Release Date(s)2019 (February 18, 2020)
Studio(s)Centropolis/Entertainment One (Lionsgate)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
In the wake of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet lies in ruins and the Japanese appear well on their way to total victory in that theater. But with tensions running high and the situation desperate, Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) arrives in Hawaii with orders to turn things around and prevent an invasion of the American homeland. But Nimitz has a pair of aces up his sleeve. The first is the fact that none of the Navy’s aircraft carriers were lost at Pearl Harbor, all having been at sea at the time of the attack. Nimitz also has the advantage of better intelligence analysis than the experts back in Washington, thanks in part to Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) and an eccentric codebreaker named Joe Rochefort (Jake Weber), who is able to read the clues in encrypted enemy transmissions. So when the Japanese Navy launches a second strike on June 4, 1942, intending to lure and wipe out the surviving American carriers by attacking Midway Island, little do they know that those carriers are already on hand... laying in wait for them. The battle that follows will turn the tide of war in the Pacific, changing the fate of both nations forever. But key to the outcome are the heroic efforts of the brave pilots of the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown.
Now, I’ll be honest: I love WWII history and stories of the Pacific naval war. Jack Smight’s original Midway (1976) is an old favorite of mine and while that film was far from perfect (including clichéd dialogue and an over-reliance on stock footage and shots of models in tanks), it did a number of things right. First, the cast (with but a few exceptions) is largely impeccable. Second, the way the film is structured and shot, map tables and diagrams are used often on camera to allow the viewer to better understand the geography of the battle. That helps a great deal, because the Battle of Midway was indeed complex and involved a huge number of people and forces acting in concert.
To his credit, director Roland Emmerich is clearly passionate about this subject matter and he’s consulted a writer in Wes Tooke who knows every last detail intimately. This script still has its cheesy dialogue, but it actually corrects a number of historical details that the ’76 film got wrong—including things that have only been learned more recently. I give both of them credit for their effort to get things right here, particularly with regard to Rochefort and the role of the submarine USS Nautilus. I also enjoyed a few brief scenes involving director John Ford (played by Geoffrey Blake), who really was on scene at Midway Island during the Japanese attack and directed his camera crew to capture the action. (The truth of this is even more preposterous that the film makes it seem.) But by eschewing the earlier film’s use of maps, Emmerich’s becomes more difficult to follow. Scenes, locations, and times have a tendency to blend together in the edit and the effect is to somehow lessen their overall effectiveness.
Still, some of the casting is good. Patrick Wilson is quite credible as Layton and Dennis Quaid and Aaron Eckhart are damn near perfect as Admiral “Bull” Halsey and Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, respectively. Luke Evans is believable as Navy pilot Wade McClusky and the entire Japanese cast is excellent (including veteran actor Etsushi Toyokawa as Admiral Yamamoto). Unfortunately, the star of the film is English actor Ed Skrein, who plays Dick Best, the commander of Bombing Squadron Six on the USS Enterprise. His performance is uneven and, try as he might, he just can’t pull off the pilot’s easy Jersey accent and casual manner (his own native accent slips through more than once). Darren Criss falls short of the mark too as fellow pilot Eugene Lindsey. And God bless him for trying, but Woody Harrelson is way out of his depth as Nimitz. He just lacks the quiet gravitas the part requires. Nimitz was played by Henry Fonda in the ’76 film and—when you compare the two—it ain’t even close.
The other problem with this film is the visual effects; they just don’t cut it. Every shot is a little too perfect, too detailed, too lovingly retouched, and the sun is always at the magic angle. It all looks like a picture postcard. And that’s just not how reality looks, certainly not the reality of war. Too often, these visual effects make the film seem like a live action cartoon, with people standing on blue screens. And that’s a shame, because as I was watching the featurettes on this disc, I was actually surprised to learn how much of the sets the filmmakers did build. So not only do the VFX not sell the reality, they made actual reality look more fake. At the start and very end of the film, there are shots of men running across a carrier deck—you can see that all are animated with painfully obvious run cycles. The whole time I was watching this film, I keep thinking about how much the production could have benefitted from the Unreal engine’s interactive lighting process, recently used by Lucasfilm for The Mandalorian and Rogue One. As it is, Midway just looks too much like The Phantom Menace. And when considered in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the effects are even more unbelievable.
Midway was shot digitally in the DXL RAW codec at 8K using the Panavision Millennium DXL2 camera and H-Series lenses. It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, upsampled to 4K for its UHD release, and graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available). Now, you might be thinking that the 8K capture resolution would really benefit this film… and to a degree it does. But so much has been done to the image in post production, including adding a coarse film grain effect, a nostalgic color grade, and abundant smoke, explosions, and dense atmospherics, that much of the resolution benefit is lost. Detail is crisp enough and textures are nicely refined, but those post effects do lessen the impact a bit. Still, contrast is excellent with deep and detailed blacks. The HDR does give the image a bit of extra pop and nuance, but the brightest areas of the frame look a little bleached out and again the colors have slightly desaturated. This is still a nice Ultra HD image, but it’s a very stylized one, and those choices of style don’t always serve the film well.
On the audio front, Midway is fantastic. The primary track is in English Dolby Atmos. The soundstage is epic, big and wide up front, with highly active height channels, and lively and immersive use of the surrounds. Movement is smooth and natural, as aircraft swoop all around the listening space, and the mix has plenty of low-end bluster. As Navy SBDs and TBFs rumble off their carrier decks and into combat, you’ll feel as well as hear the weight of them. The height channels are particularly put to good use during the dive bombing runs. This is a damn great mix… and darned close to a reference experience. Note that additional audio options include English Descriptive Audio and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. There are also English and Spanish subtitles available, as well as English subs for the director’s commentary. More on that in a moment.
Lionsgate’s package includes the film on both 4K and Blu-ray. Both discs include the following bonus features:
- Audio Commentary by Roland Emmerich
- Getting it Right: The Making of Midway (HD – 14:16)
- The Men of Midway (HD – 12:24)
- Roland Emmerich: Man on a Mission (HD – 4:57)
- Turning Point: The Legacy of Midway (HD – 15:00)
- Joe Rochefort: Breaking the Japanese Code (HD – 6:14)
- We Met at Midway: Two Survivors Remember (HD – 9:29)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:33)
The director’s commentary is kind of odd. Emmerich offers the expected production and casting anecdotes, but too often he simply describes what’s happening on the screen. He does at least interject information about the reasons for each scene occasionally, but I can’t help thinking that a writer’s commentary would have been a little more compelling. The featurettes were all produced by Gary Leva and they’re quite solid. The production pieces are interesting to be sure, but it’s the historical pieces that really shine here, including Turning Point, Joe Rochefort, and We Met at Midway. The first two illuminate the real facts of the battle and the man who led the effort to break the Japanese codes. It features a number of authors and historians—experts all—who explain things in detail. The latter introduces us to two of the last remaining airmen who survived the battle, Charles Monroe and Ervin F. Wendt, who offer a first-hand account of what they experienced. (I almost feel like this alone is worth the price of the disc.) Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer and there’s a Digital code on a paper insert in the package.
Roland Emmerich’s Midway isn’t bad—there’s real enjoyment to be found here, especially for fans of history and war films. But if you’re looking for a truly gripping and emotional experience that really makes you feel like you’ve relived the action, you may come away disappointed. Unfortunately, the truly ultimate cinematic retelling of the Battle of Midway is still yet to be made. Still, if you love Midway (1976), Emmerich’s more modern take is certainly a worth a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. And Lionsgate’s 4K Ultra HD release is easily the best way to enjoy it.
- Bill Hunt