Back in 2001, Michael Bay turned the 1941 attack by the Japanese on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor into an explosion-filled soap opera in a movie starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale, and now 18 years later, fellow explosionologist Roland Emmerich has delivered his own cheesy action-movie take on both Pearl Harbor and the pivotal Battle of Midway the following year in Midway. It’s a throwback to the star-studded war and disaster movies of the past (including 1976’s Midway), with a sprawling cast full of recognizable and semi-recognizable faces, all making the bare minimum effort necessary to get through the movie. It’s been a while since Emmerich commanded Michael Bay-level budgets, and Midway is full of unconvincing CGI in its efforts to recreate epic battles.
The bland characters are largely interchangeable, and not a single one is worth caring about as they hurtle themselves into danger. The nominal main character is Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a cocky Navy fighter pilot who narrowly avoids being caught in the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack, but he’s just one of numerous Navy pilots and sailors who look, sound and act mostly the same, like a whole movie full of Ben Affleck knock-offs. Emmerich brings in the slightly bigger guns for the military commanders, including Woody Harrelson sporting one of the worst wigs in cinema history as legendary Admiral Chester Nimitz and Dennis Quaid raspily barking orders as Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. Patrick Wilson plays the only somewhat interesting character, military intelligence officer Edwin Layton, whose expertise could have given advance warning about Pearl Harbor, if anyone had listened to him.
Instead of focusing on Layton’s impressive efforts to collect and convey accurate information, Emmerich and screenwriter Wes Tooke devote significant time to the dull competitiveness between Best and fellow hot-shot pilot Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). They also throw in a few perfunctory scenes of worried wives, and take a brief detour to depict the downing of Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) in occupied China, only to leave him out of the movie until the inevitable series of onscreen factoids at the end. Those factoids lend more personality to the characters than any of the dialogue or action, and reading Wikipedia entries about the various historical figures would probably provide greater insight than watching the movie.
No one in the cast can make Tooke’s clumsy, exposition-heavy dialogue sound genuine, and Skrein is especially bad, sporting a mushy, migrating American accent that seems to correspond to no actual geographical origin. Emmerich dedicates the film to both the American and the Japanese veterans of World War II’s Pacific theater, and he devotes surprisingly significant time to the Japanese military, as commanders plot the strategy for fighting the American military. This isn’t Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, though, with its sensitive portrayal of everyday Japanese soldiers. The Japanese are often depicted in broad stereotypes, although the dialogue and characterization isn’t really much worse than it is for the Americans.
Audiences don’t really come to Emmerich’s movies for dialogue or characterization or acting, anyway, so the biggest problem with Midway is that it fails as bombastic spectacle. Not only are the special effects notably poor, but the battle scenes are also hard to follow, jumbles of similar-looking blips flitting around, often covered in heavy smoke. Anyone familiar with history will know how these battles turn out, but you shouldn’t need to have studied a textbook to figure out which side has the upper hand at any moment, or even what the strategic goals are. The situation is pretty dire if Emmerich can’t even get the explosions right.