind of weird time warp.

Suddenly, everyone aboard has been hurtled back in time to December 6, 1941, just a few hundred miles away from Pearl Harbor and a handful of hours before the Japanese will be attacking the naval base again in a repeat of what is largely considered one of America’s darkest hours.

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The massive warship’s “Captain Matthew Yelland” (Kirk Douglas) and members of his fleet, including “Air Wing Commander Richard Owens” (James Farentino) — not to mention an assistant of the Department of Defense “Warren Lasky” (Martin Sheen, just a year after the theatrical juggernaut that was Apocalypse Now), who just happens to be aboard under orders from his boss — lose radio contact with Pacific Fleet Command.

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Yelland doesn’t know quite what to make of the particular circumstances he’s now facing, so the first thing he does is send off an RF-8 Crusader reconnaissance aircraft, which returns later with photographs of the intact 1941 U.S. Pacific battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Very soon they’re all seeing the expected radar blips which reveal Japanese jet planes are indeed heading toward the naval base, so he launches two Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jets, to intercept.

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Meanwhile, two Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters attack a civilian yacht, and the Nimitz comes to their aid, rescuing the survivors, which includes “Senator Samuel Chapman” (Charles Durning), his lovely secretary “Laurel Scott” (Katharine Ross) and her dog, Charlie.

Yelland and everyone involved are now faced with the ultimate decision: should they let Japanese invasion continue and the same fatal events unfold the way they know it already unfolded nearly forty years earlier, or should they launch a pre-emptive counter-strike which will forever change the course of history, propelling the country in World War II for a second time.

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There’s an extra plot twist too as we learn that Senator Chapman might have actually been President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new vice presidential running mate during his final re-election — meaning, he would become the country’s next president with FDR’s death on April 12, 1945 — had, as history tells us, he had not disappeared shortly before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor.

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Superfly‘s Ron O’Neal (“Commander Dan Thurman”) also co-stars in the film which premiered on August 1, 1980, promoted as a late summer blockbuster.

Read more about The Final Countdown below.

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The Final Countdown might seem an odd choice to find amid the rest of our cult film selection on Night Flight Plus — considering the major Hollywood actors involved and the fact that we don’t offer up a lot of military-themed blockbusters — but you’ll have to just trust us, this sci-fi enhanced, Twilight Zone-ish major motion picture fits right in with the rest of what we’re offering.

Seriously, the moment you see a swirling vortex of electrified blue light encircling the Nimitz, and ear-splitting sounds which force full-grown men to their knees, shrieking in agony, you’re going to be fully onboard with The Final Countdown.

This ain’t no Tom Clancy, friends.

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In one of the more astonishing feats of cooperation between the U.S. government and Hollywood, the film’s producers were able to film aboard aboard the actual U.S.S. Nimitz — considered the pride of the U.S. Navy’s fleet at the time — with their full participation, which included the actual crew being used as extras.

The Navy may have thought the film’s close-up look at what the aircraft carrier offered in terms of firepower would probably be a good recruitment tool, and actual members of the Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron (who appear in the film) later praised the film’s authentic missile launches and other real-life air maneuvers.

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Don Taylor, an accomplished action movie director at the time, uses considerably tense moments which reportedly managed to wind up audiences in some cases to the point where they actually screamed at theater screens.

That kind of visceral reaction no doubt must have pleased future Troma legend Lloyd Kaufman, who was an associate producer on this project, lensed just four years before he directed The Toxic Adventure (his involvment might a clue about the film’s behind-the-scenes participation; Kaufman also plays a Lieutenant Commander named, get this, “Kaufman”).

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The project originated in the late Seventies with one of Kirk Douglas’ sons, Peter Vincent Douglas, who thought this project might be a good vehicle for his father to star in, and a good way to launch his own career (in just a few years he went on to produce movies like 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and 1985’s Fletch).

The film’s principal photography took place at Naval Air Station Key West, Naval Station Norfolk, and off the Florida Keys over a set of two five-week periods in 1979, although most of the Pearl Harbor scenes were stock footage shot before the fateful attack.

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Blue Underground’s The Final Countdown is presented with an all-new THX-Certified High-Definition Transfer from the original camera negative with remixed 6.1 DTS-ES and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX Soundtracks for the ultimate in explosive home theater excitement.

Watch The Final Countdown on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.