Produced with the full cooperation of the United States Navy, set and filmed on board the real-life USS Nimitz supercarrier, The Final Countdown was a moderate success at the box office.
In 1980, USS Nimitz takes on a civilian observer Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), on the orders of his reclusive employer, Mr. Tideman, whose company designed and built the ship, as it departs Pearl Harbor for training in the Pacific.
Once at sea, Nimitz encounters a strange storm-like vortex, which disappears after the ship passes through it. Initially unsure of what has happened, and having lost radio contact with Pacific Fleet Command, Captain Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas) orders General Quarters and, fearing the possibility of a nuclear strike on Hawaii, launches an RF-8 Crusader reconnaissance aircraft, which returns with photographs of the intact 1941 U.S. Pacific battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor.
When a surface contact is spotted on the radar, Captain Yelland launches the ready alert, two Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jets, to intercept. The patrol eventually witness a civilian yacht being attacked and destroyed by two Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters, killing three of the crewmembers. Nimitz rescues the yacht’s remaining survivors: the fictional US Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning), his secretary Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), her dog, Charlie and one of the Zero pilots. The CAG (Commander, Air Group) of Nimitz, Commander Owens (James Farentino), an amateur historian, recognizes Samuel Chapman as a politician who could have been Franklin D. Roosevelt's running mate (and his potential successor) during his final re-election bid except for the fact that he disappeared shortly before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
After a Grumman E-2 Hawkeye discovers the Japanese fleet poised to attack Pearl Harbor, Nimitz crew eventually realize that they have been transported back in time to December 6, one day before the attack. Captain Yelland has to decide whether to destroy the Japanese fleet and alter the course of history, or to stand by and allow history to proceed as "normal". The civilians and the Zero pilot are kept isolated, but while being questioned, the Japanese pilot grabs a weapon, kills his guards and holds the other survivors, the CAG, and Lasky as hostages, threatening to kill them unless he is given access to a radio so he can warn his commanding officers about Nimitz, which is far more powerful than anything in the Japanese fleet. The Japanese pilot is eventually overcome and Laurel and Commander Owens become attracted to each other.
The senator is outraged to learn that Captain Yelland knows of the impending Japanese attack but has not told anyone else and demands to be taken to Pearl Harbor to warn naval authorities there—but Yelland instead orders Owens to drop the civilians and sufficient supplies for them off via helicopter on an isolated Hawaiian island, assuming they will eventually be rescued. When they arrive, Chapman realizes he has been tricked and tries to hijack the chopper and force the pilot to fly to Pearl Harbor, but instead causes an explosion that destroys the craft, stranding Laurel and Owens on the island. Nimitz launches a massive strike force against the incoming Japanese forces, but before they can reach the enemy armada, the time storm returns. After a futile attempt to outrun the storm, Yelland recalls the strike force, and the ship and the aircraft return to 1980 safely. Upon the return of Nimitz to Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet admirals board the ship to investigate Nimitz's bizarre disappearance. Meanwhile, Lasky and Laurel’s dog Charlie, upon leaving the ship, finally encounter the mysterious "Mr. Tideman" face-to-face, who is revealed to be a much older Commander Owens, along with his wife, Laurel.
As appearing in The Final Countdown (main roles and screen credits identified):Kirk Douglas as Capt. Matthew Yelland, Commanding Officer, USS Nimitz
Martin Sheen as Warren Lasky
Katharine Ross as Laurel Scott
James Farentino as Cmdr. Richard T. "Dick" Owens, Commander of Carrier Air Wing 8 / Richard Tideman, head of Tideman Industries
Ron O'Neal as Cmdr. Dan Thurman, Executive Officer, USS Nimitz
Charles Durning as Senator Samuel S. Chapman
Victor Mohica as Black Cloud, USS Nimitz weather officer
James Coleman (credited as James C. Lawrence) as Lt. Perry
Soon-Tek Oh (credited as Soon-Teck Oh) as IJN pilot Shimura
Joe Lowry as Cmdr. Damon
Alvin Ing as Lt. Kajima
Mark Thomas as Marine Cpl. Kullman
Harold Bergman as Bellman
Dan Fitzgerald as Navy doctor
Lloyd Kaufman as Lt. Cmdr. Kaufman
Kirk Douglas's son, Peter, as producer, was the driving force behind The Final Countdown. With a limited budget but with a promising script, he was able to attract interest from the U.S. Navy. After seeing a script, officials from the Department of Defense offered full cooperation, but insisted that for safety and to maintain operational readiness, the film schedules would be dependent on the "on location" naval consultant, William Micklos. 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. Scenes at Pearl Harbor consisted of mainly stock footage with most of The Final Countdown exteriors shot on Nimitz while at sea, and at drydock for interiors. During operations, an emergency landing took place with the production crew allowed to film the recovery of the aircraft on Nimitz; the sequence appeared in the final film.
Many of the crew members of Nimitz were used as extras, a few with speaking parts; a total of 48 of the crew appear as "actors" in the final credits. The difficulties in filming a modern jet fighter were soon apparent when the first setup to record a F-14 takeoff at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, resulted in both camera and operator being pitched down a runway.
Dissension in the production crew led to major changes during location shooting, leading to a number of the crew being fired and replaced. Taylor's direction was considered workmanlike as he had a reputation for bringing projects in on time and on budget, but suggestions from the U.S. naval aviators were ultimately incorporated into the shooting schedules with the "B" crew placed in charge of all the aerial sequences that became the primary focus of the film.
In order to film the aerial sequences, Panavision cameras were mounted on naval aircraft while camera-equipped aircraft and helicopters were also employed by the studio, including a Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, Learjet 35, and a B-25 bomber converted into a camera platform, and leased from Tallmantz Aviation. Three Mitsubishi A6M Zero replicas, originally built for the film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were flown by pilots from the Confederate Air Force, now called the Commemorative Air Force. Two of the replicas were featured in a dogfight with F-14 Tomcats; a dissimilar engagement that was the first time that "the match-up of fighters with totally different speeds, totally different environments and weaponry had ever been done in film".
In one scene where an F-14 "thumps" a Zero by flying under and streaking upward in front of the slower aircraft, the resultant "jet blast" of turbulent air was so intense that the control columns of both of the Zeros in the scene were violently wrenched out of the pilots' hands and caused both aircraft to momentarily tumble out of control. The lead pilot's headset, along with his watch were ripped off and out of the open canopy of his Zero, resulting in a few anxious moments as the F-14 pilots were unable to establish contact. During the engagement when a Zero fires on an F-14, in order to get on the "six" of the low and slow Zero, the jet fighter did a low pull up that ended just 100 feet (30 m) above the ocean in a screaming recovery.
During the climactic attack on Pearl Harbor, scenes reproduced in monochrome from Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Aichi D3A Val dive bombers, Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters and Nakajima B5N Kate torpedo bombers.Aichi Val replica
Douglas EA-3B Skywarrior
Grumman F-14 Tomcat
Grumman E-2 Hawkeye
Grumman A-6 Intruder
Lockheed S-3 Viking
LTV A-7 Corsair II
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (briefly)
North American RA-5C Vigilante (briefly)
North American T-6 Texan modified to resemble Mitsubishi A6M Zero
North American T-6 Texan modified to resemble Nakajima Kate
Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King
Vought RF-8G Crusader
The Final Countdown was promoted as a summer blockbuster and received mixed reviews from critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times considered it more of an interesting, behind-the-scenes tour of Nimitz. "We see planes landing and taking off with beautiful precision and, just to let us know that things don't always run smoothly on Nimitz, we also see one plane, which has lost its landing hook, landing safely anyway because of the ship's emergency gear." Roger Ebert commented that "logic doesn't matter in a Star Wars(-like) movie". He went on to clarify: "Unfortunately, the movie makes such a mess of it that the biggest element of interest is the aircraft carrier itself." Later reviews concentrated on the intriguing aspect of the time travel story, again stressing the military hardware was the real star. The U.S. Navy sponsored the film premiere and exploited the film as a recruiting tool to the extent that The Final Countdown poster appeared in U.S. Navy recruiting offices shortly after the film's release. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert selected the film as one of their "dogs of the year" in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews.Nominee Best Science Fiction Film of Year—Saturn Award (Peter Vincent Douglas)
Nominee Best Actor—Saturn Award (Kirk Douglas)
Winner Golden Screen Award (German box office award)
The Final Countdown was released to theaters in the United States on August 1, 1980. A novelization by Martin Caidin, based on the screenplay was released in the same month. Although preceded by a video release, on March 30, 2004, The Final Countdown was released by Blue Underground on a two-DVD set (both full screen DVD, a widescreen DVD) and a special two-disc limited edition set that comes with a hologram cover. Each edition was accompanied by special featurettes including a "behind-the-scenes" documentary as well as accessing overlaid commentary by the producer and other studio principals. On November 4, 2008, a high-definition Blu-ray 2-disc set was also released, but did not include some of the earlier extra background material.