Michael Bay. In 2016, the name conjures thoughts of loud, chaotic Transformers movies that earn near-universal scorn and billions of dollars. But when Pearl Harbor came out, 15 years ago this week, Bay was the semi-respectable director of three hit films — Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon — that had gotten mixed reviews but were considered, at worst, harmless trifles.
Pearl Harbor was an ambitious new step for Bay: a three-hour epic based on real (and very serious) events that some audience members would remember firsthand and that everyone else would have learned about in school. It was a fraught subject that would bring up issues of patriotism, war, and racism. The model to emulate, especially in the early stages, when Bay wanted Pearl Harbor to be an R-rated portrayal of the horrors of war, would have been something like Saving Private Ryan.
Instead, he went another direction. Titanic was also a three-hour historical epic that put a well-known tragic event against the backdrop of a melodramatic love triangle. More importantly, it was the highest-grossing movie of all time, a true phenomenon that everyone in Hollywood was eager to replicate. Maybe the history/romance/tragedy combination could work again?
Well, sure. It could. But it didn’t.
Pearl Harbor was met with skepticism and scorn. Many critics, including some who’d given medium-to-positive reviews to Bay’s previous films, savaged it. The New York Times: “Nearly every line of the script drops from the actors’ mouths with the leaden clank of exposition, timed with bad sitcom beats.” Roger Ebert: “The film has been directed without grace, vision, or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialog, it will not be because you admire them.” The Hollywood Reporter: “Mostly tests one’s patience with unseaworthy dialogue and performers drowning in oily cliches.” And Nathan Rabin at the AV Club: “Leave it to Bay and Bruckheimer to reduce one of America’s biggest military tragedies into a three-hour avalanche of Kodak moments, and one of America’s defining crises into a facile exercise in fake uplift.”
(Some critics, like yours truly, were positive on it at first, only to reevaluate when they watched it again years later. Nobody’s perfect.)
Pearl Harbor soon became a joke, the sort of low-hanging fruit that gets nominated for Razzie Awards. (Six of them, actually, though it was shut out by Tom Green and Freddy Got Fingered.) It was the direct basis for one song in Team America: World Police (“Pearl Harborsucked, and I miss you”) and part of the inspiration for another one (“America: F*** Yeah!”).
Still — and the same can be said of almost every Michael Bay film — it made money. NotTitanic money, but a solid $200 million in the U.S. and another $250 million worldwide. Audiences didn’t exactly love it (the average IMDb user rating is 6.0 out of 10), but they liked it well enough.
And that’s the thing about Michael Bay movies. Of the 27 he’s directed or produced, only The Rock has a “Fresh” rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes … but worldwide, they’ve made a total of more than $6.5 billion. There is no filmmaker currently working whose track record with critics is more at odds with his box-office success. In a way, he’s a perfect fit for aPearl Harbor movie. No matter how skillfully or cleverly you attack him, he comes out on top in the end.
When Pearl Harbor was released, on May 25, 2001…
– It made $75 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, easily topping the previous week’s winner, Shrek. The rest of the top 10 included The Mummy Returns, A Knight’s Tale,Angel Eyes, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Along Came a Spider, Memento, Spy Kids, and Blow. Anyone remember Blow? It had Johnny Depp in some ridiculous wigs, though that doesn’t really narrow it down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scWkP1GdnuU
– As you drove to the theater in your Toyota Camry (the top-selling car of 2001), you might have turned on the radio and heard some of that week’s top hits, including “All for You” by Janet Jackson, “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim, Mya & Pink, “Hanging by a Moment” by Lifehouse, and “Drops of Jupiter” by Train.
– On TV, the final episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, Baywatch, Walker, Texas Ranger, and 3rd Rock from the Sun had recently aired. NBC was riding a wave of game show popularity with the new import The Weakest Link. Six Feet Under was set to debut on HBO in a week, changing our view of mortuary sex forever.
– In music, Weezer’s Green Album (“Island in the Sun,” “Hash Pipe”) had just dropped, and Radiohead’s Amnesiac was coming soon. So was something from Ted Nugent called Full Bluntal Nugity, but let’s not talk about that.
– The times they were a-changin’, as the Netherlands had recently become the first country in modern history to allow same-sex marriage. This is not, however, where the phrase “going Dutch” comes from.
– Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had died two weeks earlier, followed by the only slightly less cool Perry Como. Jack Lemmon, Carroll O’Connor, Anthony Quinn, and Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham would all die within the next month (as would Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, though with far less mourning).
– Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube would hit stores in the fall. In the meantime, PlayStation 2 was big. Soon to be big among young girls were Bratz dolls, which started appearing on shelves this very week. A date which will live in infamy, indeed.