To say Roland Emmerich’s back catalogue is a mixed bag is an understatement. Churning out films that all register somewhere on the epic scale since the mid-80s, Emmerich has found himself a niche in Hollywood as one of their masters of disasters, reaching his peak with efforts like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2013’s White House Down. Fulfilling a passion project that has been brewing for some time, Emmerich’s Midway finally reaches the big screen. I wish it hadn’t.
Midway is, by and large, the extended story of how the USA got involved in World War 2. After a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, America is plunged headfirst into a war for the seas, culminating in 1942’s Battle of Midway. Intelligence officer Lieutenant Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) lead the charge from land, while Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein), Lieutenant McClusky (Luke Evans), and Vice Admiral Halsey (Dennis Quaid) play a real-life game of battleships at sea.
The strategy of war is a complex thing and something that has been explored multiple times in cinema history. More recently in 2017’s spellbinding Dunkirk, naval warfare is a peculiar beast that involves codebreaking foreign intelligence, a little bit of educated guessing, and a whole lot of blind luck. The trouble with Emmerich’s retelling of the tale is it feels like luck plays far too big a role in proceedings. Many of the film’s problems can be boiled down to the borderline incoherence of its script. I know the US gathered intelligence to find out important, war-winning tactics, but these were never communicated on-screen and treated like those gung-ho navy officers and pilots were merely following a hunch. Discussions regarding military tactics are frequently condensed to “Japan bad. Kill Japan.” Any of the complexities surrounding the aftermath of Pearl Harbour are left abandoned in Davy Jones’ Locker in favour of monotonous battle scenes because That’s What Emmerich Does.
In Midway’s defence, the battle scenes are staged competently and easy to follow, managing to very subtly differentiate between the friend and foe. The occasional flourishes on show, such as more extended shots of planes bobbing and weaving between gunfire above the water, dodging between warships and aircraft carriers as bombs explode around them, are fun to look at. Either side of these flourishes the film struggles to maintain any extended interest because of its main set-piece. Taking out battleships in an age where torpedoes were barely functioning involves pilots divebombing from a great height, dodging gunfire and dropping bombs as they pull up at the last moment. In and of itself, it’s a tense scene with the knowledge that the bomb might not even land despite the kamikaze process it took to get there. Once you’ve seen it once though, you’ve seen it all. This type of sequence is shown time and time again, failing to understand that the stakes around it were as high in their first sequence as they are in their last. The characters change, but the scene stays the same.
Midway has an impressive cast at its disposal, starting with Patrick Wilson and Woody Harrelson. The two are partnered up early on and stay together throughout, never in conflict with each other because there are bigger things to be concerned with. The acting is up to the standard we’ve come to expect from two pros of the game, but they’re constantly at odds with the script they’re given. Beyond banal familial links given to us in passing, every conversation is exclusively plot-focused, never giving the characters, the renowned war heroes of Midway, anything resembling development or interest. They’re vehicles to tell the audience what’s just happened and what’s going to happen. It feels like a waste of such a stellar cast. In addition, what they do tell the audience frequently borders on incoherence given the far too hyperactive editing style, cutting from character to character in an attempt to increase the pace of the conversation but failing to nail down the critical information within it.
At sea, Luke Evans chews the Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-like CGI scenery as best as he can, but much of the heavy lifting is given to Ed Skrein’s Dick Best who is battling with his American accent as much as he’s battling with the Japanese. When Dick is speaking with his wife at home, his accent is mostly fine, but when he’s the bravura pilot aboard a warship, a 1940s version of Maverick from Top Gun, his line delivery is almost incomprehensible. I had to strain to understand whatever he was bellowing through his ever-present chewing gum; I haven’t a clue how his co-pilot knew what to shoot at over the din of gunfire and speech impediment.
In a rare bright spot, Nick Jonas emerges as a surprise film MVP in a limited but engaging role. Jonas’ Bruno treats every day as if it’s his last, following in the footsteps of his father’s unfortunate demise. His bravery is on show throughout, and he becomes someone you genuinely look forward to returning to as the film progresses. Outside of Jonas, however, no one registers; actors are shown and forgotten about at the drop of a hat, introduced only to be killed off shortly after, or simply never seen again.
The film lays more than its fair share of loose ends to follow up later, but they’re either quickly resolved or abandoned entirely, robbing the story of any intrigue. I recognise this is a true account of The Battle of Midway, but give it a Hollywood twist. Midway is an exercise in narrative blue balling. In one of the film’s better-established elements, torpedoes are used by the Japanese but maligned in the US. Their first sighting in the film sees a US torpedo break upon impact – the setup. Their second sighting sees a successful US torpedo launch but the Japanese use depth charges to shoot the torpedoes off course, missing its target – the reminder. Their third sighting is…nowhere to be found. Midway is a film in which its best fleshed-out character is a bomb and it can’t even pay that off.
Midway, thanks to its monotony and poorly developed characters, struggles to find its footing. Any interest the film has, the fleetingly well-shot action scenes, Nick Jonas, or a too-short Aaron Eckhart cameo, drowns in the CGI scenery, leaving a lifeless, soulless film to float to the surface. It retroactively improves 2001’s Pearl Harbour, a lifeless, soulless film in its own right.
The Battle of Midway was a turning point for the US’ involvement in World War 2, and proved to be a much-needed victory for the allied forces after the morale crushing attack on Pearl Harbour. Midway’s biggest sins are how it both failed to translate this to the screen effectively, and in so doing, leaving us longing for Michael Bay.
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: Wes Tooke
Starring: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Nick Jonas, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Mandy Moore