WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Discovering a massive meteor is hurtling towards the Earth, the top brass at NASA are horrified to discover there is only one viable rescue plan, namely having civilian oil drillers land on the surface and plant a bomb that will split the meteor into two harmless parts. NASA have only eighteen days to train and deploy the reluctant heroes before the ‘global killer’ strikes.
Anyone who has watched both films will find it almost impossible not to compare Armageddon with Deep Impact, which came out at about the same time and dealt with a very similar subject. However, as this review and that for Mimi Leder’s film show, the two films come at the problem from opposite directions.
Deep Impact provides a thoughtful answer to what would happen in the event of the planet being threatened. It’s careful to think about the science, the politics, the effect on families. Armageddon has no truck with any of that: all it cares about is Space Stations, shuttles, massive mega-moon buggies making ridiculous leaps over the meteor’s surface, and as many explosions as it can fit into its two and a half hour running time. You can picture Michael Bay as a six-year old, toy shuttles in hand, making blowing-up noises as he crashes one into his Lego meteor.
If this sounds like a criticism of the director, it’s not meant as one. The fact is, Bay likes to make things explode. Cars, buildings (Grand Central Terminal goes up a treat), streets, entire cities if he can manage it: in this case it’s only Paris, so that’s alright. To give the man his due, he’s very good at it.
Bay gives the film a traditional structure. The only people capable of doing the job are those least suited to doing it, so there is a training sequence, wherein the culture clash that arises from NASA staff tutoring the group of rough’n’ready oil drillers – allowed to live like kings for a night in exchange, potentially for their lives – is played for laughs. Overseeing these boys is Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper, the boss of the oil company with a clever but disobedient daughter Grace (Liv Tyler); and Billy Bob Thornton, playing NASA project director Dan Truman, whose own dreams of travelling into space have been thwarted by disability.
Stamper and Truman are the true heroes of the piece and their common-sense approach dominates the film. Tea Leoni and Elijah Wood are no match for Willis and his drillers – about as glaringly Freudian a symbol of American virility as you will ever see on film – and Deep Impact’s well-meaning boffins pale alongside Thornton’s Texan passion. It has to be said, though, that only Willis and Thornton are given enough time on-screen for their characters to feel vaguely real. Otherwise the crews of the shuttles Freedom and Independence form a fairly glib roster of characters acting much as you would expect – Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormare as a cranky and drunk Russian Cosmonaut – oh, and Ben Affleck, who (as usual) looks the part but exudes contempt with every frame he appears in, not least a pre-flight episode with an Animal Cracker in Tyler’s pants that should be funny and tender but, in Affleck’s hands, comes over as rather creepy. Thankfully, Aerosmith are on hand to help with the emotion.
Steve Buscemi plays a multi-purpose character who is genius, psycho and perv all at once. Because his genius is more or less accidental, he is the acceptable face of intellectualism which, embodied in the proper astronauts that accompany Harry’s boys into space, is otherwise not to be trusted. There is also a strikingly ambivalent attitude towards the military: although Bay loves the weapons and their power to blow things up, he can’t help giving them a devious subplot that, with the complicity of the astronauts, threatens the whole mission.
On a side note, Armageddon also appears confused in its attitude towards religion. Given that the title refers to a biblical event, it’s perhaps no surprise that Thornton refers to a meteor strike as bringing ‘all the worst bits of The Bible.’ But God and Jesus are explicitly called upon for luck, when surely the ingenuity is all Harry’s? Or, if The Holy Trinity does have a hand in guiding most of the crew to safety, They must surely take some responsibility for the meteor’s existence in the first place too. Interestingly, the meteor is given some kind of conscience – “It knows we’re trying to kill it” – which prompts it to fight back like the killer tornadoes in Twister.
For all the negatives, however, Armageddon is consistently exciting, whether joking around on Earth or up in space where the threat of imminent death promises a thrill a minute. More importantly, when it has to, the film gets you in the heart. The climax to the film finds someone obliged to stay on the meteor to detonate the bomb, and Willis selflessly ensures that someone will be him. When Harry and Grace say their final goodbyes, every immaculate word, every swell of strings and every tear rolling down the face is the stuff of pure Hollywood corn. But it is unquestionably effective in conveying the emotion of the act – the father sacrificing his life for his daughter – and these scenes carry a real, compelling emotional punch.
So yes, on one level Armageddon can be written off as a preposterous, overblown blockbuster which provides a decent number of bangs for your buck; on another, thanks mainly to the warmth of Bruce and Billy Bob, it reveals the best part of American ambition. And this is why, to paraphrase myself, although Deep Impact may be the more considered film, as a movie Armageddon wins hands down.