Bombastic blockbuster filmmaker Roland Emmerich has been on a bit of a downward spiral lately. He started off quite well with projects from his home of West Germany; until he worked in America; making entertaining efforts like Universal Soldier and Stargate that succeeded well at the box office.
But few had expected his next effort to succeed as spectacularly as it did; with his first box-office smash Independence Day; an alien invasion flick that succeeded due to the fantastic marketing, the charisma of its cast and its infectious fun. After that, he hit the sophomore slump with his second outing; the Americanized version of Godzilla; a film that received scorn from both critics and fans of the franchise; but has gained a cult following in recent times.
Straying away from the disaster movies; he went on to make The Patriot, a war movie starring Mel Gibson and the late Heath Ledger. Seen as a way for Emmerich to gain respectability from the critics; the film had received some of the best reviews of his career; but it was only moderately successful at the box office.
But nothing was going to stop the Disaster Master from jumping back into the fray — even with the splitting up from his regular collaborator Dean Devlin who had worked with him since Universal Soldier. Emmerich came back with the ecological disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow; a film that made a huge profit and gave exactly what fans of his work had expected. Since then; his trajectory of work had followed a pattern that could be discerned as “one for the studio, one for himself” type of way.
Films for the former like 2012, 10000 B.C and White House Down were clearly made for financial clout, but only 2012 had succeeded with flying colours. As for the latter, he had made ambitious works like Anonymous — his best film in this reviewer’s opinion — and Stonewall; a film that was criticized for being offensive and dull; receiving some of the filmmaker’s worst reviews yet.
And yet through all of that; Emmerich took the route that few directors want to take unless its for creatively fruitful reasons; going back to what made him famous in the first place. The long-awaited(?) sequel; Independence Day: Resurgence was a box office flop and had received negative reviews that Emmerich himself had recently jumped in on; saying that it was a mistake to make it.
Now, it looks like Emmerich is trying to gain some respectability with his latest film, Midway; a war film set after the events of the attack on Pearl Harbour. Funded without any major US studio contribution, it is said that the film is a passion project for Emmerich and it is one of the most expensive independent films ever made. Will Midway bring Emmerich out of his slump and bring him into the days of The Patriot and Anonymous?
There is really no point in stating the synopsis of this well-known story but it basically boils down to this: two countries at war with each other over differences; one country responds with force while the other country retaliates; with the latter winning. It is not a spoiler alert if the story is well-known history. The story has also been explored in cinema before; most notably in Michael Bay‘s Pearl Harbour; so the bar is pretty low for Emmerich to succeed over.
Let’s start with the positives. The goofy humour that is prevalent with Emmerich’s big-budget works is thankfully absent and his sincere approach to the material is greatly appreciated. Emmerich never treats the Japanese counterparts as cartoons or mustache-twirling villains and he provides a balanced viewpoint from both sides of the story. Even with the China-market funding behind the scenes; it is quite notable that the film succeeds in being balanced with any sort of fairness at all.
Another slight positive is the action scenes. No stranger to explosions and throwing every sort of pyrotechnics (practical or CGI) on the screen, Emmerich still manages to achieve some thrilling moments; capably bringing the audience into the battle. Even with those positives, Midway sinks into oblivion due to the cliche-infested script (by newcomer Wes Tooke), the dull-as-CGI dishwater storytelling and its overly glossy visual aesthetic that is incongruous with the true-to-life events in the final result.
The script lacks detail in its characterizations (based on real people) for the actors to sink their teeth into; which makes it very hard for the audience to care for any of these people. The actors valiantly try their best with their roles but they fail to the point that they resort to scenery-chewing; playing with character tics and appearances, posing and accent work to be memorable, which unfortunately pays off with unintentionally funny moments.
The dialogue is incredibly heavy-handed to the point that the audience would probably receive nosebleeds upon hearing it. Lines of dialogue like “I’m an American! I just bombed Japan yesterday!” and “Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war!” are cringe-inducing at worst and straight-up goofy at best.
The storytelling is tedious and repetitive that it follows the structure of action scene/drama and planning/action scene/drama and planning/action scene/end credits. What makes it worse is that the action scenes do not have the tactile physicality that practical effects can achieve; nor do they have the suspense the film sorely lacks. Say what you want about the film Pearl Harbour; at least it manages to achieve some sort of tension with its frenetic filmmaking.
In the case of Midway, it feels like watching a videogame cutscene — with obvious greenscreen — except that the audience does not have the controller. Compounding it with characters that are not worth caring for, it becomes a complete slog.
It is a real shame that Midway does not succeed as it certainly promises a lot with its talented cast and its well-worn story. Instead, the film just crashes and burns; failing to meet its lofty goals halfway.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Midway is showing in cinemas now.