Armageddon (The Cornfield #30)

Having just passed a promised date for the Rapture, we acknowledge the end of the world with this review of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. First published with the original Film.com in 1998.

Money shot.

Armageddon is not a movie. Armageddon is a series of TV commercials for a movie. At two-and-a-half hours of screen time, this makes for a lot of commercials, but at least it doesn’t require much of an attention span.

You know the plot: an asteroid is due to strike the earth in less than three weeks. NASA honcho Billy Bob Thornton enlists the world’s leading oil-well-driller (a bored-looking Bruce Willis, in a strawberry-blond hairpiece) for a daring mission. Willis and his team will fly into space, land on the asteroid, drill a hole in it, deposit a nuclear device, and blow the rock to bits. Or at least deflect its trajectory away from earth.

Yes, this is the same plot we just saw in Deep Impact, a so-so movie that, by comparison with Armageddon, is beginning to look like a model of classical construction. Deep Impact spent more time on the ground, sorting out family dysfunctions, while Armageddon follows the boys and their toys into space. Love interest surfaces in the form of Willis’s daughter (Liv Tyler, looking very askew in widescreen close-ups) and a member of the drilling crew (Ben Affleck), no double entendre intended. In one particularly grisly moment, Affleck sings John Denver’s “Leaving, on a Jet Plane,” to his beloved as the crew prepares to take off. The remainder of the film is taken up with ripping off Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and Top Gun, all sliced and diced at mach—or should we say macho—speed. People have been calling this movie The Dirty Dozen in Space, but its hard cases are all teddy bears with tattoos. (They all know the lyrics to “Leaving, on a Jet Plane,” anyway.)

These hard cases include Will Patton, Peter Stormare (a Russian cosmonaut picked up on a space station), Owen Wilson (the funny lead of Bottle Rocket), and Steve Buscemi, who plays a genius with a weakness for strippers. When director Michael Bay cuts to his money shot of the crew in their space suits, walking toward the camera in slo-mo through a long lens (the shot from The Right Stuff), it is disconcerting to see Buscemi striding along as one of the men who will save the world. Something has gotten very strange in the movie universe when Mr. Pink is our last best hope.

Buscemi, Wilson, and Stormare all have some funny moments, thanks to a tag-team screenplay written by some of Hollywood’s highest-priced scribes. Besides the five people credited, the press notes cheerfully admit that Robert Towne and Paul Attanasio were among the busy script doctors. But even the amusing one-liners curdle in the hyperactive hands of Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (whose previous collaborations were Bad Boys and The Rock). The movie goes by so quickly that even the sure-fire big moments—like, oh, the initial realization that the world is going to be destroyed by a comet, for instance—are thrown away in the headlong rush to get to the next action beat. But this is pure Bruckheimer; the producer treats the unveiling of the latest Humvee or space-age machine gun with all the care and eroticism that Ziegfeld used to lavish on his glamour girls.

There are many things to dislike about Armageddon, from its stunningly straight-faced Charlton Heston introduction to its casual contempt for the Greenpeace activists protesting the drilling of oil wells. But the movie’s most ludicrous aspect is its complete lack of gravity—even in B-movie terms. The film is so concerned with its “quirky” characters, naughty one-liners, and cultural flotsam (Jethro Tull and Dr. Strangelove references), there is no connection with the ostensible story at hand. Poor Liv Tyler has to run around whining about her boyfriend being in jeopardy, throwing herself down on NASA control panels during the climactic race against the clock—excuse me, sweetheart, did you hear about the asteroid about to hit the planet and wipe out human existence? Take a frigging Valium and lie down.

There are moments in this movie when we are asked to believe, and sympathize with, the decision to risk the entire population of earth on the off chance of saving the lives of the handful of roughnecks up on the surface of the asteroid. Hey, why not? They’re cute and funny, and Liv would be super upset if Ben Affleck didn’t make it back. Billy Bob Thornton and Will Patton are the only performers to summon up a sense of professionalism and thoughtfulness in their roles, the only people who wouldn’t make Howard Hawks—that master of action-movie professionalism—retch his guts out at the sight of this film.

Even the much-maligned Independence Day played fair by its own rules; all of the dire things critics said about that picture, and what it meant for the future of movies, actually apply here. Armageddon is disjointed, unreal, a mess; it bears the marks of its piecemeal writing process and its concept-by-committee. Its head is separated from its body, but it just goes on making noise.

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