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No One Makes Bad Action Movies Like Roland Emmerich

Watching ‘Midway’ is to be reminded that the ‘Independence Day’ director perfected a certain kind of junk-food blockbuster cinema — one that now feels poignantly passé in the Age of Marvel

I wasn’t expecting much from Midway, the new film from Roland Emmerich, and it didn’t disappoint. There’s a marvelous predictability to the marginal quality of the man’s movies. Dramatizing the Battle of Midway, a critical battle in the Pacific shortly after Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Midway is corny and cheesy, stuffed with dull characters and bland spectacle. It is also like nothing else out there currently in the realm of Hollywood blockbusters. 

John Huston’s aged character in Chinatown famously said, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Add to that list a certain kind of negligible big-budget director past his prime. With rare exception, Emmerich has only made one kind of movie — bad action films. In a weird way, I’ve come to rely on his particular brand of stunning averageness. For a while, it was the crème de la crème of Hollywood fast-food cinema. Now, weirdly, he feels touchingly passé. 

In some ways, Midway is a notable change of pace for Emmerich, the auteur behind disaster thrillers such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Here, he’s dealing with actual events, and several characters are based on real people who fought in the Battle of Midway. There’s a seriousness of purpose to Midway, as if Emmerich labored to make sure he got this story “right.” These aren’t the sorts of problems you have when Will Smith is punching an alien in the face.

And yet, the film is dependably, dopily Emmerich. His fingerprints are all over Midway. Individual human beings matter less than the proceedings’ epic scope. Every character is assigned one personality trait that the actor must carefully cultivate over the course of the story. (Ed Skrein’s naval pilot Dick Best chews gum.) And, most importantly, you know the movie won’t be very good. People love making fun of Michael Bay, but at least his cinematic abominations have a clattering, preening style — you know that only he could have made them. What’s fascinating about Emmerich’s movies, beyond their reliable adequacy, is how generic they are. His signature artistic trademark is he loves to blow shit up. His house style is mediocrity.

Some bad Emmerich movies are better than others. Independence Day was hilarious, maximizing the thrill of watching extra-terrestrials wreck Earth, only to have the surviving humans defeat those alien bastards in the final reel. The movie was garbage, but it was very fun garbage that knew its place — it was an outsider’s take on the theme-park inanity of American blockbusters. (Emmerich grew up in Germany, moving to the States in his 30s.) And for a while, his apparent glee at being handed the keys to major studio tentpoles was, well, maybe not inspiring, but the guy helped remind audiences why we fell in love with junk in the first place. 

Godzilla, The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow were proudly brainless event movies, and while they didn’t do a thing for me, I can’t say I actively disliked any of them. Unlike a Bay, Emmerich projected a cheerful innocence onto his films that seemed to say, “Hey, everything doesn’t have to be art, you know?” And while that’s hardly the most laudable position, it sure beats the crass cynicism that pervades so many action films.

But since 2009’s 2012, Emmerich seems to have struggled, unable to capture the big-dumb zeitgeist as successfully as he had in the past. Partly, that’s because he took on some very non-Emmerich-y projects. The utterly loopy Anonymous was a rare excursion into period drama, building a whole movie around the conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write all those incredible plays. This would have been a goofy idea for a film in anyone’s hands, but Emmerich seemed to have a ball treating each melodramatic plot twist like it was a game-changing truther revelation. Anonymous remains one of my favorites of his, simply because it’s so energetically ludicrous.

Not surprisingly, though, a period drama from the guy who brought us Stargate stiffed at the box office, sending him back to the multiplex with his tail between his legs for rote action thrillers like White House Down and perfunctory sequels such as Independence Day: Resurgence. (In between, he pursued a passion project, the Stonewall riot drama Stonewall, which was a commercial disaster and critically pilloried.) Quite frankly, Emmerich hasn’t felt much like himself in recent years, and Midway doesn’t look likely to reverse his fading fortunes. Recently, Variety ran a profile of Emmerich, noting that the hit director couldn’t even get any of the studios to bite on his Battle of Midway idea. “We shopped the movie around, and at that time we thought it would cost $125 million,” Emmerich told reporter Matt Donnelly in the piece. “That was too much money for the studios.”

It would be nice to say Midway gives Emmerich the last laugh, but this is a rather staid World War II picture — and it’s especially feeble in comparison to far more groundbreaking recent war movies like Dunkirk. But Emmerich’s struggles to secure financing are endemic of a shifting Hollywood that seems to have little room for him anymore. Donnelly notes that Midway is “one of the costliest independent films in history. It’s a sign that even A-list directors like Emmerich are facing an uphill climb to get movies made in a Hollywood that’s become obsessed with comic book movies and resurrected franchises.”

For a filmmaker as generic as Emmerich, there’s a certain irony that, by modern standards, his dim-bulb action flicks feel antiquated. Marvel has radically changed the blockbuster landscape: The Avengers films have made audiences expect a certain level of quality to their escapist cinema. I’m not suggesting that those movies are masterpieces, but they’re consistently better-acted (and have better scripts) than what Emmerich was producing even in his heyday. A movie like Independence Day turned the invasion of earth into a blast — Avengers: Endgame treated its story like a sacred text. The recent Godzilla movies are brooding, ominous affairs — Emmerich’s starred Matthew freakin’ Broderick. And the fact that Independence Day: Resurgence was only a modest hit suggests that, in a world where franchises rule, his most enduring one doesn’t have much clout anymore. Will Smith didn’t want any part of it, so why should audiences?

While watching Midway, I felt a little bad for Emmerich. The movie is a grim parade of B-list actors chomping down on bad dialogue. (If you have Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid and Woody Harrelson in your movie, it’s sort of like you have no real stars at all.) Midway is never particularly terrible, but it’s aggressively meh. And that, unfortunately, feels new for a Roland Emmerich movie. The old zest is gone. I suddenly realized that, actually, there is something worse than being the maven of bad action movies — with Midway, he’s made his first boring one. 

Here are three other takeaways from Midway….

#1. Here’s why John Ford makes a cameo in the movie.

As the Battle of Midway gets underway, Midway cuts to an island where, inexplicably, we see a film director instructing his cameraman. Who’s the filmmaker? Why, it’s John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), the man behind such revered Westerns as The Searchers who, during World War II, was making documentaries for the Navy to highlight America’s bravery. And as Midway suggests, Ford was on Midway Island at the time, which allowed him to produce The Battle of Midway. The 18-minute film is streaming on Netflix, but you can also find it on YouTube:

Not surprisingly, The Battle of Midway is largely meant to stir viewers’ patriotism, but it’s also remarkable for the war footage that Ford’s cameras captured. It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time when we simply didn’t have many visuals of actual war. The movie introduced audiences to some of America’s valiant soldiers, which affected President Franklin Roosevelt, who reportedly responded to The Battle of Midway by saying, “I want every mother in America to see this film.”

The documentary isn’t highly polished, but the bluntness of its message is hard to dispute. The Battle of Midway was released shortly after the battle, but still very much during the thick of a conflict that would wage for three more years. What you’re watching is a time capsule of a very specific period in American history, when it was far from a sure thing that the U.S. and its allies would come out on top. And, as should go without saying, the film is much better than Midway.

#2. No, FDR didn’t allow the Pearl Harbor attack to happen so America could enter World War II.

Early on in Midway, Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese. That sneak attack provoked the U.S., which had vowed to stay neutral, to join World War II. Even people with little knowledge of American history are aware of those facts. Unfortunately, there has persisted another, totally incorrect, assumption about that attack, which is that FDR was aware of Japan’s plans and sat idly by, strategizing that the massacre would give him an excuse to finally enter the war. Historians try and try to dissuade the public, but this dumb belief continues.

In 2016, on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, NPR ran a segment about the FDR-knew theory. Reporters spoke to beleaguered scholars, who tried with all their might to insist that it’s not true:

“‘It’s ridiculous,’ says Rob Citino, a senior researcher at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. ‘But it’s evergreen. It never stops. My students, over 30 years — there’d always be someone in class [who’d say], ‘Roosevelt knew all about it.’” 

That said, over the years, there have been several U.S. government inquiries into the sneak attack, although those were more concerned about discovering how America was caught unprepared for such a deadly strike. (Remarkably, the most recent inquiry took place not that long ago, in 1995.) And, as with the folks who insist that 9/11 was an inside job or that we faked the moon landing, you’ll always be able to find people happy to argue that FDR was hiding something:

For the record, Midway doesn’t suggest in any way that FDR knew about the attack in advance. Apparently, Emmerich’s conspiracy theories stop with the idea that Shakespeare was a fraud.

#3. Let’s talk about the strange reinvention of Dennis Quaid.

I don’t know if celebrities send out holiday cards — the ones where the sender includes a long note detailing everything that his or her family has been up to this year — but if they do, I’d pay good money to read Dennis Quaid’s. The Midway costar has had a memorable 2019, and while watching him in this ho-hum movie, I spent some time pondering what he’s been up to lately. It’s a mixed bag of bizarre.

In Midway, he plays Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, a real person who was set to be heavily involved in the Battle of Midway. There was only one problem: He was dealing with a terrible rash all over his neck that was extremely itchy. Remember earlier when I said that Emmerich assigns every character one trait? Well, Halsey’s is that he scratches his neck all the time. Also, he’s really grouchy. Turns out, the poor guy had shingles, and so he’s relieved of duty because of his medical condition. 

As a result, Quaid exits the movie about halfway through, in the most underwhelming fashion imaginable. (Shingles is very debilitating, but it’s not exactly the most cinematic of ailments.) It’s such a weird one-note performance that it’s almost a parody of the shit-kicking military commander you see in old-school war movies. (The actual Halsey sounds like a fascinatingly complex individual, suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, which probably led to him getting shingles.) The whole time, I wasn’t sure if Quaid was actually making fun of the movie that he’s in.

Then there’s The Intruder from earlier in the year, by all accounts a nutsy thriller in which he plays the former owner of a house who refuses to relinquish it to a couple (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) that bought it fair and square. The film allowed nice-guy Quaid to go full psycho. As director Deon Taylor said, “When [Quaid] came to this movie and looked me in my eyes, he was like ‘Hey, I want to make this guy crazy.’” Apparently, he succeeded: In several interviews to promote The Intruder, Good recalled that her costar, during one scene, keep insisting “Spit on me” to up the intensity.

But, of course, the most noticeable reinvention has come through his work with Esurance. Back in the summer of 2018, he signed up for his first TV-commercial gig, serving as a self-aware spokesman for the bargain insurance company. “We wanted an actor of the highest caliber who is known for more dramatic roles,” Nancy Abraham, VP of integrated marketing communications for Esurance, told AdAge when the campaign premiered, “but his earnestness and his dryness ends up being unexpectedly funny.” Indeed, the entire Esurance campaign is built around the fact that Dennis Quaid knows that you like Dennis Quaid, and so he’s hoping you’ll trust him when he says that Esurance is reliable and affordable.  

What goes unsaid in the Esurance spots is that everybody likes Quaid, even if none of us spend a lot of time thinking about him. He’s just a comforting, familiar presence in our movies. He’s that guy — anonymously famous and handsome. How can you hate Dennis Quaid when he barely ever crosses your mind?

At this point, I should probably acknowledge that, oh yes, Quaid was also in the news recently for proposing to his much-younger girlfriend Laura Savoie. (He’s 65; she’s 26. Quaid has a son who’s older than his fiancée.) In Hollywood, such an age gap is hardly surprising, but considering the quirky onscreen choices he’s made of late, this proposal feels more delightfully odd than worryingly unwise. 

Hey, he’s the friendly Esurance guy — he knows what he’s doing.