I knew sooner or later I’d get around to talking about Michael Bay as a director. As explained in my The Sixth Sense review, Bruce Willis agreed to a three picture deal for Disney at a lower pay cut because he kind of caused the cancelation of 1997’s Broadway Brawler. This was actually the first of those movies to release, with The Kid being the last. Although Bay had previously directed two movies, Bad Boys and The Rock, Armageddon was his first bid budget movie, and also his first producer credit.
Armageddon was born when a production president at Disney met with the writer of fellow 1998 asteroid movie Deep Impact, Bruce Joel Rubin, at lunch. The producer took notes of everything Rubin said during lunch and initiated it as Disney’s counter to the movie. Nine writers worked on Armageddon’s script, five of which were credited. The writers include Robert Roy Pool, Jonathan Hensleigh, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, JJ Abrams (before he started directing movies), Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg and Robert Towne.
I didn’t search too hard for behind the scenes information, as it’s more interesting to talk about this movie itself, but one interesting note is that two months before the film’s release, Disney expanded the movie’s budget by $3 million to add additional special effects scenes showing asteroids striking Paris, added specifically for the TV advertising campaign to visually differentiate the film from Deep Impact. Deep Impact released several months before Armageddon. On that note, it’s generally agreed that Deep Impact is far more scientifically accurate. Of course, Armageddon isn’t even trying to be accurate.
Armageddon released on July 1 in 1998, and although Deep Impact enjoyed a bigger opening weekend of the two, Armageddon ended up earning more overall, becoming the highest earning movie worldwide of 1998 with a total of $553 million.
The critical reception of Armageddon is very mixed. Roger Ebert lists the movie among his most hated films, and named it the worst movie of 1998. “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained.” On the Siskel and Ebert show however, Siskel gave it a thumbs up, as he found the movie amusing. Variety specifically criticized Bay’s editing style, saying it “resembles a machine gun stuck in the firing position for 2 and a half hours.”
The movie received award nominations from both respected institutions and dubious award institutions. The Academy Awards nominated Armageddon for Best Original Song (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith), Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects. The song actually won the MTV Movie Award for Best Song from a movie, as well as the Best Video from a Film for the song’s music video, and the Satellite Award for Best Original Song. The MTV Movie Awards also gave Armageddon the Best Action Scene for the sequence where a meteor shower destroys New York City. It won the Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film and Best Director. Meanwhile, the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards gave Willis the Worst Actor Award, and the Worst On-Screen Couple Award to Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. The Razzies gave the film 7 nominations, although it didn’t “win” any of them.
As for the movie itself, Armageddon is best described as a big, dumb movie, and intentionally so. Willis plays Harry S. Stamper, an experienced third generation oil driller and owner of a drilling company. Affleck (Good Will Hunting, Daredevil in the 2003 Daredevil movie) plays A.J. Frost, a younger driller working for Harry, and a rebellious one with a contentious relationship with his boss. To make that worse, he’s also in a relationship with Harry’s daughter Grace, played by Liv Tyler (Arwen from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Betty Ross in Incredible Hulk).
With an ensemble cast, you’ve also got Steve Buscemi (Randall in the Monsters Inc movies) as Rockhound, a completely insane geologist with a death wish. Peter Stormare plays Lev Andropov, a Russian astronaut who’s a bit off after being alone on the Russian space station for 18 months. Billy Bob Thornton plays Dan Truman, one of the few actual astronauts on the mission. Owen Wilson as Oscar, who basically plays himself. That’s not a complaint. You’ve got Jessica Steen as Co-pilot Jennifer Watts, the only woman on the space mission and one of the space ship pilots. She’s basically a nothing character though. Keith David plays General Kimsley, who commands the mission from Earth, and is rightfully skeptical of sending oil rig cowboys into space. Michael Clarke Duncan as Bear, one of Harry’s most reliable drillers. Last, but certainly not least, Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments), acts as the movie’s narrator.
The story is ridiculous. After a major meteor shower destroys a space shuttle, and parts of New York shortly after, NASA discovers an asteroid the size of Texas is going to hit Earth in 18 days. They have that long to throw together a crew, send them into space, drill into the asteroid, and split it in half. Thankfully they’ve already got a pair of spaceships ready. In order to do this, they need to drill 800 feet into this Texas-sized asteroid … because 800 feet totally makes it half-way into a Texas-sized asteroid. Not to mention they use a single, standard nuclear bomb, in order to split the asteroid. A paper by four postgraduate physics students published in 2011 completely tore apart this theory for the fun of it. The most powerful bomb ever detonated on Earth, Russia’s “Big Ivan”, only produced 418,000 terajoules. In order to split a Texas-sized asteroid in half, they’d need 800 trillion terajoules. Every nuclear bomb ever made on Earth would not even be close to enough.
But like I said, this is a big, dumb movie. Don’t think too hard about the science because it was never going to line up anyway. Instead, let’s talk about how ridiculous it is that they trained a bunch of insane, drilling cowboys to go into space in a matter of 12 days.
First you’ve got Harry himself. When he first catches A.J. sleeping with his daughter, he chases his protégé around the rig, shooting at him with a shotgun, risking catastrophic damage. Not to mention raw, unrefined oil, is extremely flammable, and he probably damaged some fairly expensive equipment. This is the first scene where you meet either of them. No matter how much they need a good drilling team, there’s no way NASA would ever send these idiots into space. A bunch of the others, including Rockhound, spend their last night on earth hanging around with strippers (no nudity is shown) and getting arrested after starting a fight. Not sure why Rockhound is included when his only specialty is that he’s a geologist, when I’m sure NASA has at least one trained geologist already trained as an astronaut. Then in the middle of the mission, Rockhound loses his mind, takes over some sort of machine gun and starts shooting rocks and equipment randomly. Why is this machine gun on this mission anyway? Surely they would have seen that there’s something wrong with this guy when they gave everyone on Harry’s team a psychological evaluation.
A.J. has a habit of being way too ambitious for his own good. The first time you see him drilling, he keeps going against Harry’s orders, causing a major oil leak that sprays the “black gold” all over the rig. He also damages some of the equipment. Later on, after his shuttle crashes, he drives some sort of space dune buggy over the asteroid, and almost launches them completely off the asteroid and into space. Yet despite how the other team has struggled to drill into the rocks that are much stronger than they expected, A.J. comes in and drills the remaining 250 feet in a matter of minutes. He only succeeds when the movie requires him to, when the other drillers failed … when all they seem to do is hold down levers and buttons as their drilling pod shakes around. Oh, and all this after the first drilling attempt on the asteroid only digs down 5 feet before completely destroying the drill bit.
This movie comes up with all sorts of over-the-top situations for the sake of it. Because the Russian is distracted, he cannot properly instruct A.J. on what he’s supposed to do with some sort of maintenance routine, and they end up destroying the Russian Space Station by accident. This forces an escape sequence. There’s some sort of failsafe mission where the general can detonate the bomb remotely, even though it would be completely useless with a surface explosion, and one of the actual astronauts is in on it. Some sort of accident destroys the remote detonator, forcing someone to manually detonate the nuke. Right at the end, they force every possible problem imaginable, from the shuttle’s mechanical problems stopping them from taking off, to the person who stays behind losing the remote with seconds to spare before the asteroid reaches the “zero barrier” (where it’s too late to save Earth).
Since this is Bruce Willis month for this blog, I should probably wrap this post up by talking about Willis’s performance. It’s over-the-top. He seems to switch between going on a rampage, being excited, and showing raw determination. There are times when he shows some dramatic subtlety, but not often. That said, this is exactly the kind of performance this kind of movie calls for, and he’s rarely not entertaining. One could say the same about the entire cast. This is a big, dumb movie, and the performances match that perfectly.
Armageddon is impossible to take seriously as a movie. The story is ridiculous on every level. The science isn’t even trying to be remotely accurate. Every action scene is over-the-top. Bay’s cinematography style is that the camera never stops moving, and this movie is a great example of that. The drama feels forced more often than not. Liv Tyler’s role is little more than being annoyed by her father in the first act, in love with A.J., and spending the rest of the movie staring at things and looking worried. She seems to have made a career out of staring at things, and while she’s good at it, it’s a waste of her more nuanced acting talents, and this movie kind of started that trend for her.
I will say this much though. The soundtrack by Trevor Rabin is pretty good.
That should tell you enough to know whether you’d be interested in it or not. I enjoy Armageddon because it’s stupid, but not enough to watch it very often. Next month, I’ll be watching the four Fantastic Four movies, and I’ll catch up on the MCU after that if I find the time. I’ll be starting with the Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie that was never officially released, but leaked to the public in 1994 and is easy to find online.