I sort of miss disaster movies if for nothing else but to see the visual effects houses show off their best work (or as the case usually is, to underbid everyone else and recycle designs and concepts that have been seen in past films). ARMAGEDDON came out in the summer of 1998 and it was the 2nd of the “asteroid” movies that summer, the first being the lower-budgeted, but better executed, DEEP IMPACT. ARMAGEDDON arrived with all the fanfare and bluster surrounding a Michael Bay movie. This was pre-TRANSFORMERS and pre-PEARL HARBOR Michael Bay so film buffs had not yet completely written him off as a shitty director.

I think its practically a given that Michael Bay is a Republican based on the imagery contained in his films and the themes he explores. Even more than PEARL HARBOR, ARMAGEDDON is an exemplar of Bay’s political views. For one, you can’t not notice the many images of the American flag taking up the entire background in certain scenes of the film. Second, although the impending disaster threatens the entire globe, the world depends on the U.S. to save it from the asteroid. Finally, ARMAGEDDON celebrates American ingenuity and hard work. In 1998, the United States did not have an identifiable enemy on its collective consciousness. This was the Clinton era and before 9/11. Instead, Hollywood was forced to look elsewhere for America’s antagonists and it found it in the form of a world-destroying asteroid. The world Michael Bay (and producer Jerry Bruckheimer for that matter) is the modern equivalent of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of America.

I’m sure its totally unnecessary for me to provide a summary of the movie because I can’t imagine anyone reading this (or wanting to read this) without having seen ARMAGEDDON. However, for those 3 of you who have not seen the film, the premise is simple enough. An asteroid the size of Texas is about to enter Earth’s atmosphere and impact the world. NASA concludes that the only way to destroy that rock is to send someone up there to land on the rock and drill a bomb into it. Because no astronaut has any oil drilling experience on his resume, the only person able to do this job is Bruce Willis and his merry band of oil drillers.

Its very safe to view ARMAGEDDON today in light of Michael Bay’s filmography and deride it as a complete piece of shit with no redeeming value. For film buffs, its fun to rip into Michael Bay because his movies have bad stories, bad characters, bad dialogue, and overall are intended for the common lowest denominator of our population. I think that’s unfair and that’s not because Bay’s films make a lot of money. Admittedly, he’s no Quentin Tarantino or a Christopher Nolan by any stretch of the imagination. However, if nothing else, its undeniable that Bay has a firm grasp on producing stunningly beautiful visuals and giving his audience spectacle. The first few sequences in ARMGEDDON illustrate this and it all begins with the opening credit shot of ARMAGEDDON, which is beautifully conceived as an asteroid hits Earth, the Earth gets covered in cloud and fire, and we come out on the other side of the planet with the ARMGEDDON title appearing. Although its totally unexplainable why rocks hitting NYC are exploding like bombs (I’m no scientist, but I’m going to venture and say that mini asteroids wouldn’t cause those kind of big explosions), the destruction of NYC sequence is also a nice showcase of visual effects wizardry. Michael Bay’s world is perpetually set in one where the sunset is always golden, the skies have filtered colors, the dialogue is full of snippy, comedic one-liners, and explosions are 100 times bigger than what they’re supposed to be.

Another reason for Michael Bay’s strong unpopularity appears to stem from his directorial style, which is heavily influenced by the late Tony Scott. With TOP GUN, Tony Scott introduced a directorial style that was popularly known as the MTV-style of directing. This style basically boils down to a lot of editorial fast cutting and it breaks a lot of continuity rules that are associated with the classical Hollywood style. This style tends to favor place, mood, and feeling over character and plot development. Basically, style over substance. ARMAGEDDON is an even more extreme example of what Tony Scott introduced in his films. I don’t think there is a single shot in the entire film that lasts more than 5 seconds. Those critics who lambast this style are ones who believe every film should look and feel like a 3 hour 1970’s epic with long shots holding onto a character’s face for an entire minute before the character utters a word. I am a fan of those movies as well, even more so than the MTV-style, but preferring one method over the other doesn’t lessen the legitimacy or quality of one style over the other. Its not as if the postwar neo-realist style of filmmaking (i.e. THE BICYCLE THIEF) suddenly made the classic Hollywood style less authentic or less effective. Anyway, I digress.

However, to avoid risking losing my film snob cred, I need to clarify right now that I do not consider ARMAGEDDON to be a good film. It has its moments, but altogether, it is a 2 hour and 24 minute attack on my senses and intellect. Everything up to the point where the shuttle crews meet up with the international space station is watchable and at times entertaining. Everything following that is headache-inducing absolute lameness that feels like someone with severe ADD must have made it. There is a lot of science, statistics, and numbers thrown into this film that I’m sure any child who’s into astronomy and or just science will dig and take it all in as inviolable truth. However, if you’re an adult and you come away from this movie believing everything in this film can come true exactly the way they portray it, then you’re simply retarded (and you probably also believed that Dan Harris’ The DaVinci Code was a nonfiction book). But I don’t think I have to worry about most of you reading this review believing the “science” behind this film.

There are both big and small issues with ARMAGEDDON, but the film also has some elements that somewhat succeed and could have even redeemed the film in the hands of a more experienced storyteller. Beginning with the small, I never understand why NASA’s mission control center is usually shown to look like the TV section of Best Buy. Why are there a shitload of TV screens all over the place, a digital countdown clock the size of a house, and darkened lighting that makes it impossible for any NASA scientist to be able to read anything? Does this somehow increase the dramatic tension of the movie? APOLLO 13’s mission control center was made to look authentic and I seem to remember being on the edge of my seat during the last 30 minutes of that movie.

Furthermore, is it just me or does it seem glaringly clear that Michael Bay does not have a very high esteem of women? Although this is evident in most of his films, this issue became especially noticeable to me during the TRANSFORMERS films. Megan Fox and later, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, were nothing but damsels in distress throughout the entire films and, worse, their characters were not very intelligent to boot. In ARMAGEDDON, Liv Tyler is the sole female character, playing Bruce Willis’ daughter and Ben Affleck’s love interest. The film starts her off promisingly enough by establishing her as her dad’s off-shore oil rig business’ liaison to some Japanese investors (AND she speaks Japanese!). However, any promising character developments that this held is quickly squandered away as Tyler spends the remainder of the film helplessly watching her dad and boyfriend go shooting off into the stars trying to save the planet.

Speaking of Willis and Affleck, one of the things I did enjoy about ARMAGEDDON were the oil riggers (Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Will Patton) sent to save the world. These guys are tough as nails and dirty. They’re not intellectuals and if they’re not at work, they’re gambling their paychecks away or stuffing dollars down a stripper’s panties. I loved the fact that these were the guys chosen to stop an asteroid from destroying Earth. There is a sense of nobility about them in accepting a mission that they themselves do not believe they can pull off. You might have thought that all the comedic riffing between these characters was inauthentic given the seriousness of the problem before them. However, when you’re faced with a suicidal mission that, if you fail at, will spell the end of mankind, not laughing at the situation handed to you would paralyze you into absolute fear.

In fact, I enjoyed all of the characters, especially NASA’s mission control leader (Billy Bob Thornton), with the exception of Peter Stormare’s Russian cosmonaut character and Ben Affleck. For one, it is almost impossible to understand a word coming out of Stormare’s mouth. I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to play a drunk Russian or a retarded one, but either way, Stormare slurs his way through the role in one of the most over-the-top performances I have seen any actor do. The character is nothing more than a stereotypical portrayal of Russians and the character was completely unnecessary to the development of the plot (in fact, he grinds it to a halt in the sequence where he is introduced). As for Affleck, he has clearly shown that he is a far superior director (GONE BABY GONE, THE TOWN, and the upcoming ARGO) than an actor. Here, he is a 10-year old arrogant, loud, and obnoxious person in a 20-something year old body. He’s supposed to be funny I suppose, but I found very little humor in his performance.

As I stated before, the strength of ARMGEDDON lies in the first half of the film where our main characters undergo training for the space shuttle mission that will take them to the asteroid. The camaraderie between the characters is funny and it even borders on investing you into the stakes of the mission. Michael Bay tries really hard here to make us appreciate the stakes of the mission and to connect with the characters’ plight. He doesn’t quite succeed and Bay made the same unsuccessful attempt a few years later with PEARL HARBOR. I think this is where the fast-paced kinetic energy of the movie’s style and editing prevents us from emotionally connecting with the characters and situation. However, a few dramatic scenes did work for me. After all, if you throw enough shit against the wall, something will eventually stick, right? Particularly effective is the Will Patton scene where he meets his boy, who doesn’t know that Patton is his real dad. It’s an emotional scene that pays off later in the film in a nice way.

Unfortunately, ARMAGEDDON completely unravels and goes on auto-pilot once the characters reach the international space station and subsequently fly to the asteroid. Surprisingly the asteroid scene and the ticking time bomb narrative device fail to generate any tension in the film whatsoever. What also killed it for me was the fact that the asteroid set looks so cheap and fake. I never got the sense that the characters were on an asteroid and so much ‘real’ science is thrown out the window for the sake of moving the story along that although the entire film is pretty fake as it is, some elements of what would really happen in this situation should have been retained in these later sequences. Finally, the final scene where Bruce Willis says goodbye to his daughter is so hammy and manipulative that you can’t do anything but laugh and shake your head.

ARMAGEDDON continued Michael Bay’s winning streak and established him as one of Hollywood’s preeminent action directors. His streak ended in 2001 with PEARL HARBOR and he didn’t return to form until TRANSFORMERS. However, ARMAGEDDON remains a perennial favorite among Saturday afternoon armchair dads, as evidenced by how many times this film comes on TNT every year.

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