Review: Pearl Harbor

by malducin

The 2001 Summer Box Office season officially opens on Memorial Day Weekend, and thsi year with one of the most anticipated movies of the year: Pearl Harbor. Directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie tells the story of a love triangle against the backdrop of the Pearl Harbor attack. Effects by ILM were supervised by Eric Brevig (also working as second unit director) and Ed Hirsh, with Ben Snow as an associate FX supervisor. John Frazier was in charge of the physical FX, and Stan Winston had the makeup duties. Sound courtesy of the folks at Skywalker sound.

The Story

Well there is not much more to the story than the description above. Ben Affleck as Rafe, and Josh Hartnett as Danny, are childhood friends, always dreaming of becoming pilots. They eventually make it as military fighter pilots, where Rafe meets Navy nurse Evelyn played by Kate Beckinsale. Eventually Rafe volunteers for combat duty in Britain while the pilots and nurses are transferred to Pearl Harbor.

***Medium Spoiler***
Rafe is eventually shot down and presumed dead. After sometime Danny and Evelyn fall for each other. On the Eve of the attack Rafe shows up which sets the love triangle.
***End Spoiler***

The attack ensues and we get an extended sequence of the Sunday morning attack. Along the way we get glimpses of the Japanese military, FDR and the cabinet and some of the strategy and political situation. Rafe and Danny eventually get on their planes and are able to dogfight a bit. After the attack is over the Doolittle Tokyo raid is planned and carried out. Problem is they take off really far away and can only ditch their airplanes in China. This sets up the finale which I won't spoil here (but people might see 10 miles coming or even guess from the trailer as I suspected).

The Trailers

Didn't get to catch any new trailers where I went, so I'll have to look around and see where that Lord of the Rings trailer is playing.

The Movie

As I suspected, this movie turned out to be kind off a guilty pleasure for me. The Pearl Harbor attack sequence is really worth the price of admission, plus the Doolittle raid, though it over before you know it. The story and the dialog are my main problems. While the love story is not too bad it lacks a lot of chemistry and especially development. The story of how Rafe and Evelyn meet is told as a flashback and then we cut to their night out in New York where they are deeply in love. But we don't get to see how their relationship evolves. It's doesn't drag to badly and the 90 minutes before the attack passed briskly enough for me. The main problem is that the story has been sanitized, politically corrected, with some extreme clichés and sometimes some incredible bad dialog. For the most part the nurses seem to be semi-spoiled bimbos or teeny boppers. Pilots are almost clichéd from Top Gun and for the most part appear as blockhead pretty boys. There is even a scene straight out of Top Gun very at the beginning. They almost try to please every one with the movie. And there are countless attempts at comedy that failed for me for the most part, like the clichéd scene with the nurses giving the recruits their vaccine shots. At least where I saw it seemed that only the teens and young people laughed at this, but most older and adult people didn't laugh at all. And since we don't see how the relationships of the main characters evolve, and failing to engage effectively with other characters, it's hard to connect with them and/or feel the love story.

Just as the main characters are underdeveloped, so do most of the secondary characters and events. There are plenty of cameos and small parts. Surprisingly the Japanese are the most developed though they do get barely any time, just enough to philosophize. Mako gives a solid performance as Admiral Yamamoto. Another good performance albeit brief is Dan Akroyd as captain Thurman. Probably the best one is John Voight as FDR, he really immersed himself on the role, and besides the ridiculous bit when he stands up unaided after the attack, did an admirable job. Alec Baldwin as Doolittle was good, actually he does a good job considering some of the lines he has to deliver. Cuba Gooding Jr. in a brief role as ship cook Dorie Miller gives a solid performance as well. What they suffer, along with all the scenes about the situation, is that they are all too brief. Great opportunities to explore and make the movie more interesting are barely touched on. Things like maybe seeing more of Dorie Miller and explore the racism of the era. Or how the Japanese felt compelled to attack (here they are almost apologized for and it makes me shudder what would have happened if they made a movie about the war in Europe instead) which is barely touched upon. Almost no political maneuvering and the exploration that the US was expecting an attack is barely serviceable. Sometimes also the dialog explaining several things was made too obvious (like why the American planes were lined up at the bases the way they were).

For anyone interested, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a superior movie story wise, and what it lacks in modern FX it makes up on the directing and script. Too bad the film makers didn't strive to surpass this movie. Not too say that the movie was totally bad. The attack sequence is really something spectacular, though it's a bit too detached and not as emotionally gripping as the sequences in other movies like Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates. Photography is excellent though there are times when we get a bit too many extreme close-ups on the characters faces. Editing is quite good and a step up from Bay usual antics. From time to time there is still a bit too much rapid editing and handheld shaky camera, but it's barely there. Costumes, art direction and sets make it seem like an old movies with the glamour and splendor, though sometimes things look way too tidy and nice. Overall not bad, but it could have been much better. Bay and Bruckheimer showed improvement but were still far from having a true classic, compounded by the pressures Disney applied. These movie can be more or less compared to Titanic and Saving Private Ryan, but the comparison is not one on one. In certain scenes you have stuff straight out of previous Bay and Bruckheimer films.

The FX

The FX are divided in 3 main sequences. The first one is an air battle over Britain, as Rafe and other English pilots intercept German bombers and fighters. The second sequence involves the actual attack to Pearl Harbor, and the third involves the Tokyo raid. There are countless of shots of planes dogfighting, tracer bullets and smoke elements, and the combination of the practical FX and ILM's CG work is almost flawless and perfect. The attention to detail is also amazing. One example is the tracer bullets. In dogfights not only were they added but also they are not just "painted" as straight lines, but have that wiggle due to motion blur and camera movement. Other incredible details include seeing smoke trails from the bullets, or seeing the splash rings expand when the bullets hit the water. The models are incredibly detailed and hold up to their real counterparts. There is extensive use of CG water and a lot of impressive tracking. We se several instances of torpedoes thrown in which we follow to their final destiny. A torpedo shot, actually the first torpedo shot sets up another impressive shots akin to the bomb follow through shown on the trailer. While most of the torpedoes were physical we get to see some camera tracking several CG ones, either below or above the water. We see the bullets creating splashes on water and creating havoc on land. And we get impressive aerial vistas of Battleship Row.

But probably the most impressive aspect of the FX work is the pyro work and the integration of the rolling ship sets on the gimbals with the set extensions. For the most part you can tell the practical fire and smoke elements from the CG pyro and miniature pyro. The only way to figure it out is by the type of shot, but besides that they cut very seamlessly side by side. The thick black smoke billows out and looks amazing. The fire looks volumetric and the scale look correct, you won't mistake this for amateur miniature fire elements. The set extensions are impeccable as Titanic, as we see the crewmen in the foreground fighting for their lives while we see the rest of the see on fire or taking more damage. In one of the final shots of the attack we get an overhead shot of the bay and you can see through the water the submerged, and still sinking parts of several ships. Other pyro stuff includes the destruction and bombing of buildings, most shot live action. But several are ILM creations, especially notable in the Doolittle raid. You get the feeling that they indeed demolished real building. In one shot you can see the Japanese factory workers trying to escape the destruction caused by the bombs. Though most shots are aerial we get a good sense of scale. As is also expected we get several shots of planes being destroyed in all 3 main sequences. The most effective of which are the German bombers being shot down, and the American bombers crash landing in China. Several planes are disabled and you can appreciate the fire in the engines showing and smoke coming out and in several instances you get superb shots of tracking as the planes leave smoke behind them. If anything, ILM knows how to make dogfights, either planes or spaceships.

If there are any problems they are a bit conceptual but nothing major. In one instance, Rafe and Danny are chased by Zeroes and head for each other, then at the last minute turn in opposite directions while the pursuing attackers crash midair. Classic Bay over the top. Some of the FX follow the sanitized concept, like explosions and planes crashing that take out people on the ground, but the fire engulfs them in a way so as not to be very gory or violent. Sometimes in a couple of shots the planes appear a bit blurry but just in a handful of shots, 90% of the time you won't be able to distinguish between the real and the CG versions. There is one unnecessary shot at the very end where we see the Arizona sunken as it more or less appears today, totally reminiscent of the similar shot in Titanic, with the historical glitch of both front turrets still there. If there is any other complaint is since the action and violence was toned own it doesn't have as much emotional impact as the Normandy sequence in Spielberg's film, but that's not ILM's problem.

The only other surprise is that I expected a longer credit list. It's difficult to make a detailed list of all the shots in the sequences, as it's difficult to describe all the different but similar shots. In the end ILM again reminds us of what talented FX artists and technicians can accomplish nowadays.

The Verdict

While the movie left much to be desired, it's good enough to be entertaining, and it's bearable enough so you can wait for the main attack. ** 1/2 for me. As far as the FX the work is simply amazing and brilliant. There are too many things to praise individually and not only making it to the bakeoff wouldn't surprise me, but also to the final 3 Academy nominees next year. ***** (5 of 5 stars) for the FX, which are simply brilliant. Only some of the most keen eyed viewers would have any real objections to the FX, and it would be for just a few shots here and there. ILM has outdone themselves again.

[This message has been edited by malducin (edited 05-26-2001).]

[This message has been edited by malducin (edited 05-26-2001).]