Remember The Philadelphia Experiment? That flick where the two US Navy sailors from WW2 got thrown into the eighties? Well this is the flip-side of that story, only with less soppy romantic subplots and more fighter planes.
Spartacus and Bartlet, time travelling.
In 1980, a civilian systems analyst has been sent to observe the crew of the carrier USS Nimitz on exercises out of Pearl Harbour. While he is on board, a strange storm appears behind the ship. After it passes over, the officers discover they have somehow travelled through time to December 6, 1941 – the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl. With time quickly running out, the captain must decide if he will use his advance knowledge and the resources at his command to cut off the attack force, or to allow history to proceed as it once did.
This was the proto-Top Gun. A 103-minute advertisement for the US Navy. A flawed attempt at a hard sci-fi approach to time travel, this film wants to examine the ethical dilemmas involved with being 40 years in the past with a warship, instead of going down the standard “let’s go blow some shit up” route. Unfortunately, the flick can’t stick to that intention, and neuters most of the philosophical arguments with five-minute-long montages of every plane on the carrier going throught take-off manoeuvers. A big chunk of the running time seems to be devoted almost entirely to showing how an aircraft carrier works. This is all fascinating, to be sure, but for me it kind of took away from where the story could have been going.
One important decision the writers made was to recognise how pointless it is to explain how the ship went back in time, as it’s just going to distract people, so they don’t even bother trying. This mysterious blue storm appears out of nowhere and poof! They’re gone. Was it God? Aliens? The Pentagon? Doesn’t matter. This film isn’t about how you travel through time; it’s about what you do after.
And it’s here where the movie’s main strength comes to the fore: casting. Kirk Douglas plays Captain Yelland, Martin Sheen is Lasky, the civilian analyst, and James Farentino is the CAG, Cmdr Owens. All three commit to the film and play it admirably straight. When it comes to deciding their course of action each has a valid point to be made. Yelland intends to use his ship to defend their country from attack, even if they are not meant to be there, and damn the consequences on present-day America. Meanwhile Laskey seems in favour of destroying the Japanese force, but seems to be the most knowledgable when it comes to paradoxes and such, even quoting the famous “grandfather paradox” at one point. And then there is Owens, who believes history should be left to play out as it already did and any attempt to change things will be inherently unsuccessful. What makes these discussion scenes interesting is that none of the different points are mutually exclusive.
And then we cut back to another plane montage.
This film did have one major point of influence on the world of US independent cinema though. The Unit Production Manager on this flick was one Lloyd Kaufman, taking one of his occasional freelance jobs during the early days of setting up his own film company. The experience of making this movie was so difficult for him that he vowed never to work for Big Hollywood again, and he immediately devoted all of his energies to Troma Entertainment.
By the way, if you find the idea of a modern military force against a more primitive one entertaining, and this effort is a bit too po-faced for you, you should definitely check out a Japanese flick called Samurai Commando: Mission 1549. The title should explain it all.