Screenplay : Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Bruce Willis (Harry S. Stamper), Billy Bob Thornton (Dan Truman), Liv Tyler (Grace Stamper), Ben Affleck (A.J. Frost), Steve Buscemi (Rockhound), Will Patton (Charles "Chick" Chapple), Peter Stormare (Lev Andropov), Keith David (General Kimsey), Owen Wilson (Oscar Choi), William Fichtner (Col. William Sharp)
"Armageddon," Michael Bay's ear-splitting, mind-numbing space adventure about a group of average Joe's trying to save the world from a meteor, is two and a half hours of sensory overload. Too long, too loud, and featuring more camera movement and fast edits than ten other movies put together, "Armageddon" will be a powerful test of how far action directors can push the line before they wear audiences to a frazzle. If this isn't the limit, then I don't want to be in a theater when some other movie finally pushes past it.
The movie posits the idea that the meteor the size of Texas is headed for earth, and it will hit in eighteen days. We are told that this is a "global killer," and no matter where it hits, all life will be extinguished, right down to the bacteria. Of course, the notion that no astronomer noticed this meteor until smaller fragments actually enter earth's atmosphere and destroy a good portion of New York is a bit hard to swallow. However, this is crucial because the entire movie hinges on the notion that time is of the essence.
Bruce Willis stars as Harry Stamper, the world's best deep core oil driller, who is tapped by NASA to save the world. The idea is this: fly up to the meteor, drill an 800-foot hole in the center of it, drop in a nuclear bomb, and blow the thing apart from the inside. If everything goes according to plan, that should split the meteor in two, and the two halves will sail by harmlessly. Of course, in "Armageddon," absolutely nothing goes according to plan.
The last sixty minutes is literally a marathon of audience endurance, where only the die-hard action fan will walk out of the theater without blurred vision, ringing ears, and a sore back. The last third of movie can't really be described in terms of "action scenes" because the whole thing is one endless action scene. Once landed on the meteor, Stamper and his crew of charismatic roughnecks encounter a laundry list of problems that never cease: drillbits are broken, turbines explode, characters fight amongst themselves, the government conspires against them, the nuclear weapon almost explodes, gas fissures erupt, and just about every working device on the space shuttle fails when it is needed most.
While scenes of this nature are usually employed to generate suspense, in "Armageddon" they are so plentiful and so obtuse that you feel deadened to any excitement by the time the movie is half over. The overload of swinging, vibrating camera shots, screaming actors, and endless explosions creates a kind of desensitization that makes you crave silence and stillness. On gets the feeling that Bay was constantly looking for things to blow up for no apparent plot purpose: he destroys a couple of space shuttles, the Mir Space Station, and, even though the entire point of the movie is to save mankind from the meteor, he goes ahead and kills 50,000 people in Korea and obliterates most of Paris with some smaller meteors, just for good measure.
One of the worst aspects of the film is how ugly it is to look at. Cinematographer John Schwartzman, who did such a fantastic job of making Bay's last movie, "The Rock," into a visually-enticing comic book in motion, makes "Armageddon" dense and difficult. Much of the action that takes place on the meteor is shot in thick, inky shades of black and blue, which added to Bay's constantly swinging camera, makes the action almost impossible to decipher. You usually have to wait to hear somebody shouting to learn what's actually happening, and when someone is killed, it isn't until the camera moves in for a close-up of the face that realize who it was.
Amidst all this turmoil are a few obligatory human stories, some of which work better than others. The main one is a love triangle of sorts, with Stamper casting disapproving eyes on the relationship between his independent daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), and his best oil driller and surrogate son, A.J. (Ben Affleck). Some of the scenes between these three are vaguely moving, but only as pure melodrama.
Steve Buscemi slinks through the movie as the mandatory comic relief, although some of his asides and chattery comments, which usually take place during the most violent action, become a bit wearisome. Billy Bob Thornton is pleasantly enjoyable as Dan Truman, the executive director of NASA's Mission Control in Houston. He acts with enough earnest to convey the requisite amount of gravity (we are talking about the end of the world, after all) to keep his scenes from being completely ridiculous. Peter Stormare, playing a Russian astronaut taken on board after the Mir Space Station self-destructs (or something), is the complete opposite: his acting is wildly delirious and campy, and sometimes quite funny.
"Armageddon" will most likely be compared to this year's other meteor-headed-for-earth flick, "Deep Impact," but I would like to suggest that it bears more uncanny similarities to James Cameron's 1989 underwater saga, "The Abyss." Notice: both movies involve plots where the government requisitions a motley oil drilling crew to perform a top secret mission; both movies involve a tense scene where a nuclear bomb is being disarmed and the disarmer isn't sure which wire needs to be cut and therefore has to guess; in "The Abyss" a character goes crazy from High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, in "Armageddon" a character goes crazy from Space Dementia (whatever that is); and both movies feature a climatic scene where a major character has to sacrifice himself to save others (although in "The Abyss" it involves disarming a nuclear warhead while "Armageddon" has the character detonating it).
While "Armageddon" isn't all bad, most of it is just overwrought. If it had been toned down about fifty decibels and slowed up enough to allow the audience to keep pace, it could have been an exciting, pulpish space adventure about heroism, patriotism, and all those other -ism's that make comic books so much fun to read. Unfortunately, "Armageddon" feels more like getting hit over the head repeatedly with a whole stack of comic books, and it is memorable only as long as the headache it inflicts lasts.
©1998 James Kendrick