The Final Countdown may not have been the thrilling time-travel spectacle its producers hoped it would be when it was released in 1980, but it did boast a winning score that continues to be widely praised not only for its creativity but its ability to transform a flawed movie into something of an unlikely classic.
I admit to being a huge fan of this movie. It’s easy to appreciate it as something of an anomaly in 1980 when movie special effects had survived the growing pains of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Alien – not to mention The Empire Strikes Back, to name just a few. Next to these Big Boys, The Final Countdown, with its embarrassing laser storm time portal and use of stock footage, comes across exactly as it was to make – cheap. However, that low-budget approach and earnest attention to story, underscored by a wonderfully propulsive score, is what gives the movie a lasting charm.
On the whole John Scott imbues the score with incredible optimism and purpose. At its core, The Final Countdown is a science fiction movie and Scott opens the movie in the main titles with Star Trek-ian fanfare. Like the Starship Enterprise, the U.S.S. Nimitz is treated like a character in the movie with its own theme (which takes a curiously menacing turn when the Nimitz first appears on screen and can be heard at the 2-minute mark in track 1). There’s little in the “Main Titles” to portend the forthcoming mystery and danger of the story. It’s a balls-out piece of heroic bombast that finds its fingerprints all over the rest of the score. Scott gives it a beautifully fatalistic feel in “Nimitz On Route” and a revisited heroic identity for “Splash the Zeros”. It’s hard to ignore the very obvious Tchaikovsky influences and one may take issue with its shameless patriotism, which makes the score feel like a marketing piece for the Navy (the movie was in fact used as a recruiting tool for the Navy). Despite this, the theme serves quite well what is, in essence, a very American movie.
Scott displays his true creativity with his “Mr. Tideman” theme, which may be, I would argue, one of the best themes ever created for a movie character. This track is certainly worth dissecting because it’s a work of undeniable genius. The nervous strings running throughout the track convey the appropriate anticipation and mystery surrounding the Tideman character and the horns echo the more stately and official elements of the Navy and Tideman’s relationship to it, but it’s that quick, playful little melody heard 45 seconds in that’s at the soul of the theme. It took me a few listens but I realized, whether intentional or not, that Scott was tipping his hat to “Tubular Bells”, which played a significant role in the score for The Exorcist.
Scott brings back the Tideman theme in romantic guise for the first real personal meeting between Commander Owen and Laurel. The theme, now stripped down and played with flute, not only underscores their budding romance but also foreshadows their relationship to the first appearance of Tideman earlier in the movie. The theme becomes more aggressive and fulfilled (not to mention creepier) at the end of the movie when it’s revealed Commander Owen is Mr. Tideman – or became Mr. Tideman, however you want to interpret it.
Sometimes the fanfare gets to be a little too much. “The Admirals Arrive” is a painful marching band composition and “Last Known Location,” with its overly dramatic tympanis and strings, feels entirely mired in dated ’70s and early ’80s adventure film scoring. I can’t say too much about Scott’s use of the Jaws theme to underscore the approaching time storm. After all, Jerry Goldsmith used it as well for The Omen in a key scene there. Here, Scott has time to truly play it out. It’s yet another nice nod to another influential film score from that era, even if it does seem like a lazy choice (even “An Hour Ago” sounds slightly derivative of Capt. Dallas’ air shaft crawl scene in Alien, with a few sneaky notes of the main Alien theme thrown in for good effect).
The Final Countdown is a relic of a time long since passed, when scores were treated with incredible care and attention, especially for sci-fi and adventure films. Call it the Star Wars Effect. Today, with emphasis and minimalism and irony in scoring, it’s easy to
dismiss Scott’s score as dated or even jingoistic. As politically minded as we are today, a movie like this would be (if similarly made) filed on either side of the dividing line between red and blue ideologies. And that’s sad. It diverts attention from what is in essence a beautifully realized score that serves its movie well and makes it a memorable, if flawed, entry in sci-fi cinema.
- The Final Countdown Main Titles (3:53)
- Mr. Tideman (2:24)
- The U.S.S. Nimitz On Route (3:28)
- The Approaching Storm (4:22)
- Pursued By The Storm (2:45)
- Into The Time Warp (3:57)
- Rig The Barricades (2:16)
- Last Known Position (2:13)
- An Hour Ago (1:00)
- December 7, 1941 (0:46)
- The Japanese Navy (0:35)
- Shake Up The Zeros (2:13)
- Splash Two (1:05)
- Laurel and Owen (2:22)
- Climb Mount Nitaka (2:10)
- On The Beach (0:39)
- General Quarters (1:48)
- Operation Pearl Harbor (0:59)
- The Storm Reappears (3:28)
- Back Through The Time Warp (3:40)
- The Planes Return (1:27)
- The Admirals Arrive (1:30)
- Mr. and Mrs. Tideman (4:19)
Released by: JOS Records
Release date: 2004
Total running time: 53:20