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Midway

Year: 2019
Production Co: Centropolis
Director: Roland Emmerich
Producer: Roland Emmerich/Harald Kloser
Writer: Wes Tooke
Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Luke Kleintank, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas

Like Avatar, TRON: Legacy and many others going right back to Star Wars, there's a long and proud tradition in adventure movies where the creative prowess on display goes almost entirely into the staging, VFX, cinematography and other aspects of getting the picture on the screen, but where it feels like the characters, characterisations and dialogue have been done over Budweisers and pizza during a single evening writing session.

In such an approach, Roland Emmerich unwittingly references not just half a century of special effects-driven entertainment but his own legacy as well. This is so unmistakably an Emmerich jam the most interesting thing about it was why it wasn't met with the same globe-stopping attention as his other big disaster movies 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and the one that's still his triumph and which redefined the term 'big' in sci-fi, Independence Day.

Maybe it was the changes the pandemic wrought on movie-going and this was just another streaming release, but maybe the audiences who'd grown up with his bigger-than-the-screen visuals had just grown tired of his shtick. Or maybe, when you read further, you realise there just might not have been any money for marketing. Apparently no major studio would bankroll his $125m budget so he went and got the funding together himself, resulting in Midway reportedly being the most expensive independent film ever made.

But as the title suggests, this is what he wants to be the definitive statement on the titular Pacific battle that turned the tide of Word War II against the Japanese fleet. It begins with a mild mannered military attache trying to navigate threats by the Japanese that if the US cuts off their oil there will be repercussions, then jumps forward a few years to show us the attack on Pearl Harbor – not done with this much colour and movement since Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (and another example of the resources being funnelled to VFX rather than dialogue).

But from there, as America prepares to make war on Japan and the Japanese military prepare to respond and press the attack, what happens and who everybody is is a little bit of a blur. The script by Wes Tooke crosses from the generals and admirals giving the orders to the cryptographers and codebreakers in smoky rooms trying to figure out what the Japanese know and officers and pilots in briefings on aircraft carriers and in cockpits and back again.

There seems to be main characters in the pilots Dick (Ed Skrein), Wade (Luke Evans) and Clarence (Luke Kleintank), but one of the film's weaknesses is on seeming to want everything and everyone to be in the foreground, losing plenty of potential human depth and not focusing our attention finely enough.

I also know this is going to sound like I'm contradicting what I said about the writing, but the story of the attacks, strategies and counterattacks seem to be authentic and accurate and it's certainly very detailed about the ships, people and actions involved in the months-long military campaign – to the extent I had trouble keeping track of who (and where) everybody was.

Because to his credit, scriptwriter Tooke (at Emmerich's direction, since it's his passion project) seems to have started with the history books and built out from there rather than it being another Star Wars with a bit of plot context behind it. Where it falls down is in the minute-to-miniute character work and hammy, 40's-era dialogue.

With its blistering battle scenes interspersed with scenes of a ship's captain or military strategist collecting the facts and planning an operation, it starts to feel a bit like cutscenes in a videogame where you're just waiting to get back to the exciting bits where you're controlling the action.

Because Emmerich has lost none of his skill in staging an action scene. Whether it's Japanese Zeroes buzzing the skies of Pearl Harbor like mosquitoes through plumes of CGI fire and smoke or American planes diving straight out of the sky through clouds of flak and shrapnel towards Japanese battleships to drop their payloads, it's a roller coaster ride of horror and thrills, war as spectacle and videogame destruction as entertainment. Very much Emmerich's wheelhouse, in other words.

The acting isn't stellar (honourable mention to Dennis Quaid, chewing the scenery in his best impression of a grizzled Navy commander), the script is full of clangers and it isn't one you'll watch again and again if even to appreciate its place in mass entertainment history like Independence Day. As one insightful viewer review I saw online said, it's one of those strange movies you're not sure if you liked or not.

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