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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 storm. Emerging from the storm, the sailors find themselves apparently 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 Two.
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 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. Wing Commander 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 the 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.
This movie contains examples of the following tropes:
- Alien Space Bats: How the time storm comes to exist, how it works, and why it's targeting the Nimitz at that particular time... who cares?
- In Martin Caidin's novelization, it's kinda-sorta (lamely) explained at the very end. It had "read the sequel whenever I get around to writing it" scribbled all over it.
- Artistic License Ships: mostly averted (see Backed by the Pentagon, above), but the final scene substituted the USS Kitty Hawk, as at the time the movie was filmed the Nimitz was part of the Atlantic fleet, which would've made sailing into Pearl Harbor somewhat difficult.
- Backed by the Pentagon: The film crew got several days to shoot on the actual aircraft carrier Nimitz, and did a pretty amazing job of it. Actual Nimitz personnel played filmed roles, as well. For example, the F-14 that performed the Immelman from just above the water, in the dogfight with the Zekes, was flown by the Executive Officer of VF-84.
- Bang Bang BANG: During the hostage crisis in the Nimitz 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.
- 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.
- Coming in Hot: A fighter pilot incapacitated by the time storm makes a crash landing on the carrier.
- Cool Boat: The USS Nimitz, first ship of her class, and the largest warship in the world at the time.
- Curb Stomp Battle: Two F-14 Tomcats versus two A6M Zeros. Heavily lampshaded.
- Fake Nationality: The Japanese pilot taken prisoner is played by Korean actor Soon-Tek Oh.
- 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 the 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: The F-14's feature an internal 20mm Vulcan cannon, which is used to shoot down one of the Zeroes.
- Guns Akimbo: A Japanese pilot does this during the hostage situation mentioned below; brandishing both an M1911A1 pistol and an M16A1 rifle.
- Honor Before Reason: Yelland plans to use the 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.
- Hostage Situation: Happens when a surviving Japanese pilot overpowers a guard and grabs not one, but -two- guns.
- Infant Immortality: 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.
- 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. T-6 "Texans" being rather easier to come by than intact A6M Zeros.
- 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.
- Mass Teleportation
- Our Time Travel Is Different: The wormhole version.
- Pistol Whip: Happens twice; first when the Japanese pilot hits a Marine in the gut with the butt 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.
- Peace Through Superior Firepower: See the entry for the Nimitz class carriers.
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Does the 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.
- 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.
- Temporal Sickness: Passage through the time storm is extremely disorienting to everyone on the Nimitz.
- Time Travel
- 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!"
- World War II
- You Already Changed the Past
- 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 the 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.