For a film in the beloved war movie canon, packed with explosions and stakes and a decent cast, it’s astonishing how dull Midway manages to be.Bear in mind, it’s directed by Roland Emmerich – director of larger-than-life action flicks White House Down and Independence Day – so Midway’s concept itself is already a little surprising. It’s designed as a war epic, commemorating the Battle of Midway, which took place six months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor’s US naval base.
The film opens with the battle of Pearl Harbor, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. There’s a lot of explosions and CGI and ‘action’, though there’s not really any established sense of tension or character. It’s just a picture of war. We’re introduced to Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who’s apparently been given an overstated accent and macho stereotype mannerisms in place of any development. Skrein is an odd choice for the role (to say the least), who’s little more than a parody of a movie military man – all hatred of authority and pent-up aggression.
This was a passion project for Emmerich, but while there’s commendable balance in the way history is presented and lots of impressive visuals, Midway is just overwhelmingly dullThen there’s codebreaker Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who at least offers a little more intrigue and nuance. Aaron Eckhart plays Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and Dennis Quaid appears as Vice Admiral Bull Halsey – both roles which offer very little to the plot and even less to the character of the film. Elsewhere, the likes of Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson and Darren Criss sort of go through the motions, while Asano Tadanobu makes an impact with a limited role as Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. In a perhaps surprising turn of events, for the most part, the Japanese characters are actually more fleshed out than the Americans, who mostly talk in exposition-heavy one-liners that border on pastiche.
This was a passion project for Emmerich, but while there’s commendable balance in the way history is presented and lots of impressive visuals, Midway is just overwhelmingly dull.
Part of the problem is that the screenplay – written by Wes Tooke – chooses to focus on the big picture rather than personal stories. Where huge recent epics like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk managed to wrangle a balance between vast, sweeping battles and individual characters and struggles, Midway doesn’t ever manage to grapple with the complexities of war on a personal scale, or explore character or motivation in any meaningful way. It ends up just being quite an emotionless and workmanlike listing of events that took place.
It’s quite odd to be bemoaning an Emmerich picture for lack of drama and heart. By all accounts, the director struggled to get major funding for this film, and it’s not too hard to see why. The horrors of war, the complexities of battle and the individual horrors of conflict are just masked with bombastic action sequences and simple, well, shock-and-awe visuals.
Midway’s one-dimensional characters let down what could have been either a really heartfelt and intriguing piece on warfare, or a really engaging popcorn flick
Which is a real shame, because the story of the Battle of Midway is a good one, and there’s lots to be unpacked – with parables about courage and conviction and character – none of which really get any screen time here. There is entertainment to be had in enjoying the sheer scale and skill of creating action sequences packed with so many visual effects as those in Midway. Emmerich is an undisputed king of the action flick, with his heyday in the mid-90s really writing the book on style (read: big explosions, shooting guns, potentially aliens) over significant substance. In that sense, it seems tough to grumble about Midway’s lack of intricate narrative or human instincts. But cinema has moved on since the 90s, and audiences generally demand more nowadays than just impressive computer effects.
Midway’s one-dimensional characters let down what could have been either a really heartfelt and intriguing piece on warfare, or a really engaging popcorn flick – it does have some elements of the latter, with really quite affecting visuals and sound (watch this in IMAX or in a cinema with particularly great sound and you’re in for a proper sensory experience). Ultimately, it’s a sub-standard addition to the pantheon of war films, which really didn’t need any more mediocre titles adding to it.
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