The Empty Balcony: The Final Countdown

When I decided to watch The Final Countdown, I was expecting to get a Shitty Movie Sundays review out of it, but the movie failed to live up to expectations. It is not a shitty movie. It’s not great, but it was good enough to keep me interested. I remember seeing the film as a kid, a long time ago, and I remembered that the premise was incredibly wild. Add in the fact the film has faded into obscurity, and I thought I had a winning combination of shitty.

From 1980, The Final Countdown takes place aboard the USS Nimitz, at the time the Navy’s showcase aircraft carrier. While on maneuvers in the Pacific a few hundred miles out from Pearl Harbor, the Nimitz encounters a strange storm that seems to flit into and out of existence. A crackling electric vortex moves over the ship, her crew falling to the deck in agony. When they recover, they find clear skies all around, empty seas, and no communications from the escort ships the Nimitz had been travelling with or fleet command back in Hawaii. They seem to be all alone.

The Nimitz’s commander, Captain Yelland (a latter-career Kirk Douglas), is not jumping to any conclusions, but he’s not discounting the idea that his ship has been the victim of hostile action. The country may be at war. He tasks his executive officer, Commander Thurman (Ron O’Neal), and a civilian systems analyst who came aboard just before the storm hit, Lasky (Martin Sheen), with figuring out what has happened. Little clues begin to seep in. AM radio broadcasts of Jack Benny are picked up. Later comes a Joe Louis fight. A reconnaissance flight the captain orders over Pearl Harbor returns bearing photographs of Battleship Row, packed full of ships. The Nimitz’s resident amateur historian/hunk, Wing Commander Owens (James Farentino), confirms that the ships at Pearl Harbor are indeed the same ships, in the same spots, which were attacked on December 7th, 1941. More evidence of the strange situation comes when a pair of Nimitz’s F-14s shoot down Japanese Zeros that attacked and destroyed a yacht.

Survivors are pulled from the water. One of them is a senator (Charles Durning) who, it turns out, went missing the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He’s accompanied by a face (Katharine Ross).

Captain Yelland is now entertaining a ludicrous proposition. The USS Nimitz appears to have gone back in time to the day before the attack. When the Nimitz locates the approaching Japanese fleet, the time for supposition is over. Good thing, too. A viewer will have been in on things for a while by this point. Making them wait any longer for the cast to catch up could have been deadly.

Now our main characters are faced with a conundrum. They are rolling around the Pacific Ocean one day before the attack that got the United States into World War II, in a vessel loaded with weapons decades in advance of anything known. And, they are American servicemen. With the exception of Lasky, they have all sworn an oath to defend the Constitution and obey the orders of the president and their superiors. The country is about to come under attack and they are in a unique position to stop it. Not only do they know the exact position of the enemy strike force, their advanced technology means a pre-emptive attack would be devastating to the enemy. The captain decides to carry out that attack.

This was the point in the film that got my wheels turning. According to layman’s science fiction, one of two things is happening at this point in the film. Either the presence of the Nimitz in 1941 has created a new timeline, freeing the Nimitz to change events in the past, or timelines are immutable, and no matter what the Nimitz tries, history cannot be changed. It’s a tossup, and while whatever direction the script takes matters to the resolution of the film, the decision making process of Captain Yelland is, to me, more engaging.

Yelland is a captain in the United States Navy. He is the commanding officer of her premiere ship. He’s probably an Annapolis grad, and might have been a fighter pilot and wing commander during his career. He’s probably a combat vet. His Annapolis education is a sign of his intelligence. His current position suggests drive, focus, a capacity for critical thinking, yet an unwillingness to be an outlier. Those that command the Nimitz are on track to be admirals, and admirals don’t get to be admirals by being different. Yelland is a company man, fiercely dedicated, fiercely patriotic, but also responsible for 5,000 sailors and billions of bucks worth of gear. He’s cut off from his superiors, which, to him, means he is in charge, period.

He recognizes that picking up the phone and dialing the 1940s Department of the Navy and warning them the Japanese are on their way will do no good. The Nimitz’s story is just too outlandish. And while decades of sci-fi films have trained movie-going audiences to automatically believe that fucking with the past is bad, Yelland has no such concerns. And rightfully, I believe. He has no idea what the phenomenon was that sent the Nimitz to the past. He only knows it happened. He has no idea if the event can be recreated, or if his ship will ever go back to its proper time. All Yelland knows is the Nimitz’s current situation, and like a good commanding officer, he makes his decisions based on that knowledge. There is nothing in his orders or experience that says time, and history, is to remain sacrosanct, nor is there any line in the oath he took that relieves him of his responsibility for defense because he finds himself in the wrong year. His job is to defend the country, and boatloads of Japanese sailors are planning to attack it. End of story.

That makes Yelland a compelling and realistic character, with a surprising amount of depth for a movie of this caliber. The film initially set up Martin Sheen’s Lasky as the complicated character, and while he does remain the film’s conscience, and the emissary to viewers cognizant of Hollywood time travel conventions, his waffling nature turns the character irrelevant pretty quickly.

While The Final Countdown has complicated issues at its heart, it’s left up to a viewer to infer. The movie itself keeps things simple. It’s just a sci-fi film featuring an aircraft carrier (with much cooperation apparent from the Navy), with a pretty good cast and okay execution. Denouement comes quickly and is unfulfilling, but doesn’t keep the film from being a neat piece of cinematic history.