Saturday 27 August 2011

Armageddon (1998)


Michael Bay. For many, this man is the Devil. A Devil made of overblown visual excess, superfast editing, heavy stylisation and heavy-handed patriotic images that seems to want to pound the merry hell out of the viewer’s brain, forcing it into submission. He’s also one of the most bankable directors on the face of the planet. He may spend an absurd amount of money on his films, but he makes it all back and more. In 1998, he released one of his most successful films ever, a disaster movie about an asteroid heading for Earth and total destruction. The fact that another similarly-themed film came out only a couple of months prior did little to diminish its business. Michael Bay had more zoom, more bang, more Bruce Willis saving the world. And thus, like the Devil would, Michael Bay brought us Armageddon.

A meteorite the size of Texas is heading towards Earth, and will destroy all life on the planet. With only eighteen days until impact, NASA come up with a plan to fly out the rock, drill to the core and blow it apart with a nuclear bomb. To do this, they enlist the help of Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the world’s best deep core driller, to train their astronauts for the job. However, Harry thinks the astronauts can’t be trained in time, and decides to take his own crew and do the job himself.

I’ll be honest, it’s a bit unfair to be laying all this blame at Michael Bay’s feet. Equally as guilty of pushing the much-lamented line of overblown Hollywood excess is ├╝ber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. They’ve had a steady partnership since Bay’s feature debut with 1995’s Bad Boys and, between the two of them, they have racked up an impressive list of big budget smash hits ever since. In fact, Bad Boys is the film that did the least amount of business, only managing to make around $141 million from a $19 million budget… that’s, uh… that’s some failure there. Since then the budgets skyrocketed, with Armageddon’s (coincidentally) being around $140 million, with a final box office of just over $553 million. Good lord, that is a lot of money. It’s with such numbers that Michael Bay has always felt that he can effectively counter any criticisms about the quality of his films. After all, if the film’s were really so bad, how can they be making so much money? And even if he did accept what critics say of his work, he’d be drying his artistic tears with $100 bills. Such is his life. Now, enough of all this financial talk. What’s Armageddon really like?

We’ll leave the visuals aside for now and look at the script itself first… Armageddon is stupid, insultingly so. Whilst the premise of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth with global annihilation on its mind is hardly far-fetched, the stuff that comes after it is wilfully ridiculous. In fact, this stupidity is so deep-rooted in the film, it actively tries to make people stupid by fostering a rather unsubtle form of anti-intellectualism. Watching it, there’s a common element that is returned to over and over again throughout: smart people are dumb, and the common man always knows better. The idea that sending a crew of deep core drillers into space to tunnel into a meteorite is insane. They do initially suggest that qualified astronauts, who have already been training for eight months for a (coincidentally) similar space drilling mission, receive some extra guidance from Stamper on the best way to proceed. However, since Stamper says that it takes a lifetime to know how to become a real roughneck, he makes the call that it would be easier to train drillers how to astronaut than training astronauts how to drill. That’s ridiculous. On this point, there is a story that, supposedly, when Ben Affleck was discussing the script with Michael Bay, he questioned the logic in this point. Michael Bay’s response? “Shut up.” Of course, this offers up further questions, like what kind of response is that to a perfectly legitimate point? Why wasn’t this point discussed further? Why did Affleck agree to do the film if that’s the answers he gets to basic questions of story logic?

Bay has actually openly talked about how the film’s solution doesn’t really make sense, and that many aspects of the film’s relationship with reality are nonsense. For example, why are there so many massive explosions and fires in space? Where’s all this convenient gravity coming from? Why are the communications signals using a separate, weaker satellite to transmit than the weapons remote? Why do both driller vehicles have machine guns? Apparently, the filmmakers were aware of all of these problems and inaccuracies and holes in the film, but chose to leave them be because it would make it more entertaining, and that your average film goer doesn’t know enough about these things to be able to really question them… and this is how we come to something close to an answer as to why Michael Bay seems to hate intelligence. The less you know, the more receptive to this kind of agonising drivel you are. And Bay compounds this by repeatedly suggesting that the smart people are idiots, easily outclassed with straight-talking and "common sense". In Armageddon, Jason Issacs plays a NASA scientist and is introduced as “pretty much the smartest man in the world.” However, even he is left looking sheepish after only a few minutes with Harry Stamper, who puts down his technical capabilities and seems shocked that this big-time smart NASA science guy can’t come up with anything better than a one-shot drilling expedition to save humanity. That’s why Stamper gets on so well with Billy Bob Thornton’s Dan Truman. He may be a smart engineer guy, but they’re cut from the same straight-talking, “just the facts, ma’am” kind of cloth. The rest of the NASA boys all seem to be sweating a lot and on the point of nervous breakdown, which sits in remarkable contrast to how we saw things not too long ago in Apollo 13. Those guys knew the stakes, but they also knew that staying calm and rational was the best way to approach a crisis.

There are a few concessions made towards allowing smart people to have some kind of dignity. Amongst the crew that Stamper selects to take with him are Oscar Choice, a brilliant geologist played by Owen Wilson, and Rockhound, another geologist and certified genius played by Steve Buscemi. However, their dignity does not last long. Oscar never really gets to show how smart he is, since he doesn’t last long on the flight. Rockhound, so named because he’s constantly horny (and the closest we’ll get to a live-action Quagmire from Family Guy), ends up going nuts with space dementia and has to be physically taped up after he starts shooting the superfluous machine gun. The fact that these guys are said to be very smart is really just so we don’t question why they’re being allowed to go along on this mission, but it’s just so transparent. It all actually reminds me of old cartoons from the 1980s like Inhumanoids and The Centurions. Those shows were full of hero characters said to be accomplished chess players and military strategists and thrill-seeking master chemists, and all for a show that was just about people fighting monsters in spacesuits. The ridiculous character bios were just something to make it “more plausible”. The difference is that those cartoons actually put forward the idea that being smart was a good thing, whereas Armageddon will only let you be smart if you don’t ask questions about the plot and have some sort of other serious character flaw, like being a sex-pest or a corpse.

Okay… now the visuals. The special effects are superb. Honestly, they are really very good. They should be, it’s a Michael Bay film and that’s what he does best. We’ll have to just accept that with great effects come great stretches on the limitations of movie physics, such as the fact that the world seems to be in a near perpetual state of sunset. I understand that Bay likes sunsets, because they look cool. And they do. However, if you’re going to show a short montage of moments from around the world, how in the hell can every country be at sunset at the same time? Also, Bay has this thing of constantly moving the camera, sliding from side-to-side or, his favourite, moving the camera around the character as they turn in the opposite direction whilst in slow-motion. It’s cool to look at, but it does speak to a weird sort of visual hyperactivity that many find unsettling.

Yet another disagreeable thing that bubbles up out of this film: in the first ten minutes, it’s really quite racist. Just look at the scene in which the first wave of smaller meteorites hammers New York City. Eddie Griffin appears as a bike messenger with a small dog called Reggie and, I swear to God, you could replace every single one of his lines with “Aw shiiit, son!” When Griffin has a run-in with a Samoan street vendor, Eddie unloads a light bit of racial abuse (“If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d be throwing your fat, pineapple-eatin’ ass through the window!”). Then there’s Mark Curry, who plays a cab driver and, once again, he might as well be saying “Aw shiiit, son!” over and over. His passengers, an Asian couple, aren’t much better. The husband never says a word, but his wife speaks in deliberate stunted English “I! Want! To Go! Shopping!” Christ, what the hell is this? Armageddon was the highest grossing film of 1998, and it has this kind of crap in it? If you can reduce most of your characters’ dialogue to a single stereotypical catchphrase without losing any hint of personality or affecting proceedings in the slightest, you know you done wrong. Even Peter Stormare doesn’t seem to be playing a Russian cosmonaut so much as a thick Russian accent that happens to be wrapped in a cosmonaut. However, he’s okay because he’s just a regular guy, who fixes multi-million dollar pieces of equipment by cracking it with a wrench and yelling at it.

The performances themselves are okay, though nothing really goes beyond that. There is one performance that really drags things down, and that is Affleck. Now, I’ll admit to being something a fan of the guy. Kind of. I like him in a few things and I certainly think he gets more flak than he really deserves. However, almost every scene with him here is either way overblown or it seems like they just interrupted him having soup in order to film. So he’s either cocky in a uncommitted kind of way, or he commits too much, shooting way over the pitch of everyone else. Maybe at some point, he asked Michael Bay for direction and got told to shut up again.

Was there anything I even liked about it?… the music was pretty good, all stirring and effectively drawn. As I said, the effects were good, and so was the sound… hmmm…

Armageddon is unbelievably stupid. It makes little to no sense, most of the acting is of a standard no higher than alright, and it shows a level of ignorance on so many things that it’s actually rather impressive in its scale. What’s worse is that the film actually relies on its audience being more stupid than itself, actively encouraging them to distance themselves from logic, intelligence and basic common sense. It’s a hateful film, and no amount of Bruce Willis as The Great American Jesus stuff will put this right anytime soon.

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