You may have heard of this as the summer’s second “big object hitting the Earth” film, with the comet of Deep Impact replaced with an asteroid only 18 days away from crunching into Earth. The only plan that is even remotely likely to save humanity, at least in this story, is to fly up to the rock and blow it in two. The best men for the job: the drillers of Stamper Oil, led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis). Meanwhile, smaller asteroids herald the coming storm by blowing up many people and places.
But of course, since this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the world is pretty likely to survive. He and his late producing partner Don Simpson loved to almost destroy everything – the nuclear standoff in Crimson Tide, Top Gun’s bare excuse for an international crisis, San Francisco almost being nerve-gassed in The Rock – but have it all turn out more or less okay, with enough casualties thrown in to make it all seem slightly more plausible. (Yes, something like 10 million to 20 million deaths happen in a movie with a happy ending. I’m not giving much away; you see the happy ending in the ads!)
Ah, the disaster movie. You can buy a lot of explosions and fire for the $140 million Disney spent to shoot this film. Armageddon knows the clichés of the disaster epic and either revels in them (crowds gather at picturesque sites around the world to get news) or tweaks them (a blissfully unconcerned pug turns the infamous “cute pet in jeopardy” image on its ear).
Meanwhile, in the great (ahem) tradition of disaster flicks, there’s a pretty arch love story too – this one between Stamper’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) and his youngest driller, A.J. (Ben Affleck of Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy and the upcoming Dogma). There’s a funny sing-along Affleck and company put on for Grace as they prepare to save the world, but an early bit with a vindictive, gun-toting Willis going after Affleck goes on too long. And as the film itself admits, these cute young things are into each other partly because they’re the only ones their age in this film. I don’t yet quite “get” Tyler, though I like Affleck…but it’s more fun when Steve Buscemi as driller-turned-astronaut “Hound Dog” comes home to a stripper, like Will Smith did in Independence Day!
The story of Armageddon, like more and more blockbusters nowadays, is a fiendishly complicated plot which can be boiled down to a very simple premise: in this case, it’s “What are you gonna do? It’s life.” Or “It’s a force of nature.” Or “It’s an act of God.” (Or to be both more specific and more vulgar, “whatever it is that hits the fan won’t be evenly distributed.”) It’s as if they throw another small asteroid at a major landmark each time they get stuck for where to go story-wise.
Meanwhile, in a plot with no villains except a force of nature/act of God, the characters tend to operate based on the premise “It seemed like a good idea at the time”…which is the way most people act. I like that.
The film attempts to add more human moments, where people just talk – kind of like a Kevin Smith film – but these scenes seem cut short, even in a film that’s two-and-a-half hours long. It feels like a lot of these little asides (like a discussion of which astronaut can be what Star Wars character) want to play for much longer than we get to see.
For now I’ll hedge on Armageddon as far as its place in summer blockbuster history is concerned. I think this film is free of the vague taste of cynicism I came to find in Independence Day, but I’ll admit it took me a while to sense that about ID4. I’ll be forgiving here because this is more my kind of film than ID4.
Director Michael Bay calms down a little bit in how he cuts his films together – on The Rock, he had to “de-edit” some scenes because he’d originally cut from shot to shot too quickly for eyes to take it in on a big screen – but it’s still hard to follow the action sometimes, and you’ll have trouble hearing a lot of the dialogue.
But it works because Armageddon is a real-world cartoon, with ridiculously stylized-looking actors (very muscular men, dark and intense women) and stuff that blows up very prettily, bathed in the burnished golden glow that is a Bruckheimer/Bay trademark.
That, and good actors. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderfully world-weary as the Earth-bound head of NASA. (I like when he comments that the Mir space station has orbited Earth for 11 years: “Most of us don’t even own cars that old.”) Affleck and Buscemi are real crowd-pleasers. Will Patton gets some good moments as the improbably-nicknamed “Chick.” Peter Stormare, the tall kidnapper in Fargo, is a Russian cosmonaut who’s seen it all and is full of slightly mind-addled attitude. (He says he can fix a problem with U.S. equipment: “Russian components, American components – all made in China!”) And Bruce Willis is Bruce Willis – take it or leave it. (I’ll take it; I’ve watched him since Moonlighting.)
Usually I think the “dueling film” syndrome is bad for movies – but hey, sometimes it works all right. Competing films more and more often are fun; the dueling lava flicks Dante’s Peak and Volcano were dumb, but very entertaining (though Volcano was more my bag). I actually think the “dueling death-from-above” films will help each other, because they deal with different parts of a story that would be as big as the world.
Just don’t go to this movie when you already have a headache.
2008 extra note: Later that year, in my review of John Carpenter’s Vampires, I said that Carpenter is the kind of filmmaker who, had he made Armageddon, would’ve ended it with the drillers succeeding in blowing up the asteroid, but one piece would’ve hit the Moon and knocked it out of orbit, and the last shots would be of people realizing the Moon was going to fall into the Earth. I wrote “He’s that kind of filmmaker: perverse.”