Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, William Fitchner, Owen Wilson, Steve Buscemi
(Touchstone; US DVD: 27 Apr 2010 (General release); UK DVD: 27 Apr 2010 (General release))
Believe it or not, there was a time when Michael Bay was considered the next big blockbuster thing. He wasn’t ridiculed for his obvious excesses or pointed to as a high concept, F/X oriented motion picture pariah. He was golden and everyone loved him. But over the course of his career, from his favorable work in Bad Boys to his lamentable awful future schlock stupidity The Island, Bay has breached the tenets of terrible and has been happy to wallow there ever since. While Transformers gets a pass for being bombastic by nature, its dreadful sequel shows how big and bloated this flummoxing filmmaker can be. Back towards the beginning of his ascent (or descent, whichever you prefer), there were two films that highlighted his potential and promise - the cheeky Sean Connery/Nicolas Cage thriller The Rock, and the end of the world spectacle Armageddon (now on Blu-ray from Touchstone).
The narrative for the latter couldn’t be simpler - the Earth is on a collision course with a meteor the size of Texas and in order to avoid an “Extinction Level Event”, NASA comes up with a plan. They will fly a shuttle up to the hurtling space boulder, load it with nukes, and hope that the blast diverts the remaining pieces away from the planet. Of course, none of the handpicked astronauts have any experience with deep core drilling, so the government calls on seasoned wildcatter Harry Stamper to help. He literally invented the machine they intend to use. When it’s clear that the flustered flyboys can’t handle the job, the disgruntled outsider calls in his seasoned crew, none of which have any space aspirations. As they battle the clock to get airborne, Harry must also deal with his adult daughter and her growing affections for a rascally guy named AJ - who just so happens to be one of his main men.
Armageddon is a movie of iconography. All throughout the film, Bay employs symbolism and imagery that never lets us forget that it’s the U.S.A. that’s risking its ass and it’s the U.S.A. that is saving the day. Sure, other nations get a nod or two, especially in the terrific travelogue finale. But from the moment the space shuttle is destroyed to the closing anthemic overkill, Bay is determined to make a picture postcard presentation of the country’s best and brightest. Granted, most of the movie is action scenes and F/X sequences, the journey to the massive frozen projectile and Harry’s attempted dismantling of same doing all the heavy lifting. But just like he would in Pearl Harbor (and to a much smaller extent, the Transformer films), Bay keeps his set-ups very Uncle Sam-ccentric. You can practically see him reinventing Technicolor to bleed red, white, and blue.
Armageddon also suffers from a bad case of hokum. No one can watch the forbidden love affair between Harry’s daughter Grace and bad boy AJ and not come away at least a little nauseated (the animal crackers don’t help). Then there is the collective of clichéd co-workers who make up Harry’s team, from the obese and good natured to the twitchy and tightly wound. We get a hound dog Russian cosmonaut who still knows how to one-up his Capitalist competitors and various volatile members of the US military. Through it all, Bay keeps our hero front and center, using his steely resolve and desire to serve as a major point of martyrdom. Armageddon is fairly obvious in its plotting, and yet the narrative comes together like any other well-spun bit of film folklore. Cheese aside, the movie’s massive run time breezes by with ease.
There are two other factors that set this film apart from the rest of its passable popcorn brethren. First is the acting. Bruce Willis plays Harry as the kind of father figure every boy fears and every daughter worships. He’s tough, authoritarian, and almost omniscient. When he discovers Grace’s monkeyshines with AJ, he flies off the handle with a passion borne out of overprotection. On the other side of the stoic stick is Billy Bob Thorton as NASA head Dan Truman. Using brains instead of brawn and burying his Southern snap in a blanket of believable bureaucracy, he is the measured response to Harry’s high wire act. With Steve Buscemi as the resident fuss-bucket, William Fitcher as the quintessential arrogant flyboy (with a secret heart of gold) and Peter Stormare as the aforementioned Russkie, the all-star cast really comes through.
As do the special effects. Sure, we are talking about a movie made in 1998, just as CG was taking major precedent in motion pictures. Yet, unlike its similarly themed Summer competitor Deep Impact, there is no large scale destruction. New York gets a decent meteor shower, while Hong Kong and Paris are swallowed by water and land, respectively. But the majority of the magic is saved for space, from various shuttle stunts to a long expedition on the floating rock. While some of the stuff looks sound stagey, especially near the end, there are still elements of sublime escapism, sequences where we get caught up in the awe of the situation. The F/X work here helps us mourn every loss and celebrate every victory. With the help of the equally important performances, Bay takes an almost unthinkable situation and brings it to brilliant life.
The Blu-ray image also helps. While Touchstone will never match the oddball overflow of Criterion when they released the film (figure that one out), they at least tweak the picture to give the movie a direct, detailed transfer. What the new format adds in visual finesse, the re-release loses in added context. There are no significant bonus features included, the disc only providing the apocryphal Aerosmith power ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, as well as a couple of trailers. Big deal. While the noted cinema preservationist did go goofy with celebrating what was more or less a superficial bit of Hollywood hooey, this is a movie that begs some explanation. Unfortunately, none of the cast or crew appears to defend themselves.
Of course, in many ways, Armageddon is indefensible. Put another way, this is a critic-proof crowd-pleaser that purposely intones God, Mom, and apple pie before pushing every other jingoistic, proto-patriotic button out there. It’s funny to look back and reflect on a time when Michael Bay was taken seriously, before his Titanic type take on the 7th of December, 1941, revealed the exact size of this egotistical emperor’s new threads. Since then, it’s been one bloated motion picture behemoth after another. With Transformers 3 already gearing up and a wealth of wannabes just waiting for the chance to mimic the misguided maestro, Bay’s legacy may have changed, but it remains secure. Armageddon suggested what he could have become. His oeuvre since then tells quite a different (and sad) story.