Armageddon (1998)

D: Michael Bay
S: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck

It is a bitter testimony to contemporary American cinema that a film as poor as Armageddon can be excused with the honest comment, "Well, at least it's not as bad as Deep Impact." Yet this is the natural first reaction. Michael Bay's overdirected, hyperkinetic, big budget B movie has the benefit of having been released in the wake of a film so dire and uninvolving that the bloated excess of special effects and action sequences come as a welcome relief. Thankfully, we are not treated to hours of histrionics on the part of uninteresting characters. Here, we don't really have characters, just a bunch of one dimensional caricatures. To be fair, the film is well aware of its shortcomings, and from the opening scenes, it is careful to ensure that we don't have time to worry about them.

Bay's camera rarely sits still, even in the establishing scenes portraying the NASA command centre, and it becomes more frantic as the action reaches its climax. Conjoined with the almost subliminal speed of the editing, the film eventually proceeds in a blur of sound and vision which rivals Kubrick's assault on the nerves at the end of 2001, only without the head trip. This is an expensive live action version of the 1980s arcade game "Asteroids", propelled along purely by the presence of ever more threatening and fast moving objects which must be blown to bits or it's game over.

The story concerns the efforts of a group of blue-collar slobs to save the world when a giant asteroid makes directly for the earth. It's the action plot of Deep Impact, only maxed out with outrageous contrivances and an unending series of hilarious explosions in the vacuum of space which send bodies flying to and fro amid rocks, gas plumes and other assorted bits of machinery. Oh there's some perfunctory character conflict stuff surrounding brash young Ben Affleck's relationship with Liv Tyler, implausibly elegant daughter of hard-assed oil driller Bruce Willis, and some miscellaneous vignettes which raise a smile or two, but it's just a springboard for a series of 'hi-octane' action scenes with plenty of greasy close ups and moments of literally apocalyptic jeopardy.

The dialogue is mouthed with straight-faced abandon by a cast of actors who appear to be having varying levels of fun. Steve Buscemi makes the most of the showy comedy role, with Peter Stormare giving a surprising turn as the token Russian cosmonaut in this typically all American disaster flick (the rest of the world is but a series of picturesque cutaways). Willis spouts some terrific old-fashioned John Wayneisms without a trace of irony and Affleck works hard to appear as cool and sweaty as possible. Tyler is largely a decorative token female, a reward for the brave men risking their lives to save the planet. Thornton gives the most dignified performance as the tense NASA supervisor, but it comes from another movie entirely.

The constant references to Star Wars and Looney Tunes say more for the aesthetic influences of the film than needed to be said, and this is far from something to take seriously. Luckily, you don't have to, and it barrels away merrily for two hours without ever becoming boring. Ridiculous yes, but never boring. But even by the standards of recent disaster films (Twister, Dante's Peak, etc), this is weak. It holds together just long enough for you to decide whether or not to go with it, and peppers the build up with plenty of explosions just in case you are in any doubt that the big fireworks will come. It is all mounted with the standard level of technical prowess and despite the rib-ticklingly impossible heroics, it's a cartoonish dumbfest if you switch off the higher brain functions and let it go about its business. Unfortunately it is not canny enough to really push your buttons like Independence Day and its relentless visual and aural excitation all too obviously mask a woeful script. In essence, it's a sad, laughable, moronic action blockbuster designed for Summertime consumption and immediate excretion. But then, what did you expect?

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.