Posted by Greg Ferrara on September 5, 2012
Growing up, my favorite genre was sci-fi. I loved it in all its forms, from action-adventure sci-fi, like War of the Worlds, to the more cerebral, talkier sci-fi like Demon With a Glass Hand, the episode of The Outer Limits written by Harlan Ellison or another episode he wrote for the same series, Soldier. He claims that James Cameron lifted aspects of both episodes for The Terminator and the matter was settled out of court (and Ellison given a credit acknowledgement) and, maybe because of the similarities, I’ve always liked The Terminator, too. But there’s something else about those story lines I like: the element of time. Both of those episodes, as well as The Terminator, deal with time travel, as well-worn a sci-fi story device as there is (click here to see the multitudes) and for good reason. Send a character backwards or forwards through time and the story possibilities, as well as the mind-bending paradoxes, are endless. And so in 1980, in my early teens, I was pleasantly surprised to find Hollywood offering me the opportunity to see two time-travel films in theaters in the same year. They don’t have the name recognition of some of the bigger time-travel movies but both have held up surprisingly well.
Mention time-travel in the movies these days and Back to the Future is the first, and maybe only, movie folks will mention. People love the Back to the Future franchise (I like it very much myself) but there are other time-travel movies out there I like a lot better.
Those two in 1980, for instance. That year saw the release of The Final Countdown and Somewhere in Time. The Final Countdown has been all but forgotten and Somewhere in Time is often maligned as a sappy, sugary tale of romance once upon a time. And, honestly, it is but I like it anyway.
Somewhere in Time stars Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer as a different sort of love triangle. For one thing, the Christopher Plummer character, William Robinson, isn’t so much in love with Jane Seymour’s character, Elise McKenna (though he may be), as invested in her. He is her manager and wants to keep her on track as she is the top stage actress of her day, which just happens to be 1912. For another thing, the Reeve character, Richard Collier, isn’t from 1912, he’s from 1980. And the way it starts is when the now 85 year-old Elise McKenna visits a young Richard Collier after the premier of his first play in 1972 and gives him a watch as she says, “Come back to me.”
Later, in 1980, he travels to the beautiful Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island in Michigan and discovers that the woman who gave him the watch was a famous actress once, at which point he becomes entranced by the lovely Miss McKenna. Suffice it to say, he travels back in time to meet her and, tragically, is pulled away from her just as their love for each other becomes undeniable. At which point she’s left with the watch, which she hangs onto for sixty years and then gives back to him. He holds onto it for eight years and gives it back to her. Then another sixty and back to him. Then another eight and back to her. And so on. And despite everything else going on in the movie, this is the part of the movie that fascinates me: No one ever made the watch! It just exists. The universe simply created it for the sole purpose of giving Richard and Elise a token of their love to exchange. Who says the universe is indifferent?
And where did the daisy chain begin? She only has it because he gave it to her. He only has it because she gave it to him. Neither of them ever bought it. And eventually, it will start to fall into disarray. As the cycle never ends, the watch, by necessity, will arrive at ages of a thousand years old, a million, a billion! At some point, one of them is going to hand the other one a handful of dust.
Furthermore, he only goes back in time because she showed up, gave him the watch and intrigued him. But she only gave him the watch at his play because he came back in time and intrigued her. So what was the first meeting? He met her first, in 1912, I suppose, on a linear timeline but really, she met him first in 1972. But actually, he made the decision to go to her in 1980. When he “meets” her in 1912, he’s already met her in 1972. But by the time of the meeting in 1972, she had already met him in 1912.
See, this is why I love science fiction.
The other thing about Somewhere in Time that succeeds for time travel is they don’t bother making the time travel anything technological. It’s just a case of one character willing himself into the time of the other. A literal representation of “I’d travel through time to be with you” or “when I’m with you, time stands still.” Hoaky? Sure, a little bit, but it’s written by the great Richard Matheson and, honestly, comes off a lot better than you’d think. For one thing, with no real technologies involved, it doesn’t date itself at all. It takes place in another time and place (even starting its own present day eight years before the movie was made). Which brings me to that other time travel piece from 1980, The Final Countdown. It’s loaded with technology and isn’t dated a bit. There’s a couple of reasons for that.
It might not occur to you that filming a time travel movie almost entirely aboard an aircraft carrier is the perfect place for such a venture but, believe it or not, it is. For one thing, the jets used aboard the ship were fourth generation fighters, used until the 21st century and not dramatically different in outward appearance from the fifth generation currently in use, at least not to a lay person. So it still looks and feels like it could be taking place today. But what about the fashions, you say. There are none! It takes place aboard an aircraft carrier with nothing but military uniforms and Navy haircuts so no one sticks out with wide lapels or heavy sideburns. Again, they all look like they could be in a movie right now. And honestly, that helps the time element extremely well because you’re not distracted by their contemporary time at all.
But there’s something else to it: It’s not concerned with the oddities of differences in cultural shifts over time (like so many time travel stories, not the least of which being Back to the Future but also the previously discussed Somewhere in Time) but with a moral conundrum, something a lot of the best sci-fi does all the time. The story involves the crew of the U.S.S. Nimitz, with Kirk Douglas at the helm, aided by James Farentino at his side and Martin Sheen as a government observer. The carrier encounters a freak electrical storm and when they emerge from it, the year is 1941 and the date is December 6th, one day before the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor, which just happens to be where they set out from only hours before. Once they figure out exactly what’s going on (within reason, that is – the actual device of time travel, the storm, is never explained and wisely so) they have a choice: Sit by and let history happen or, knowing they carry enough firepower and technology on their one carrier to easily defeat the entire Japanese Navy, destroy the enemy and change the timeline.
They know if they do nothing, history will run its course, and they know how that turns out. If they act, they stop one attack but what else happens? Does America enter the war in Europe in December or wait another year, or two, until it’s too late? The Final Countdown answers this question by having it both ways, that is, the captain makes a decision but the storm pulls them back out before anything can be done. Of course, that doesn’t mean no one’s left behind, which leads to another fascinating aspect of science fiction as one character goes from young to old within the contemporary time frame while another grows old along the normal timeline but with the knowledge of all that is to come. It’s a fascinating premise and if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending.
When it was released I saw it in a practically empty cinema and the reviews were middling. It doesn’t have photographic magic in every frame and there are no wild or fanciful arcs of character. It’s a pretty straightforward affair which, quite frankly, science fiction could use a lot more of. Science fiction, whether in time-travel or full-on action mode, is usually about some idea more than anything else. The idea in Somewhere in Time is a simple one, that love literally transcends time. The idea in The Final Countdown is a little more complex, that acting in favor of the immediate good may result in a long term bad. But whatever the idea, Somewhere in Time and especially The Final Countdown, are two overlooked and undervalued time travel movies. They’re not masterpieces but good, solid explorations of moments and morals and decisions made by imperfect minds. Something science fiction can often do better than anything else. And should do as often as possible, time and time again.
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