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It’s hard to talk about Roland Emmerich without bringing up another director who specializes in explosions: Michael Bay. Only two years after Emmerich blew up the White House in Independence Day, Bay demolished most of New York in Armageddon. Since then, it’s felt like these two have been in a competition to see who can cause more senseless destruction on the silver screen. For a brief period in 2001, though, Bay stepped out of his comfort zone with Pearl Harbor. While still explosion-heavy, the film seemed to be Bay’s way of saying, “I’m a serious filmmaker who can properly portray a real-life tragedy.” Needless to say, Bay isn’t and he couldn’t.
Around the same time, Emmerich also dabbled in the war epic genre with The Patriot. While far from historically accurate, the film was more competently made than Pearl Harbor. Midway once again proves that Emmerich is better at tackling this subject than Bay, albeit not by a wide margin. Unlike Pearl Harbor, there’s nothing especially offensive or out-right bad about Midway. The film is honestly just a little too safe, bland, and forgettable for a story that should be daring, fascinating, and unforgettable. Even if you give Emmerich a salute for a respectable attempt, giving him ten dollars for a ticket is asking too much.
One of the major downfalls of Pearl Harbor is that dragged on for almost an hour before actually getting to the titular attack. Why? Because Bay was trying to prove he could be the next James Cameron. Midway, to its credit, jumps right into the action as Japanese forces bomb the U.S. naval base on December 7, 1941. The one thing Pearl Harbor had going for it, however, was its special effects, which still look damn impressive almost two decades later. In Midway, this set piece looks like a video game cutscene with obvious CGI and green screen effects, immediately sucking out much of the gravitas. The whole sequence comes off as rather rushed, wrapping up before it gets started.
Then again, the film isn’t so much about the Pearl Harbor attack as it is about the Battle of Midway, hence the title. Plus, where Bay’s film dedicated most of its three-hour runtime to uninteresting fictional characters, Midway does at least keep the focus on real heroes who were involved in the battle. The problem is that most of these figures succumb to the cookie cutter stereotypes we constantly see in Emmerich’s disaster movies. Ed Skrein is Dick Best (i.e. the rebel architype), Dennis Quaid is Bull Halsey (i.e. the grizzled senior architype), Mandy Moore is Anne Best (i.e. the supportive wife architype). The list goes on with names like Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Nick Jonas, and Aaron Eckhart, giving the film more characters than it knows what to do with. These are all talented actors who, for what they’re given to work with, do fine here. Nevertheless, nobody is given much to sink their teeth into here.
Midway does finally start to pick up a little when we get to the eponymous battle. Even then, though, the action is mostly standard, the drama is mostly absent, and the stakes don’t feel nearly as high as they should be. The film’s heart is in the right place and if it brings out your inner-patriot, more power to you. At its best, however, Midway tastes like diet patriotism. A film like deserves to blast off like Fourth of July fireworks, but instead fizzles out like a sparkler.