By now, making fun of Michael Bay's 'Pearl Harbor' is just too easy -- it only took the span of the film's opening weekend to see the now-infamous would-be blockbuster go from being Bay's 'Titanic' to his 'Heaven's Gate.' While the film ultimately hauled in strong box office worldwide, it was eviscerated by the critics and (perhaps more importantly) failed to capture the cultural zeitgeist of the time in the way that both Bay and the studio must have hoped. But the question remains: is 'Pearl Harbor' really that bad?
Watching it again for this Blu-ray release five years on, I'm sorry to say that, yes, it really is that bad. In fact, I'm left with the same exact feeling I remember having when I first suffered through 'Pearl Harbor' in the theater -- that this was 183 minutes of my life that I will never, ever get back. And that Michael Bay deserves all the grief he's gotten for this film.
Sometimes it is easy to pinpoint just where a movie goes wrong, but 'Pearl Harbor' goes wrong in so many ways that I can easily imagine it being the subject of a complete film school course on how not to make a movie. Despite the huge wads of cash up on the screen and impeccable production values, just about nothing in 'Pearl Harbor' works... We hate the characters. We don't care about the story. The battle scenes have no emotional impact. And the climax may not leave a dry eye in the house, but that's only because of all the hysterical laughter. I can't remember a film that seemed like such a perfect recipe for a great, epic, sweeping Hollywood spectacle, and yet failed so fantastically. I'd even call 'Pearl Harbor' the best camp classic of the past decade next to 'Showgirls,' if only it were half as good.
Since I hope I don't have to explain to anyone the real story of Pearl Harbor, suffice it to say that Bay shamelessly swipes from James Cameron's 'Titanic' playbook by juxtaposing another historical disaster with a teen romance. Yet another gooey love triangle, this one tells the tale of the lovelorn Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), who after mistakenly thinking fiancee Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) has been killed overseas, shacks up with his best bud Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett). Meanwhile, as the "Japs" are getting ready to drop their bombs, Bay revs up the disaster machine in an apparent attempt to create some sort of deep thematic parallel between the doomed lovers and the U.S. failure to defend Pearl Harbor. But there is no point to be made, which leaves 'Pearl Harbor' more of a mockery of the attack than it is a tribute.
Despite their similarities, 'Pearl Harbor' gets almost everything wrong that 'Titanic' got right. It is painfully obvious that Bay lacks most of Cameron's strengths as a director, editor and conceptualist. Sure, even 'Titanic's biggest fans knew its maker was no whiz with dialogue, but 'Pearl Harbor' screenwriter Randall Wallace's tin-ear makes Cameron's worst lines read like Shakespeare ("I don't think I'll ever look at another sunset without thinking of you," Evelyn says to Rafe at one point -- ugh!). Not helping matters is the fact that Bay seems incapable of distinguishing style from substance. Every romantic scene is staged like a bad MTV music video -- seriously, there is a sequence when Beckinsale and Hartnett run through a bunch of sheets blowing in the wind, making kissy-poo faces at each other. I kept expecting Ann and Nancy Wilson to appear, singing "These Dreams" as the first bombs fell from the sky.
Speaking of bombs, I kept waiting for the Japs to come and finally drop one on Evelyn. Unlike 'Titanic,' where Cameron wisely anchored his story around the extremely likable Rose (Kate Winslet), here poor Beckinsale is saddled with the impossible burden of making such a selfish twit palatable. Winslet managed to make the motives of a spoiled brat understandable, human and -- by the end of 'Titanic' -- transformative. Beckinsale just pouts and whines, to the point where you wonder how one man would love her, let alone two. And regrettably, I must say that I just am not a fan of Hartnett. In my opinion, his slumped over, puppy dog acting style turns just about every character he plays into a chump. It is saying something when Ben Affleck gives by far the best performance.
Perhaps 'Pearl Harbor' could have been saved if its lengthy scenes of destruction had been as exciting as the sinking in 'Titanic.' But over and over, Bay and Wallace pull away from their main characters to kill off a bunch of uninteresting supporting players. Do we really care about all of Affleck and Harnett's obnoxious, 'Porky's-esque buddies? It is just plain sad that while I watched a depiction of thousands dying in a fiery display of sadism, I felt absolutely nothing -- I cried more when that little Ewok died in 'Return of the Jedi.' Sure, Bay's staging of the apocalypse is impressive, but his concurrent storyline is completely uninvolving and downright exploitative. In fact, remove the Pearl Harbor attack from the movie, and it really wouldn't make a smidgen of difference to the romantic storyline. Thanks to its complete lack of heart and emotion, 'Pearl Harbor's may be best remembered as the most expensive snuff film ever made.
Believe it or not, 'Pearl Harbor' actually comes to Blu-ray with high expectations. Not because it is a great movie, but because it offers the promise of top-notch demo material. Buena Vista certainly gives the film its all -- a roomy BD-50, just a few extras (so as not to steal precious bits away from the main feature) and a 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer. And the results are really quite good, however I'm deducting a full star off the video rating for a couple of quality caveats I found distracting.
'Pearl Harbor' was considered a reference DVD back in the day, and it still holds up quite well, as I suspect we're getting a high-def upgrade minted from the same master. Note for the record that only the 183-minute theatrical cut is included in this release, not the bloodier extended version that hit DVD in 2002. In any case, there is a lot to like here -- a whistle-clean source print, deep blacks and exaggerated contrast that, if a bit bloomy, accurately reflects Michael Bay's usual bombastic visual style. As such, the image has a great deal of depth, especially in darker scenes, with the trade-off being some loss of detail in the shadows. Likewise, colors can be excessive. Hues are impossibly vibrant at times, especially Kate Beckinsale's red lips (she looks like she was punched in the face before every take) and the uber-orangey fleshtones. Everyone looks rather music-video pasty, but if 'Pearl Harbor' doesn't look "realistic," remember that this is a Michael Bay movie after all. Unfortunately, chroma noise can be a glaring irritant. It is especially evident on primary colors, and combined with the harsh quality I generally find with MPEG-2 transfers, the image often has an unappealing hardness. All in all, these artifacts aren't terribly excessive, and there is no macroblocking during fast action. Still, I hoped for a bit smoother of a look for 'Pearl Harbor.
While the picture quality may not be a home run, 'Pearl Harbor' sounds absolutely fantastic. Buena Vista gives us a full-tilt uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track in 48kHz/24-bit, and this is a true reference presentation. The film's sound design has not aged a day, and remains an utterly immersive experience.
Setting aside all the boring romantic scenes (really, who cares?), it is rare to find a soundfield as completely engaging as this. A complete, transparent 360-degree effect is created during the battle scenes. As the gunfire, explosions, screams and the blaring score filled my living room, I found it impossible to localize the vast majority of sounds, and as they panned all over the place, transparency was absolute. The track's clarity is also first-rate -- even the smallest, most random effect sounds real and natural -- from a single squeaking tire to the bravura moment where we follow a bomb dropping from plane to ground, accompanied by a dazzling array of constructed sounds.
Amid all the pyrotechnics, dialogue remains surprisingly intelligible. Not that the script deserves such attention to detail, but the mix is so well-balanced that even the biggest whoppers of action don't completely overwhelm the actors. The .1 LFE on this sucker is also among the most powerful I've ever heard. At even a decent volume level, your furniture may begin to move around by itself. 'Pearl Harbor' on Blu-ray -- if audio is your thing, accept no substitutes.
'Pearl Harbor' received one of the more famous deluxe DVD releases, a gargantuan four-disc set that was impressive by sheer volume alone. For once, I'm glad Buena Vista hasn't ported over all those extras to the Blu-ray version, because I just don't think I could stand sitting through all of it again. Instead, the studio has included only the minimal extras that appeared on the theatrical DVD version of 'Pearl Harbor,' though the two documentaries included here are actually quite meaty.
As both "Journey To The Screen: The Making of 'Pearl Harbor'" and the History Channel's "Unsung Heroes of Pearl Harbor" were produced for television, each is presented in 480i pillarboxed video, and run about 48 minutes a pop. The making-of is a bit fluffy at first, but it quickly picks up steam when we get to the production of the centerpiece attack sequence. Michael Bay actually does not come off as the asshole he's made out to be, and the on-set cast interviews with Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, etc., are actually pretty good. Better yet is the wealth of production footage, including some scary acrobatics involving real aircraft that I thought was all computer generated. Eek!
Meanwhile, "Unsung Heroes" is a fairly typical historical piece featuring interviews with various Pearl Harbor survivors, rare archival footage and some rather authentic recreations. If nothing else, the moving recollections here blow away all of the false melodrama Bay put up on the screen, and hint at the movie that might have been. Perhaps you could just catch an airing of "Unsung Heroes' on cable and skip the movie entirely -- you'll certainly learn more about the real Pearl Harbor that way.
The only other goodies are Faith Hill's dreadful "There You'll Be" music video, plus a theatrical trailer and teaser.
I get no joy out of dogging 'Pearl Harbor.' I find this film so awful that it doesn't even work as camp. But purely in terms of video and audio impact, this is a winner on Blu-ray. The soundtrack in particular is a whopper, so give this one a rent just for the sheer sonic thrill of it. And if you actually like 'Pearl Harbor,' then by all means pick this one up.