Armageddon (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Deep Impact has been buried. Godzilla's size didn't matter as much as TriStar hoped it would. Six Days, Seven Nights took about that long to come and go. Now it's time for Bruce Willis to kick asteroid. Recalling the amazing box-office assault of 1996's Independence Day, which was also released over the July 4 weekend, Touchstone Pictures is understandably optimistic about the performance of their big summer gun, the latest from Midas producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Crimson Tide, Con Air). And why not? Since almost everything else released this season withered up in the June heat, the field is clear.

Armageddon is a testosterone and adrenaline cocktail, with almost no intelligence added for flavoring. It's the latest in a line of increasingly-stupid action pictures that amazes audiences with flashy special effects and nifty action sequences, but leaves them high and dry in both the character and story departments. Armageddon is like a video game crossed with an amusement park thrill ride, and, to a certain extent, it can be enjoyed on those terms. It's certainly better than Godzilla, not because it's any less preposterous, but because it is occasionally exciting -- a quality that could not be ascribed to any moment of the big lizard's tedious romp through New York.

Speaking of the Big Apple, it is destroyed yet again. This time it's not the only city to be blasted off the face of the Earth -- Paris gets the same treatment. Neither instance of urban renewal is necessary to the storyline, but, because Armageddon is a disaster movie, there has be some sort of tangible, big-scale disaster, and leveling a few cities qualifies. After all, the other space-object-headed-for-the-planet movie, Deep Impact, eradicated New York. Could Armageddon do any less? Actually, after all the problems the city has experienced on the big screen this summer, with incoming tidal waves, exploding space debris, and nasty monsters on the prowl, it wouldn't surprise me if the tourist business was down.

The meteor shower that punches a hole in the World Trade Center and rips apart the Empire State Building is only a precursor to the approach of a "global killer" asteroid ("nothing will survive, not even bacteria") -- a piece of space debris the size of Texas that, when discovered, it only 18 days away. Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a NASA chief, is given the task of finding a way to save the planet. His solution: send a bunch of oil drillers into space in two shuttles and have them land on the asteroid. Once there, they can drill 800 feet beneath the surface, dump a nuclear warhead down the shaft, then evacuate before the blast fragments the big rock, sending the pieces flying off harmlessly into space. The man chosen to lead the expedition is the world's best driller, Harry Stamper (Willis). He has his team with him (they all look significantly different, so we can tell them apart): the young hotshot, A. J. (rising star Ben Affleck); the gambling addict, Chick (Will Patton); the sex-obsessed weirdo, Rockhound (Steve Buscemi); the baritone Bear (Michael Duncan); the big-as-a-mountain Max (Ken Hudson Campbell); and a few others not worth mentioning because they die quickly. Also along for the ride are a couple of NASA pilots (played by William Fichtner and Jessica Steen) and a slightly nutty Russian cosmonaut (Peter Stormare). Meanwhile, back at Mission Control, there's a general (Keith David) who's ready to prematurely explode the nuke at the first sign of trouble. Grace Stamper (Liv Tyler), Harry's daughter and A.J.'s fiancé, is also there, making sad faces and whimpering whenever it looks like her father or her boyfriend is about to buy the proverbial farm.

While there are a lot of things to complain about concerning Deep Impact, the science in that film isn't as laughably absurd as it is in Armageddon. No matter. As an old saying states: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The problem is, it's not a good story. Visceral appeal, which Armageddon undeniably has, can only go so far. However, although this film is no more intelligent than Deep Impact, it is slightly more enjoyable, primarily because it's more entertaining to watch space shuttles flee from exploding space stations and dodge cosmic debris than to endure Tea Leoni bonding with Vanessa Redgrave or Maximilian Schell.

At 150 minutes in length, Armageddon is painfully padded. Why do all effects-driven would-be blockbusters have to last more than 90 minutes? The first hour, which establishes the "characters," is dull. We really don't need to see 30 minutes of astronaut training. I think some of this material is intended as comic relief, but it comes across as silly, not funny. In fact, I can only remember two jokes that actually work: a none-too-subtle jab at Godzilla and an equally obvious reference to Dr. Strangelove.

As he has proven in the past (In Country, Pulp Fiction), Bruce Willis can act. He's not doing any of that here, however. As Harry Stamper, all he's required to do is look cocky, make a couple of wise cracks, and act courageous. I could say that Willis brings a certain degree of easygoing likability to the character, but that would be overanalyzing. On the other hand, "likable" isn't a word to use for Ben Affleck's A.J., who's a real jerk. I'm not sure what Affleck is trying to do with this performance, but he didn't get me in his character's corner. Meanwhile, Billy Bob Thornton is forgettable as the NASA honcho (compare his work here to Ed Harris' superior portrayal of the same sort of individual in Apollo 13), Liv Tyler is on hand exclusively to look pretty (a requirement that doesn't tax her limited acting ability), and Steve Buscemi (re-united with Fargo co-star Peter Stormare) plays the kind of wacko that he does so well.

Director Michael Bay (The Rock) pulls out all the stops when it comes to audience manipulation. The President of the United States gives an incredibly over-the-top speech (as in Independence Day), there are long, lingering, slow motion shots of Harry's team approaching the space craft (as in The Right Stuff), and there's a sequence near the end that might have been touching if it wasn't so overdone. Bay clearly wants his audience to cheer and cry (presumably not at the same time). I didn't feel compelled to do either.

Armageddon fills a certain need that summer movie-goers have. The visual effects are suitably impressive, the heroes are all bigger-than-life, and the pyrotechnics are theater-shaking. In the genre of mindless action/adventure/disaster flicks, this is an adequate entry. Armageddon will likely go down as a box-office success because, unlike so many other of 1998's summer contenders, this one at least delivers what audiences are expecting -- even if that's a sadly-limited order.

Armageddon (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:30
U.S. Release Date: 1998-07-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1