The season for countdowns has officially begun. The countdown of the number of shopping days left until the holidays, the countdown to Christmas itself (“How many more sleeps till Santa comes?”), the countdown until the Boxing Day/Week sales orgy, the countdown until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and, most importantly, the countdown of how many more minutes or hours you have to spend with annoying relatives and in-laws at family gatherings. Wow, do we ever have our eyes on the clock in December! And so, in the spirit of the season, we thought we’d count down the top 10 SF movies that included (or in some cases centred around) countdowns. Here goes:
10. Deep Impact
A nice near-future killer asteroid movie worthy not only for its special effects, but because it also has a fairly good story to it as we follow the collection of characters. Periodically, the film let’s us know how many more days or hours until the cosmic hammerblow comes down, but the countdown itself doesn’t really add to the tension – it’s just kind of there every now and again. The plot functions well enough on its own that the numbers aren’t crucial. We won’t mention the other killer space rock movie that came out around the same time and starred Willis and Affleck because we don’t want to ruin your holiday by dwelling on that suck fest too much.
9. Last Night
A much smaller, more quiet end-of the world movie, starring Sandra Oh and Don McKellar (with a supporting role by Callum Keith Rennie – BSG’s Leoben). The countdown in this film, given by way of occasional radio updates and the odd appearance of an older woman running full-tilt through the streets gleefully in the role of harbinger, announcing how many hours or minutes are left, has a strong and relentless presence as the end of the world (the cause of which we’re never told, although for some reason darkness never seems to fall) approaches. And yet, this countdown, for all of its weight, doesn’t crush a very touching, personal story of a man facing the world’s end (even though his own personal world came crashing down years ago when his wife died) by helping a stranded woman try to get to her husband. Along the way we meet several other people trying to cope with impending doom in a variety of ways, some strange, many funny, and all touching.
It wasn’t enough that an insterstellar hunter came to the steamy jungles of South (or was it Central) America to bust up Ahnuld’s homoerotic fantasy – er, assasination mission – er, rescue mission (yeah, that’s it, yeah) by slaughtering his friends and then proceeding to kick our hero’s ass. No, the Predator just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Just when Dutch finally thinks he’s got the beast beat, the sucker activates some device that you didn’t need to be able to read Predator-ese to know was a suicide/evidence-destroying time bomb. A final “fuck you”, if you will. Despite his wounds, weariness and recent ass-kicking, Dutch manages to flee and escape being blown up real good. Although, given the mushroom cloud that rises from the tree canopy, one has to wonder if he survived the blast, only to be irradiated into an oncologist’s office.
Here’s another “it’s always something” example. Bad enough that the Aliens have killed off almost all of the Colonial Marines, but the bugs also swiped a little girl, and the reactor attached to the atmosphere processing plant is about to blow, but Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley, who still hasn’t gotten over the trauma of the first movie in the series, has to deal with all the ensuing shit. During the rescue of Newt, Ripley’s constantly harassed not just by Aliens, but by the reactor’s computer notifying her of how long she’s got until the explosion. And just when time’s almost run out, and the Alien queen is right on their tail, Ripley and Newt get to the landing gantry and find that the android, Bishop, and their ship are gone. Great use of a countdown, but it’s hard to put this one higher on the list because a countdown already played such a crucial role in the first movie.
Now, some of you out there are probably screaming bloody blue murder that we’re ranking “The Year We Make Contact” above the second slaughterfest installment in the Alien series, but there’s a couple of good reasons behind this decision. First, 2010 is a well-done intellectual film with, for its day, good SFX. Secondly, and most importantly for the purposes of this list, it has not one, but two crucial countdown scenes. The first is the Jovian aerobraking countdown where Heywood Floyd, useless as tits on a bull as far as ship operations go, is confined to his cabin, getting his teeth rattled nearly out of his wrinkly skull while a female Soviet crew member who also is of little use during the manouver clings to him like a frightened cat. Kudos to harrysaxon for remembering and suggesting this scene, as I’d forgotten it. During most of the ordeal, Floyd’s eyes (when they’re not closed) are usually on the clock, helping to give the audience the very real sense that anyone gets on an uncomfortable ride wishing it would be over. The second countdown (the one I remembered) is the one leading up to the Discovery/Leonov escape launch. Not only is timing crucial, but it all depends on HAL, and no-one knows if the now-reformed, formerly homicidal AI is truly dependable when the mission goes out the window and his own existence is threatened. It’s HAL who ticks off the clock for us, interjecting with his concerns and making you squirm throughout the whole process. Very well done indeed.
5. Star Trek III – The Search for Spock
The Enterprise should have been able to blow the Klingon bird of prey out of the sky without much effort. Should have been, but having been stolen, Kirk and his buddies didn’t have a crew to run it, and in turn ran into trouble when the automation system was fried. The solution to a Klingon boarding party? Blow the sucker up. A great scene when the curious Klingons step onto the computer was “the only thing speaking” – counting down the seconds to autodestruct. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t so great being able to see far enough down Christopher Lloyd’s throat to check whether he had tonsils or not, but still, what a great comeuppance for the swaggering Klingons. Also a powerful one for anyone who was even remotely fond of the series and had to watch Enterprise plummet out of the sky.
4. Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
The countdown in the Rebel command centre for how many minutes until the Death Star clears Yavin was a pretty minor part of a huge chapter in the movie. None-the-less, it added an important, extra dash of tension when the scene cut away from the fighter runs in the trench. Because the final attack and the looming threat of the Death Star being in a firing position – endgame for both sides – was such an important part of the movie, and thus SF cinematic history, and because the countdown played a valuable role in it, Star Wars makes it to the Top 5.
3. Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan
The countdown plays a big role at the end of, arguably, the best of the Trek films, where a Melville-spitting Khan activates the Genesis device in a last-ditch effort to take Kirk and the Enterprise with him to hell. There’s less than 5 minutes to get away, the bomb can’t be stopped, and Enterprise is too crippled to go to warp. Every time Kirk checks the time and distance as his ship limps away, it’s a shot so hard it may as well be from a photon torpedo – not enough distance, too little time left. Luckily, Spock’s got a plan. This is a movie where technical details played a big role – from the exteriour shots of the ships hammering each other, to all the little intricacies on the bridge (that great, panicked pan back and forth across the con as Khan tries desperately to figure out why his shields are dropping) and in the engine room. That includes the runnning clock, first on the Genesis device aboard Reliant, then on the Enterprise bridge, then the time-check delivered in Sulu’s hopeless drone. The closer, with an explosion that creates a planet and with Spock’s sacrifice, is truly huge. Because the countdown is so very much at the front of the tension here, TWOK outranks Star Wars on this list.
Once the action started, I was literally on the edge of my seat the first time I saw this film. At the end, when the Alien has killed everyone aboard the Nostromo except for Ripley and Jones, Weaver’s character makes a final effort at escape by activating the autodestruct. Problem is, not only is the clock running, but she’s got to avoid running into the Alien. And the whole time Mother the computer just won’t shut up about how little time is left. Things get really hairy when Ripley’s exit is blocked by the monster and she tries to stop the autodestruct – with just seconds before the point of no return – and it won’t work. Mother just keeps counting down to the fireworks, forcing Ripley to go back out and try to deke around the now strangely-absent Alien and launch the escape pod. That moment where the attempt to abort the countdown fails hits the audience almost as hard as it does Ripley – the film’s wound you up so much by that point. Definitely, this is one of the best all-time countdowns.
1. Escape from New York
Okay, the first installment in the adventurs of Snake Plissken doesn’t have the explosive finish of Alien, but the countdown is central to the plot of this movie – not just the last few scenes, the whole bloody film. Within minutes of the beginning, Kurt Russel’s character is injected with small explosives that will, if he fails to rescue the president and his top secret cassette on time, cause him to have some fatal issues with internal bleeding. From there on in, Snake is constantly watching the clock to see how much time he’s got left. Every move is chosen to get its results as quickly and effectively as possible so that he doesn’t become another victim of New York penitentiary. And it works. Rather than get boring, this plot device actually matters to the audience, who wants to know if Snake’s gonna make it. And those last few seconds when he’s heading for the technician with the means to deactivate the bombs are real sphincter-clenchers. Escape from New York is without a doubt the best of the films with countdowns.