Pearl Harbor (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Before I tell you about this film, I think it's important to establish the levels of "bad", and the way people use this word when referring to films.

A lot of people say Titanic is a "bad" movie, but that isn't really a position they can defend. They can argue that it trivializes tragedy, that it is corny, that it changes history for a convenient story, and there is truth in all of that. They can argue that they don't like it, and there is no disputing that many people hate it. But Titanic is some kick-ass filmmaking. It is a powerful love story. It is a historical spectacle. It is true to history in spirit, if not in every tiny detail. If you say that you don't like movies like Titanic, fine, I agree with you in many ways. Titanic and other similar films do have a special shallow quality that only overblown spectacle can attain.

But it sure ain't a "bad" movie. It has great set design and costumes, magnificent use and interweaving of miniatures and sets, grander-then-life romance, Perils of Pauline tension, solid acting, and enough historical accuracy to give the right impression of the era. Historical spectacles, when they are done well, have some powerful emotional and educational appeal across a broad spectrum of viewers, excluding only the intellectuals who carp at everything which doesn't involve a hand-held camera and junkies dying of cancer.

I can watch good spectacles. Sometimes I even enjoy them. I love Lawrence of Arabia, for example, and I like Titanic, except for the annoying music. Before I saw Pearl Harbor, I prepared myself for another Titanic. I figured it would be an entertaining picture in many ways, with the foregone expectation that an historical tragedy would be trivialized with a sappy love story. Having given you that preface, I must now regretfully report that Pearl Harbor is not in the same class as those films. If you are thinking Titanic, think again. For a comparable spectacle you need to look to the  Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra.

Pearl Harbor is not merely a trivialization of tragedy, but is, in fact, a terrible movie in nearly every way. The story is non-existent. The film is jingoistic. Except for FDR's actual words, the dialogue doesn't sound like any words ever spoken by human beings in the 1940's, and includes such familiar goodies as:

I'll never look at another sunset without thinking of you.

You remind me of myself at your age.

It is more unbalanced than those corny WW2 movies actually made in WW2. The Japanese are wooden, unsmiling and satanic. The Americans are all golly-gee wholesome and honorable. The script seems to be written for people who have never heard of World War Two, possibly by someone who only recently discovered it himself. "Whoa - honey, did you know we were at war with the Japanese and the Germans not too long ago. Whoa! I gotta write me a movie about that. That's hot! I see Ben Affleck as the gallant aviator fighting the Taliban, or whatever those guys were called back then."

The film has every war movie cliché in the book, including the dreaded resurrection. The acting is generally poor, and the characterizations lifeless, except for Jon Voight, who was surprisingly good as FDR. The second-best characterization in the film was probably given by Alec Baldwin. Think about that. How good can a three-hour epic be if the second most memorable performance is delivered by a guy with about ten lines.  Kinda scary, when you think about it. Beautiful Kate Beckinsale, who is an adult and was supposed to be playing an adult, delivers virtually every line in the official artificial sensitive tone adopted by 14 year old girls reading their own poetry books. 


In addition to all the other problems, the film has a corny gratuitous voice-over epilogue, and a prologue which is not only bad, but may be the most incomprehensibly bad five minutes of film I have ever seen. If it were inserted into the middle of Barn of the Naked Dead, you would not notice that it was out of place. Here's a quick capsule summary:

(Two kids coming back from play in an Tennessee field. They were pretending to fight the Germans in aerial warfare.)

Dad to his son (one of the two kids): How many times I told you not to play with that stupid kid? It'll make you stupid.

Son: he ain't stupid

Dad: don't talk back to me (he beats the shit out of the kid, until the other kid hits the dad over the head with a plank)

Other kid: don't get up, and don't hit him again, or I will finish you off, you damned German!

Dad: German? German? I fought the Germans. Nobody should have to see what I saw.

(the dad walks away, and his son calls out "dad, wait up". This is the kid he just beat the crap out of. They walk away arm-in-arm in the golden haze of the day, as the camera pulls back to reveal the entire landscape.)

If any of you understand how any parts of that could follow logically from the earlier parts, you should be working for Jerry Bruckheimer, and should contact him. 

That was the intro to the movie. 

And it went downhill from there.

To be fair, the aviation scenes and some of the war footage were pretty solid on the spectacle scale, but I am not one to find much entertainment value in slaughter, and whenever they got the characters talking again, it reverted right back to gibberish. Worse still, it reverted to 90's gibberish, not 40's gibberish. I heard "you da man" once, and "could she BE any more boring". 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • many, many documentaries on the real events of the day

I'm tired of talking about this film. It doesn't even deserve to be made fun of. My humor is all based on exaggeration, but with this film, as with Plan 9 from Outer Space, it is not really possible to exaggerate. Every lie that I would have told is already in the script, unless I want to claim that it located WW2 in New Zealand in 1967, which it probably did in the first draft.

To the eternal credit of the filmmakers, the 2-disk DVD contains virtually nothing about the film itself. There are various documentaries about what really happened in the beginning of December, 1941, all of which is far more affecting than the movie. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two stars. Ebert 1.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4, Apollo 69/100.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.9, Apollo users 32/100. This film has established a decided demographic pattern at IMDb. Men rate it 5.7 out of 10. Women rate it 7.1 out of 10. girls under 18 rate it 8.3 out of 10.
  • With their dollars ... it was a box office hit, albeit a money loser for the studio. It took in $198 million domestically, but the production budget was $135 million, and the promotional costs were astronomical. Theater owners were pleased with it, but the studio will have to wait a while before breaking even. (The studio gets half of the gross, and they were hoping for $300 million or more domestically.)
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a D. Has nothing but a big budget. No heart, no brain, no soul, not even any good manufactured tears.

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