I saw this movie a few times in the theater in 1980, when I was 12, and at the time it was pretty much utterly awesome. However, as we are forced to face again and again, what is awesome when one is 12 is not the same as what is awesome when one is over 30.
This movie forces us to look inside ourselves and ask: "What would happen if a state-of-the-art [for 1980] aircraft carrier were transported back in time to the eve of Pearl Harbor?" Then there are all the regular questions about the Prime Directive, the ethics of using advance knowledge and advanced technology, blah blah blah. The situation is the hook of the movie, a pretty good one. Unfortunately, it's also the only thing the movie has to offer.
After some exposition that gets top military whiner Martin Sheen on the boat, and some unrelated techo-fetishism about the way those sweet F-14s land, a mysterious storm that looks a lot like a laser and a fog machine appears in the sky and causes the sailors to hold their heads. When it goes away, they are in 1941 [the year, not the movie], and they have to grapple with many philosophical questions about whether they should whup the Japs' asses but good.
A good 35% of the movie is just flat-out recruiting-film military techno fetishism. It's kind of cool for a while, as you watch planes swoosh and dive, and it reminds you of the days when the prospect of going into the military meant you were going to fly cool planes and do cool things instead of simply being sent to a desert to be killed. But it gets tiresome after awhile, though it does remain quite visible, so you can fast-forward without fear of missing anything.
There's a small bit of derisive laughter as the crew [during the LONG period in which they are coming to accept that they have traveled back in time] compare a photo that was apparently taken an hour ago by one of their planes to a photo that was taken 40 years previously by another plane. The cast bravely pretends not to notice that they are THE EXACT SAME PHOTO. Amazing coincidence! There's another movie right there.
The performances fit the material. Kirk Douglas is actually quite charming as the captain. He projects authority, yet is warm and approachable, and isn't afraid to say he doesn't know what's going on. Martin Sheen appears to be on hand simply to deliver speeches about how very morally complex it all is. Former Superfly Ron O'Neal is around as eye candy for me. Katherine Ross is in full "do I have to do anything except stand around and be dewy?" mode, but she will always get props from me for ensnaring gravelly man-hunk Sam Elliott in her wicked web.
This movie is a bit like those alternative history novels, which are usually about "what if the South won the Civil War," which translates as;"what if we'd kept the darkies in their place." This one, I think, is about redressing the perceived imbalance that occurred when the US was caught unawares. But how could we be caught unawares. we're the United States! I think the enjoyment of this movie for some people is in floating the fantasy that we could show them Japs once and for all.
This movie is also notable as a likely influence on 80s rock group Europe's cheesy hit of the same title.
SPOILERS>>> The end of this movie cops out by having the mysterious storm appear at the PRECISE moment that the US is just about to attack the Japanese fleet. The aircraft carrier is transported back to the same time it left, everyone shrugs and goes "Huh," and they go about their average workday. It makes the movie somewhat unsatisfying at the end, but you know. not any more unsatisfying than it was up until that point.
It's up to you, but please keep in mind that you're not 12 anymore.