Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, May 27, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Armageddon (1998)

As I wrote before, disaster movies was one of the few subjects my dad and I bonded over. My parents had separated by 1998 and I would sometimes spend weekends with my dad. Since both of 1998's asteroid movies came out only a few months apart, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” were released on video around the same time. I recall a day where my dad rented both and we spent the day watching them, comparing the two. Even as a kid, I preferred “Deep Impact.” I found “Armageddon” to be punishingly excessive. My dad felt the opposite. It seems the majority of the world agreed with him. “Armageddon” would become the highest grossing film of the year internationally, while “Deep Impact” was only the sixth. Its massive success would solidify Michael Bay's status as one of Hollywood's most popular directors.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A huge asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth. Should it strike us, all life on the planet will be wiped out. NASA cooks up a plan to land a shuttle on the space rock, drill a hole, and destroy the asteroid from the inside out with a nuclear detonation. “Armageddon” includes quite a few differences from “Deep Impact,” however. In Bay's film, the government deems it easier to teach drillers to be astronaut than astronauts to be drillers. A team composed of experienced oil drillers, led by Harry Stamper, are sent on the job. The rock is also bigger here, the size of Texas, and is proceeded by many smaller projectiles. Bay's film is also more preoccupied with the drama between the blue collar workers, as cocky guy A.J. is in love with Harry's daughter.

I know I am but one voice in the film-o-sphere saying this but: I am genuinely baffled by Michael Bay's continued popularity and success. Crowd-pleasing spectacle is his goal, and I guess he must achieve it, but his films are frequently hard to follow. The editing in “Armageddon” is often incoherent. The early scenes of New York being pummeled by small meteors is full of cars exploding and buildings being smashed. Yet there's little continuity between these special effects. To give you an idea of how badly handled this is, a meteorite heads for the Chrysler Building in one shot. We don't see the Chrysler collapse until several frenzied cuts later. When “Armageddon” isn't over-edited, its overlit. Bay is obsessed with grimy, low lighting, shooting nearly all his scenes in a dramatically lit, overwhelmingly gray fashion. All the scenes set on the asteroid look like they were shot with a turd. “Armageddon” is incredibly noisy, obnoxious, and hard to follow.

Yet “Armageddon's” crimes are not merely aesthetic in nature. Bay's film is offensive for other reasons. He shows a clear contempt for women. The astronomer who discovers the asteroid is introduced screaming obscenities at his wife. He then names the rock after her, for similarly crude reasons. The drill team is mostly composed of horny good ol' boys. When they visit a strip club, Bay dedicates several minutes to drooling over the half-dressed dancer. Later, the one female astronaut is tossed aside and insulted so a man can smash delicate equipment... Which, of course, works. Bay doesn't just hate women. The film begins with the kind of annoyingly broad black stereotype the director obviously finds hilarious. Then again, maybe I'm being too hard on Michael Bay. His sexism and racism is a side effect of his overarching misanthropy. He hates all humanity and that nihilism is evident in “Armageddon's” mindless destruction.

“Mindless” is, in fact, the best way to describe “Armageddon.” The film is relentlessly stupid. The oil drillers are all suffocatingly macho characters. They get tattoos, hit on women, ride motorcycles, yell at each other a lot, and sometimes take their clothes off for no reason. They're backed-up by a soundtrack mostly composed of Aerosmith songs, the exact kind of gonad-driven dad rock you'd expect these guys to listen to. Bruce Willis' whole character arc involves a pretty gross reluctance to letting his daughter make her own decisions. He, naturally, reacts with violence. That dick-measuring mentality is prevalent throughout the endless shouting and in-fighting that happens once the team lands on the asteroid. That location also features the film's most painfully dumb moment, when Ben Affleck successfully jumps a giant drilling machine over a space-gorge. (It only barely beats out Steve Buschemi's bout of space dementia as the film's dumbest moment though.)

And yet, as unrelentingly brain-numbing as “Armageddon” is, it also features an utterly unearned sentimental streak. The love story between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler is goopy in its mushiness. Even though the two seemingly have nothing in common, and Affleck's character is kind of a jerk, their love is portrayed as a source of fundamental goodness. So is Bruce Willis' fatherly love of Liv, even though it actually borders on the obsessive. When Bruce gives up his life to ensure Earth's protection, the movie cuts to a dreamy montage of father and daughter experiencing happier times together. Even though Bay obviously despises all of humanity, the film's weepy streak goes into overdrive once Earth is saved. We're greeted to a montage of people having parades and telling stories of the great heroes only minutes after the asteroid is destroyed. “Armageddon” then ends at a wedding that also acts as a memorial for the men who so bravely gave up their lives. That Aerosmith's theme song, which was unavoidable in 1998, is similarly overblown in its gasping, manly-tears emotion.

So is there anything I like about “Armageddon?” Well, that shot of Paris being annihilated is pretty effective. I mean, it's dripping with the same hateful venom as the rest of the movie but it is a cool visual. Some of the cast does seem to be having fun. Bruce Willis isn't in total sleepwalking mode, blustering in a mildly entertaining fashion. Steve Buschemi plays an obnoxious character but the actor excels when playing slightly sleazy, highly eccentric, and rather jittery types. (Peter Stromere, another talented performer, sadly just mugs furiously in his role as a Russian cosmonaut.) Likable performers like Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and William Fichtner do what they can to humanize cartoonish roles. Billy Bob Thornton, meanwhile, is genuinely good as the NASA guy running the mission. He's funny when he needs to be and grave when the script calls for it. Sort of wish that performance was in a totally different film.

Other than his overriding scorn for anyone other than white bros, excess is, of course, Michael Bay's primary characteristic. “Armageddon” is two and a half hours long and feels closer to six. I had to watch it in installments for this review to get through the whole damn thing. Bay squeezes in as much carnage, as much over-the-top emotion, as much macho blustering, as many scrambled action sequences as he possibly can. The result is a morally bankrupt motion picture that is exhausting to watch, a headache committed to celluloid. But what do I know? The film made a shit ton of money, is beloved by many people, and is even in the Criterion Collection. Maybe I'm the one that's wrong. [3/10]

[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

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