A big-name Hollywood director, best known for special effects-driven action spectacle, decides to try something a bit more prestige and make a war drama set around the attack on Pearl Harbour. No, you have not suddenly teleported back to 2001, and we’re not talking about Michael Bay (not yet, at any rate). Instead, we’re looking at the latest from the leading name in turn-off-brain disaster cinema Roland Emmerich, and in so many ways, it shows him doing what he does best.
All your favourite tried-and-true clichés from the man’s extensive filmography are here. You’ve got the insider perspective, who saw the disaster coming but no one listened to, with Patrick Wilson’s Lt. Com. Layton; you’ve got the hot-shot fighter pilot a la Will Smith in Independence Day with Ed Skrein as Lt. Best; you’ve got numerous military officials to inject America Fuck Yeah into the proceedings; and you’ve got plenty of eye candy action to give that artificial sense of popcorn entertainment.
Of course, the very setting seems to work against Emmerich’s strengths. He tends to focus a lot more on gargantuan, world-shaking events, showing entire cities getting taken down one after another. Doing so allows the frame to be deliriously overloaded with movement, so that the effects work does its job without being entirely noticeable on its own. With this, that same level of rendering fidelity doesn’t hold up nearly as well, from the glaringly-obvious green-screening to the last-gen-quality computer graphics to create the battle sequences.
There’s also the writing to consider, coming from Wes Tooke in his first feature-length outing. His television experience is a little too clear with how episodic and almost-incidental the pacing is, following Emmerich’s habit of having conversation as merely the sinew that connects the louder moments together.
Said conversation itself also ends up sabotaging anything resembling mood within the story, as the dialogue keeps pushing for quick laughs so incessantly that you start questioning what the tone is even supposed to be. Aaron Eckhart’s declaration of “I’m American; I bombed Japan yesterday” embodies the film’s sheer lack of irony.
And yet, Emmerich and co. seem to be at least trying for something a bit more serious here. His treatment of the American and Japanese forces involved in the warfare is remarkably balanced and aims for populist fervour, and it’s certainly less jingoistic than it could’ve been.
However, even ignoring his usual mishandling of anything to do with history (Anonymous, Stonewall, etc.), his bombastic and wannabe-crowd-pleasing treatment of one of the most crucial moments in American war history ultimately ends up trivialising it, shooting his own best intentions squarely in the foot. Some credit for stepping out of his conspiracy-laden comfort zone, but old habits clearly die hard, and in the crossfire of intent and presentation, the entertainment value crashes and burns before too long.