Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

SR Midway

Aaron Eckhart stars as Lt. Col. James Doolittle in 'Midway' (2019).

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Over the course of four days in June of 1942, a vastly outnumbered American naval force pulled off a successful surprise attack on the Japanese navy at a remote atoll known as Midway.

Still smarting from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy marshalled its battered forces and set out to check the progress of the Japanese, who were intent on extending their reach in the Pacific, hoping eventually to push American forces back, take Hawaii and invade the West Coast.

Roland Emmerich’s “Midway” is not simply a rousing adventure film but also a respectful tribute to the men who gave their lives during this decisive battle, marking a new sense of maturity to the director’s work.

Having cut his teeth on sci-fi epics, most notably “Independence Day” (1996) and “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), the filmmaker is no stranger to big-screen spectacles and has used CGI effects from their infancy to render his expansive end-of-the-world scenarios. In a sense, these movies have all been a warm-up for “Midway,” as the visuals on display are as spectacular as anything that can be rendered with ones and zeroes. The surprise here is the human element, which is as genuine as the war scenes are manufactured, something that’s been absent in Emmerich’s previous efforts.

As scripted by Wes Tooke, the film covers a great deal of material in a short amount of time. From the attack on Pearl Harbor to Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s raid on Japan to the attack on the Marshall Islands, Emmerich gives substantial background to what led to the decisive titular battle, introducing the key players along the way.

With the navy in tatters, Adm. Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is put in charge, knowing the task of rallying his troops will test his mettle; intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) faces an uphill battle convincing the brass that his hunches about Japan’s plans are true; Lt. Richard Best’s (Ed Skrein) hotshot ways in the pilot’s seat of his bomber serve as an inspiration to others but may ultimately lead to his demise; and Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) must justify his rank by getting in the cockpit to lead his men at a crucial time.

Figures such as Vice Adm. William Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) appear, but their time on screen is brief, each man obviously worthy of a feature film of their own. Every character we see was based on a real person, their actions recreated with a degree of accuracy that pays proper respect to their bravery and sacrifice. The reverence that’s paid throughout and as the end credits roll is the film’s strongest suit, justifying its expense and the effort of all involved.

As to the pyrotechnics, they are as spectacular as one can expect in this age of digital wizardry. Though it is far more seamless than the rear-projection process used in older films that put the stars of the day on the beaches of the Riviera or the streets of New York City, there’s a sense of artifice around the edges of some of the battle scenes that reminds the viewer that so much of what we are seeing is done in a massive warehouse before an expansive green screen.

No matter. Each era has its own brand of cinematic trickery to contend with, and in the end, all that matters is that the writing and acting in any given film is sincere enough to allow us to make the requisite suspension of disbelief. Emmerich manages to do this more times than not with “Midway,” and in age of empty spectacle, that’s saying something.

Also new in theaters

“Terminator: Dark Fate” a tired, redundant sequel (★★ out of four). It’s time to put this to rest. Without question, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” is a seminal piece of science fiction, a film that, much like many of its characters, has transcended time to become a part of our pop culture lexicon. Its dire warnings about technology taking over our lives has unfortunately proved prescient, while its clever narrative and imaginative execution has allowed the movie to remain as fresh and entertaining today as it was nearly 30 years ago.

Not content to leave well enough alone, a variety of producers have tried to milk a few more bucks out of the franchise, none of them able to recreate the sharp-edged style or intelligence of James Cameron’s first two films. To be fair, the underrated third entry from Jonathan Mostow is an efficient B-movie that provided one of the most memorable set pieces in the franchise as well as a reasonably smart conclusion to the saga that tied up most of the story’s loose ends.

After two expensive misfires, Cameron has returned to the franchise as producer for this film. His presence, as well as that of original stars Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, provided a bit of hope that some of the magic from the original could be rekindled. Unfortunately, the result is a bit of a mixed bag, a movie with flashes of brilliance that’s ultimately bogged down by a flat script and one-note performances from the three leads.

If the plot sounds familiar ... well, it is. This time out, Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is the warrior sent back from the future to protect the unsuspecting Dani Ramos (Natlia Ramos) who, in an alternate future, will become humanity’s best hope for survival against the unavoidable rise of the machines.

A new and improved terminator, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), is on her tail, and he’s a piece of work, as he’s able to split in two, making him twice the threat for Grace and twice the headache for the CGI artists charged with bringing him to life. These three tear up a good part of Mexico City and southern California, even more so when they’re joined by Sarah Connor (Hamilton) and the original T-800 (Schwarzenegger), who owns a small business, is married and raising a son and insists he has a good sense of humor.

The manner in which screenwriters David Goyer, Billy Ray and Justin Rhodes fold these original two characters in is inspired. Too bad the rest comes off as a rote exercise as this chase movie moves with efficiency but little life. Films of this sort live or die by their action sequences, and they end up being a bit of a mixed bag. An opening car chase is a fine but far from an edge-of-your-seat affair, while the climax inside a hydroelectric dam is visually murky, and as a result, a bit confusing.

Only a sequence that finds the misfit crew on a flying army transport with the Rev-9 in hot pursuit in an aircraft of his own provides the sort of daring fun action fans of the franchise expect.

Director Tim Miller (“Deadpool”) was obviously not concerned about the performances in the film as Hamilton’s one-note growl gets old fast, Davis proves too bland to register and Ramos’ role is so underwritten that there’s very little she can do to bring her character to life. Schwarzenegger’s minimalist approach shines in comparison and had me wishing Miller & Co. had explored the T-800-in-retirement premise a little further. As it is, “Fate” proves that the “Terminator” franchise has become one of diminishing returns, its time long since passed.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.