It’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s a pixel!
Actually, billions of them. They hurtle through the air, drop bombs, collide with one another, and explode. For a full 2 hours and 18 minutes of Midway’s running time, these intrepid little fellows boldly go where no man has gone before, doing things that no human being could ever do in real life. They really are amazing.
Unfortunately, all the pixels in the world don’t add up to a movie. Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot) spent most of his budget crafting special effects sequences, some of which, I’ll just say politely, are more convincing than others. These digital sequences—intricate aerial dogfights, planes crashing into the deck of aircraft carriers, dive bombing runs through a wall of flak—completely steal the show, as they are supposed to.
And you know what that means. Everything else, things like casting, script, narrative, and drama, take a back seat. Just to call out the most obvious, Midway takes forever to get to Midway. The first hour of the film is a disjointed mess: the run-up to Pearl Harbor, than a bucketful of digital scenes of the Japanese attack, then lots of talk, scenes at the officers’ club, more talk, husband and wife sequences that were clearly meant to avoid the stigma of being an all-male film, then a lot more talk about naval intelligence. The Midway battle sequence isn’t so much a climax as a relief. I guess Emmerich felt that Americans simply don’t know enough about the war in the Pacific to dispense with all these preliminaries. Maybe he’s right, but the result is a by-the-numbers slog through selected episodes in the early months of the war that has all the charm of a Wikipedia article. It’s accurate enough compared to the historical mistakes in The Patriot, but that is a very low bar.
The script is dreadful. Cast members like Woody Harrelson (Admiral Chester Nimitz), Dennis Quaid (Admiral William F. “Bull Halsey”), Ed Skrein (the British rapper playing Dauntless dive-bomber-ace Dick Best) do their best, and all of them look good enough on screen. Sadly, they spend the film mouthing some of the cheesiest war-movie boilerplate in decades, dialog of the “You men have to hold the fort until the cavalry comes” and “Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war” variety.
The characters aren’t any better. The men have square-jaws and talk tough. The commanders are paternal and sensitive. Dick Best, like virtually every Hollywood pilot before him, is swagger personified and—shocker—is also a tad dangerous in the cockpit. Think Tom Cruise in Top Gun. The wives do nothing in this film but worry about their husbands—they aren’t really characters at all.
Sure, I hear you saying, but what about the main event? The battle sequences, those four Japanese aircraft carriers going to the bottom, the turning point of our war with Japan? Well, it’s all there, in full-color glorious CGI. It turns out that dive bombing a Japanese aircraft carrier in World War II looks very much like Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star. The scenes are so similar that Emmerich may well have intended them as an homage.
Not a very good film, in other words. But oh, those pixels!