Back in the eighties, we loved sci-fi thrillers set in the “real” world with just one technological twist to build an exciting story around. High-schoolers building nuclear bombs, runaway killer robots, and recording full-sensory input were just a few of the movies that, though a bit dated now, kept us in our seats while the last vestiges of the cold war played out in the news. And there was one interesting little sub-genre that popped up long enough to generate a couple amusingly geeky flicks which, thanks to Netflix, we can go back and pit against one another now.
Because who doesn’t love a movie about Navy ships getting sucked through holes in the space/time continuum?
That’s right, we’re pitting the John Carpenter-produced The Philadelphia Experiment (TPE) against Kirk Douglass-starring The Final Countdown (TFC). Who will reign supreme?
The Setups: Possibly based on a TRUE STORY, in 1943, the USS Eldridge is part of an experiment in the Philadelphia harbor (hence the name) to render naval ships invisible to radar. But something does horribly wrong, the ship vanishes, and two sailors find themselves in the Nevada desert in 1984. In 1980, the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz falls through a freak storm and finds itself between Hawaii and the Japanese fleet a day before the attach on Pearl Harbor. Winner: Tie
The Science: In TPE, similar experiments 40 years apart tear a rift in the time/space continuum that links the two, and threatens to destabilize and suck the entire planet into the void in between. In TFC, there’s a freaky storm that sucks the Nimitz back in time, and later forwards in time, with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. Winner: TPE, for at least giving a nod towards some kind of scientific explanation.
The Actors: In TPE, Michael Paré plays a sailor from southern California… with a thick Brooklyn accent. Between this movie and The Greatest American Hero, his place in geek entertainment history is set, even if he’ll never win an Oscar. And of course, Robocop’s future partner, Nancy Allen doing her best Karen Allen/Starman impression. Plus, any movie with Stephen Tobolowsky gets an extra 0.5 points. In TFC, which must have had a budget as big as the USS Nimitz cost, we get Kirk Douglass, Martin Sheen, Charles Durning, James Farentino, Katharine Ross, and the eternally awesome Soon-Tek Oh (a Korean/American actor playing Japanese). Winner: TFC
The Effects: TPE makes extensive use of rotoscoping during the experiment scenes, and the slow-mo destruction of trays of glowing vacuum tubes by a pseudo space-suited, ax-wielding Michael Paré is an iconic image. TFC has a laser (high technology at the time) spinning around in fog to give the effect of a tunnel. Ooh. Ahh. Winner: TPE
Overall: The hard truth is this: with a smaller budget, and lower-grade cast, TPE actually has a story, action, emotion, and an interesting scientific hook. TFC, with its amazing cast, and boatloads of money, comes off as a 1:40-long advertisement for the Navy, with a funny little time travel plot thrown in. I mean, half the movie is planes taking off or landing on the carrier. That’s it. Winner: The Philadelphia Experiment.