Midway, directed by Roland Emmerich, looks like a forgotten flight simulator game on the Playstation 3. There is no moment of genuine emotion to be found among the caricatures of military personnel and glossy visual effects. It’s possible that the standard war film full of heroic battles is impossible to make today. More likely, Emmerich is just not the director to pull it off. Midway is a brisk but soulless experience that doesn’t do the historical event justice.
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 left American forces shaken. The Japanese were proving to be more strategic and calculated in their approach to handling World War II. On June 4th, 1942, the Japanese navy again sought to attack American ships in the Pacific. This time, the U.S. Navy and their fighter pilots were ready. This started the Battle of Midway, a three-day battle that helped turn the tide of the war.
Roland Emmerich has made a career of blowing things up. While he has not yet made a truly great film, he always excelled at showing destruction. Movies like Independence Day, Godzilla, and 2012 may have been vapid, but at least the chaos looked interesting and occasionally amazing. Unfortunately, there is something so profoundly hollow about the look of Midway. Very few scenes and locations register as real as if 90% of the outdoor shots were filmed in front of green screens. The cardboard advertisement for Midway in the theater lobby looked only slightly less realistic than the effects onscreen. None of the battles have any real weight or tension, resembling little more than video game cut-scenes. While the fact that this film was independently financed might be partially to blame for the sub-par effects, movies like 2012’s Red Tails feature aerial battles that look more crisp and impressive even though they were made for a quarter of the budget of Midway. Even Emmerich’s other films routinely feature battle scenes that look far better than what is shown here. When compared to 2017’s Dunkirk, a marvel of tension and film-making craft, Midway resembles nothing more than a mediocre video game.
While the budget might be to blame for the disappointing effects, there is no reasonable excuse for the lackluster characterization. Mustaches, accents, jaw-lines, and gruff voices are doing the heavy lifting in an attempt to present heroism. Dennis Quaid tries his best as Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, contorting his face and gravelly voice into something reminiscent of classic war film performances. Aaron Eckhart makes a brief but welcome appearance as Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. Eckhart is rarely given an opportunity to use his cocky charm anymore, and Doolittle gives him a small amount of screen time to stand out.
Unfortunately, there is nothing remotely interesting about the character of Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein), the closest Midway comes to a main character. While Skrein was sly and playful as superhuman characters in movies like Deadpool or Alita: Battle Angel, the British actor is sorely miscast as an American pilot. There is a coldness to Skrein’s performance as Best, a daredevil fighter pilot. A better film would have explored this coldness and helped dive more into the mind of a character the film suggests flies like he doesn’t care if he comes home. A crucial human element is missing, and this absence makes it difficult to connect with anything beyond the superficial concept of wartime heroism.
Although it is hollow, Midway at least doesn’t feel like it lasts 138 minutes. This could be due to the fact that the film has to present pre-war tensions between Japan and the United States, as well as the Pearl Harbor attack and the Battle of Midway, which would require the film to clip along to fit in everything. Recently, Emmerich put his hat into the debate on the cinematic worthiness of Marvel films, claiming they are great to fall asleep to when on planes. If it weren’t for the charred bodies of downed pilots, Midway also may have been perfect for an in-flight snooze. As it is, it will probably make a decent Sunday afternoon nap when it is shown on TNT in a few years.