Monday, April 28, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Final Countdown (1980)

When pornographic films first went mainstream in the 1970s, the smut studios discovered it was actually very hard to fill up a feature-length movie run time with just depictions of sex. No matter how repetitive the various thrustings and couplings became, there just wasn't sufficient racy footage to get up to a respectable 80- or 85-minute length.

So they started to cheat by showing a bunch of "filler" -- stuff that a normal narrative film skips over. Things like cars pulling up to a house, the door opening, people walking inside, unnecessary conversations, etc. It made them seem more like, as famously described in "Boogie Nights," a "real movie."

Why do I bring up porno flicks in relation to 1980's sci-fi/action film, "The Final Countdown"? Because even though there's no sex -- indeed, there's only one female in an entire movie crammed with Navy dudes, and she doesn't do more than trade moony looks with an officer -- this low-budget spectacle is positively filled with filler.

Peter Douglas, son of Kirk, had a script but not much of a budget, so he turned to the U.S. Navy for help. They saw the project as a clever recruiting tool, and provided the complete use of the aircraft U.S.S. Nimitz, its aircraft and much of its crew for several weeks of shooting.

A few name actors carry the story -- besides Kirk Douglas there's Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross, Charles Durning and James Farentino -- but an astonishingly large portion of the 103-minute runtime is made up of Navy personnel running hither and fro, loading weapons and moving ordnance, planes taking off and landing, and so forth.

The film, a modest hit at the time, has developed a cult status among military aficionados for its realistic depiction of operations aboard a modern aircraft carrier. Of course it's accurate -- director Don Taylor largely just filmed what was happening aboard the ship, and worked in a preposterous sci-fi plot in between the everyday doings.

And that story is a doozy: the Nimitz encounters a random time wormhole that takes it back to Dec. 6, 1941 -- the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Douglas, as the captain, must decide whether to intervene and prevent the massacre, or let history take its course. In the end he's a by-the-book man, and decides it's his duty to defend his country no matter when and where.

The entire movie is a big tease. No battle actually ever takes place between modern American jets and vintage Japanese Zeroes, as the never-explained wormhole opens up again just in time to suck the Nimitz and its planes back to 1980.

Returning to the porno reference, "The Final Countdown" is all foreplay and no main event, making its head-scratching title even scratchier.

There is one sorta-encounter between a pair of F-14 Tomcats and some Zero replicas (left over from "Tora! Tora! Tora!" supposedly). It's the one moderately entertaining segment of the movie, though we never really get the sense of a tense aerial dogfight. Even more ridiculously, one of the Japanese pilots (Soon-Tek Oh) somehow survives his crash, is taken prisoner and gets loose, managing to kill four or five Navymen.

Sheen plays Lasky, a Defense Department civilian observer placed aboard the Nimitz for reasons that are mysterious even to him. Farentino is the wing commander who just happens to be a Pearl Harbor history buff. Charles Durning plays a (fictitious) U.S. senator who was killed by Japanese fighters as part of the historical event, but who gets inadvertently saved by the time travelers. Ross is his smart and winsome right-hand woman, who falls for the Farentino character.

The film ends with one of those out-of-left-field twists that is supposed to make the audience drop their jaws, but which only raises more puzzling time-loop questions that aren't really all that interesting, anyway.

Even as downmarket entertainment, "The Final Countdown" feels cheap and lazy. The actors appear to be going through the motions -- Kirk Douglas does a winking turn that suggests he had a good laugh at how goofy the movie was during production. If you took out all the endless loops of Navy-action, the film would get chopped down from 103 minutes to about 20. I think I would've found that version more watchable.

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