Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), an independent observer tasked with evaluating Navy procedures, is an unwelcome guest on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which is departing Pearl Harbor for an otherwise routine cruise. A few days into the cruise, things change when the carrier is suddenly pursued and overtaken by a mysterious electromagnetic storm. Emerging from the storm, the sailors find themselves cut off from modern civilization — their communications don't work, their escorts have vanished, and there are no ships or planes on radar. However, they are able to pick up shortwave radio broadcasts that seem to date from World War II.
Further investigation reveals that it's no hoax; they have somehow been transported back in time — carrier, planes, and all — to December 6, 1941. Captain Matt Yelland (Kirk Douglas), not being an idiot, realizes the potential of a modern nuclear carrier to turn the tide of the forthcoming Pearl Harbor battle. Air Wing Commander "CAG" Richard Owens (James Farentino) is not so certain, believing that it's impossible to alter the past and that any attempt would be doomed to failure.
Meanwhile, the ship's aircraft have shot down two Japanese Zero fighters that attacked a yacht (part of the Japanese forces' attempts to ensure that nobody could warn the U.S. of the impending attack), and two survivors have been rescued, one of whom turns out to be U.S. Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning). Commander Owens, an amateur World War II historian, recognizes the Senator as having disappeared around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. More crucially, had he not disappeared, he would likely have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt's running mate in the 1944 election and on his subsequent death, President of the United States.
Now they have a dilemma. Return Senator Chapman to Pearl Harbor, and not only can he alter history by becoming President, but now he's seen Nimitz and thinks that it's part of a secret weapons program intended to trap the Japanese and make FDR a hero. Don't return him, and they've kidnapped or possibly murdered a public official of the United States. Amid the preparations for the upcoming battle, it's decided to compromise: drop the Senator and his beautiful assistant, Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross), off on a deserted island where they can ride out the war. Needless to say, Chapman isn't too happy when he finds out. Nor, it seems, is history changed so easily, as the time storm puts in one final appearance...
For the same initial premise with the sides reversed, see Zipang where a modern Japanese Aegis destroyer named the JDS Mirai gets inexplicably teleported back to the Battle of Midway. And for a similar premise with much more wide-reaching effects, see John Birmingham's Axis of Time novels. Author Peter Albano would reverse the premise with the first book of his The Seventh Carrier series, where a Japanese ship attacking Pearl Harbor is trapped in the arctic, but after getting out several decades later still charges ahead to finish its original mission and attack Pearl Harbor all over again.
The Final Countdown provides examples of:
- Alien Space Bats: How the time storm comes to exist, how it works, and why it's targeting Nimitz is left completely unexplained. The Martin Caidin novelization implies that it would be explained in a sequel, which never happened.
- Artistic License Military:
- First of all, the Nimitz would never have been at sea with only a pair of destroyers as an escort, regardless of how close they were to Pearl, but those same two destroyers would never be ordered to leave the carrier alone because of a potential storm. With the close proximity of the storm they would not have been able to avoid said storm, the preferred method of handling such situations at sea, but the Nimitz never would have been left on its own in reality. Even moreso if you consider the fact that the fleet was being shadowed by a Russian spy-ship.
- When captured Japanese pilot manages to grab an M16 from a Marine, he somehow instantly knows how to use it and is apparently aware that it fires in full auto. This is strange, given the fact that during World War Two, rapid fire weapons (outside heavy machine guns) were not as widespread as today and therefore, a random soldier from that time would have no reason to assume that this weird kind of weapon wielded by a mysterious American is automatic. Despite that, the Japanese pilot not only fires the M16 as someone used to it would, but is not surprised in the least that it's capable of continuous fire.
- Artistic License Ships:
- Mostly averted due to Navy backing, but the final scene substituted the USS Kitty Hawk, as at the time the movie was filmed Nimitz was part of the Atlantic fleet, which would've made sailing into Pearl Harbor somewhat difficult.
- When Nimitz goes to General Quarters, there is a dramatic scene of Marines jumping over the ship's anchor chains. The trouble is, this room (the forecastle) is at the very front of the ship where Marines are not quartered, and the men are simply running from port to starboard.
- The yacht, despite supposedly being in the open ocean, is quite clearly tethered at both ends.
- The finale shows the real dock of Nimitz: trouble is, in the final scene the limousine is going to drive off the end of it and into the ocean.
- Audience Surrogate: Lasky is the "The Everyman" stand-in for the audience.
- Bang, Bang, BANG: During the hostage crisis in Nimitz's sickbay, the people seem more shaken by the bloodshed than by the effects of multiple assault rifles being fired on full auto in a small room.
- In the beginning, a limousine stops near Lasky on the quay. Mr. Tideman, Lasky's employer, is in the limousine, but Lasky cannot meet him directly. In the end, Lasky encounters the same limousine on the same quay, but this time, he is allowed to meet Mr. Tideman, who is actually Commander Owens.
- In the beginning, the USS Nimitz is overtaken by a mysterious electromagnetic storm, while one of its fighters is not on board. After the storm, the fighter appears in the sky and lands on the carrier. In the end, the USS Nimitz is overtaken by the same electromagnetic storm, while all of its fighters are not on board. After the storm, all the fighters appear in the sky and land on the carrier.
- Born in the Wrong Century: Commander Owens.
- Bullet Time: The explosion of one of the Zeroes when hit by a Sidewinder missile from an F-14 is slowed down for several moments.
- Buzz Job: A pair of Tomcats start "playing with" a pair of Zeros, starting with speeding by them so close the Japanese planes are thrown around by their wakes.
- The Coconut Effect: Averted with the dogfight scene. Many people don't seem to know what a minigun really sounds like, and might mistake the realistic sound in the movie, given most other movies greatly slow down the firing of such guns to make them sound more dramatic.
- Coming in Hot: A fighter pilot incapacitated by the time storm makes a crash landing on the carrier.
- Cool Boat: USS Nimitz, first ship of her class, and the largest warship in the world at the time. As can be seen from the poster, the Nimitz and her aircraft are the real stars of the movie.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Two F-14 Tomcats versus two A6M Zeros. Heavily lampshaded. Nimitz's air wing would have similarly shredded the Japanese attack force, but never gets a chance.
- Explosive Instrumentation: Control panels can be seen shorting out and throwing showers of sparks during the time travel sequences. Thankfully not many of the crew seem to be injured by these malfunctions.
- Fighter-Launching Sequence: The film is replete with these; the very first shot of the film starts off with an F-14 taking off from (the modern-day) Pearl Harbor airfield. There are also numerous shots of Navy warplanes taking off and landing on Nimitz, including one scene where the strike group sent to attack the Japanese fleet is launched, which takes several minutes to play out.
- Gatling Good: One of the Zeroes is brought down by a burst from a Tomcat's M61 Vulcan; a 6-barreled, 20mm rotary cannon which has been the go-to gun armament for almost every US fighter jet since Vietnam.
- Grandfather Paradox: Discussed and a reason not to use Nimitz to win World War II in a matter of weeks. Besides the issue of changing the fates of millions of people and possibly preventing some of the crew's parents from meeting, Nimitz itself is in danger. A swift end to World War II means no Manhattan Project, which in turn means Hyman Rickover never gets the chance to start the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, which means no nuclear powered USS Nimitz.
- Gratuitous Japanese: Commander Owen does this when revealing his knowledge of the impending Pearl Harbor attack to the Japanese pilot.Owen: Your code is: climb mount Niitaka. Niitaka-yama nobore!
- Guns Akimbo: A Japanese pilot does this during the hostage situation mentioned below; brandishing both an M1911A1 pistol and an M16A1 rifle.
- Hollywood Tactics: At the end, Yelland orders the entire carrier air fleet to intercept the Japanese aircraft, intending to prevent them from ever reaching Pearl Harbor. Impressive and formidable... but also completely unnecessary and even stupid from a tactical perspective. As far as he knows, the Nimitz is trapped in the past. The modern-day carrier is a formidable weapon... only as long as it remains operational. While the nuclear engines can last years, the carrier only has a very limited amount of avgas, spare parts, munitions, etc. Once they're consumed, there aren't any replacements. The smart thing for him to do is use the absolute minimum amount of force necessary to get the job done, and make his limited resources last as long as possible. Instead of launching all his aircraft, a single A-6 Intruder, armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, could have destroyed all the Japanese carriers. He already knows where they are and what their schedule is, and the Intruder could have caught them when they were ready to launch all the aircraft and their flight decks were packed with planes and fuel. Not only would they have not known what hit them, they would never have even known it was there in the first place...
- Honor Before Reason: Yelland plans to use Nimitz to turn the tide of Pearl Harbor because he's a U.S. Navy captain and obligated to defend his country, never mind the paradoxes it would create.
- Inverted when Yelland allows two Japanese Zeros to attack and sink a civilian ship flying a US flag, then strafe the survivors in the water.
- Hostage Situation: Happens when a surviving Japanese pilot overpowers a guard and grabs not one, but two guns.
- Improbable Infant Survival: Played with; the Japanese pilot points one of his commandeered guns at Laurel's dog as it runs out of the sickbay, but the only reason he doesn't shoot it is because he's distracted by Laurel shouting at him not to.
- Jerkass: Senator Samuel S. Chapman. Being a Strawman Pacifist also doesn't help his case. He does have several Jerkass Has a Point moments though. He isn't wrong to be frustrated about why he's being Locked Out of the Loop by the ships crew about who they are and what's happening, and does want to warn Pearl Harbor about the impending attack as soon as he hears about it.
- Just Plane Wrong: Although the US aircraft are, indeed, correct (see above, about Pentagon backing and filming aboard the actual USS Nimitz), the A6Ms were really T-6 "Texan" trainers (to be exact, Navy SNJ models). T-6 "Texans" being rather easier to come by than intact and flyable A6M Zeros.
- The Last Title: The title.
- Let's Get Dangerous!: At first the F-14s just fly circles around the pair of Zeros, until they get the order to "splash the Zeros," and then they stop fooling around, leading to the Curb-Stomp Battle mentioned above.
- Made of Explodium:
- The helicopter near the end explodes in a hilariously huge fireball because a flare gun is accidentally discharged near the doors.
- Inverted with the second Zero during the dogfight scene; the real-life A6M Zero was a notorious Fragile Speedster, yet when hit by a burst of 20mm shells from the F-14's cannon note , it suffers little more than a knocked-out engine and crashes into the ocean largely intact. note
- Mass Teleportation: It's a very convenient Mass Teleportation as well, taking Nimitz and her nearby aircraft in each case, but not her escort ships or anybody else.
- Mile-Long Ship: Nimitz is introduced by the camera traversing the length of the ship. While not actually a mile long (just shy of 1,100 feet bow to stern), its a real vessel, and all the more impressive for it.
- Oh, Crap!:
- Just look at the faces of the Japanese pilots when the F-14s scream past them, it's priceless.
- Also the reaction of the surviving Japanese pilot after Commander Owen reveals in explicit detail that they know the Japanese plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
- Our Time Travel Is Different: The wormhole version.
- Pet the Dog:
- Senator Chapman yelling for Harvey, the waiter from the yacht to ditch his life jacket and dive in order to avoid the Japanese strafing run before doing so himself. Unfortunately, Harvey is unable to follow this advice due to not knowing how to swim.
- The second time the Nimitz goes through the time vortex, Lassky can be seen holding his hands over the dog's ears to try to help the dog.
- Pistol Whip: Happens twice; first when the Japanese pilot hits a Marine in the gut with the butt of his own rifle, then later on when Senator Chapman cold-cocks a helicopter pilot with a flare pistol.
- Poor Communication Kills: Had they told the civvies the plan, it might have avoided at least four deaths.
- Red Alert: There are two General Quarters scramble scenes; following the first time storm, and again when arming up the strike group to engage the Japanese fleet. Only the first one includes the blaring klaxon though.
- Semper Fi: US Marines can be seen acting as security personnel onboard Nimitz, as per their traditional role aboard Navy ships.
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Does Nimitz cause the Stable Time Loop by rescuing Senator Chapman? Commander Owens certainly thinks so.
- Shown Their Work: Despite being a science fiction/fantasy film, this movie has one of the most accurate portrayals of aircraft carrier flight operations that you are likely to find.
- The Slow Path: Commander Owens, after being stranded on the island, takes the long way back to the present, resulting in The Reveal that he parlayed his knowledge of the future to set up the Stable Time Loop — in part, by getting Lasky aboard for that particular voyage.
- Spy Ship: The USS Nimitz task force shadowed by a Soviet-flagged "fishing trawler" that isn't doing much fishing.
- Stable Time Loop: Perfectly wrapped up by The Reveal at the end, making this one of the "stabler" time loops in filmmaking.
- Stock Footage:
- Many of the aircraft scenes. Of course, many were actually shot on the real life Nimitz, making this only a partial example. During the second Time Travel sequence, stock footage of the Pearl Harbor attack is shown.
- Some of the scenes glimpsed there are taken from Tora! Tora! Tora! rather than the actual Pearl Harbor attack.
- Supporting Protagonist: Lasky is the primary point of view character, but his role is passive — he is, after all, an "observer". The heroic actions are mainly taken by Yellen and Owens. It turns out that Lasky's purpose is to be the key to the Stable Time Loop.
- Swirly Energy Thingy: The time warp.
- Temporal Sickness: Passage through the time storm is extremely disorienting to everyone on Nimitz.
- Time Travel
- Time-Travel Tense Trouble:Owens: I'm not half the theorist you are, Mr. Lasky. But I still have a gut instinct that things only happen once. And if they have happened, then there's nothing we can do to change them. Nor should we try.
Lasky: Well, how are you going to avoid it? It's already happening, and we're already involved!
Thurman: 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!
- The Unfought: The Japanese task force (with the exception of the two Zeroes). Even lampshaded by a couple of US pilots.Pilot 1: Mission aborted? But we can see 'em!
Pilot 2: Ah they're gonna let the Japs do it again!"
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The pilot who makes the emergency barricade landing on the carrier after the first time storm is never seen or mentioned again, leaving the viewer to wonder what becomes of him.
- You Already Changed the Past: All their worrying about changing the future is for naught because... they're doing exactly what happened in the first place. Nimitz was always there at the time of Pearl Harbor.
- You Can't Fight Fate: The time storm sure is persistent. It's lampshaded by Captain Yelland, who immediately guesses that the storm has reappeared to take them home and recalls the carrier's aircraft so they won't be stranded.
- You Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You: Not the precise words, but occurs twice - once when Commander Owens is trying to avoid explaining their presence in 1941 to Laurel and Sen. Chapman; and again after Nimitz has returned to Pearl, as admirals are storming aboard to demand to know how an entire aircraft carrier got lost in the Pacific Ocean.