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Non-Review Review: Armageddon

At least Michael Bay’s Armageddon is honest with you from the opening moments. A deep and thoughtful voice provides an explanation of how a single hunk of space rock managed to wipe out the dinosaurs, complete with an illustration of that important moment. Now, as a viewer, you are confronted with two options. Your choice will define whether you enjoy the movie, or whether it ends up causing you serious physical pain. Your options are: (a.) sit back and enjoy the fact that Bay opened his movie with a pseudo-science lecture which had the decency to include an explosion with the force of “ten thousand nuclear bombs”; (b.) wonder why, if this scene is set millions of years ago, the continents are all in exactly the same places they are today.

We'll always have Paris... Oh, wait...

To read the above, you’d assume I hated Armageddon. I didn’t. I will confess to being a fan of The Rock as perhaps the best adrenaline-pumping action movie of the nineties, and I accept that Armageddon is not quite up to that standard. However, taken on its own terms – with a shedload of caveats – the movie is a decent action adventure, if little more. Nobody can really claim to have been duped or tricked into seeing it. Unlike so many movies, there’s truth in Armageddon’s basic pitch. You want a movie about manly man being manly and showing a giant hunk of space rock (which isn’t even from around here) what for? Well, my son, this is the movie for you.

Bay packs the film with so much testosterone that I spend the film partly in fear that my television would grow biceps and pound me. Seriously. Here’s my stream of consciousness notes for the first ten minutes of the film:

Stuff exploding (Grrr! Boom! Argh! Topple!). Camera spinning (Wheee! Ugh! Little dizzy!). Important people look concerned (Concerned! Educated! Sombre!). Sirens are wailing (Action! Serious! Consequences!). The President is called (Phone! Office! Men in suits!). Monuments of soldiers at Iwo Jima (Hoo-rah! Manly men! Patriotism! Heroes!). Cars driving (Urgent! Professional! Important! Convoy!).

In any other film, some of this exposition would be delivered in a quiet scene that allowed the audience to dwell on what had just happened. Instead, Bay pushes the movie forward with the momentum of a freight train. As advisers brief each other the patriotic music playing on an electric guitar against a golden backdrop, the audience begins to get the message: there are no quiet scenes!

You can't stop the rock...

What’s interesting about the movie is how it never really attempts to justify itself. It just presents its own world view, and you can opt to either accept it or… well, you’re not a true American, are you? The movie opens with a scene of our hero firing golf balls off a oilrig at a Greenpeace tugboat, dismissively observing that the hippies who think “drilling for oil is an evil thing” are completely oblivious to the fact that their boat uses oil. Stupid kids. They’re not manly men.

In fact, it’s remarkable at just how dismissive the movie is of those with a working knowledge of astrophysics. It’s telling that, in a movie so focused on patriotism, two of the important NASA talking heads are played by foreign actors (Jason Isaacs and Udo Kier). The mission controller is played by homegrown country bumpkin Billy Bob Thornton, who is only working in an office because his leg is damaged – if it weren’t he’d be off doing real manly stuff, unlike his crazy European co-workers. Grrr!

Some of the scientific inaccuracies really buggy me...

Despite possessing some of the most highly qualified scientists in the world, NASA is shown to be unable to construct a simple drill. You need a real man to come on in and show them how it’s done. And he’s in shock. “I mean, you-you’re NASA for cryin’ out loud,” Harry Stamper protests, “you put a man on the moon, you’re geniuses! You-you’re the guys that think this shit up!” When Thornton’s mission director solicits plans to save the world from the giant hunk of rock flying towards it, his nerdy staff come back with suggestions like sails to catch “solar winds”, Thornton insists that he wants “something realistic.” In other words, something involving something getting blown up real good.

So, the government turns to a “third generation” drilling hick and his crew of talented oil riggers in order to fly up into space and save the day. The stuffy general remarks, “The fate of the planet is in the hands of a bunch of retards I wouldn’t trust with a potato gun.” And that line is about the only acknowledgement the film makes of the fact that these are a bunch of incredibly juvenile man-children, the leader of which opened the movie chasing another around an oil rig with a shotgun. That just screams professionalism, right there.

It all comes crashing down...

Seriously, the lead character might as well have been called “Harry Middle America.” Bruce Willis awkwardly and occasionally affects a slight country twang, and the movie repeatedly reassured us that these are good and ordinary folks who just want regular things like exemption from income tax in return for saving the planet. Sure, some of them are educated, but you white-collar NASA technicians better watch out. In fact, the movie only really seems to have any time for the NASA members who clearly have patriotic armed service in their backgrounds.

And then there’s the patriotism. Hell, I’m Irish and I felt like a patriotic American watching the film. It’s par for the course in these sorts of films that America gets to save the day – although I would have loved to have seen the movie end with asteroid exploding suddenly and the Russians remarking that their former Cold War adversaries has spent so long on comedic montages and awkward romantic plot tumours that they just decided to cut through the crap and do it themselves.

Space is attacking us!

Seriously, the shuttles are named Freedom and Independence. Take a look at all the American flags on display during the President’s “citizen of humanity” montage. “The United States government just asked us to save the world,” Harry remarks to his crew. “Anybody wanna say no?” The movie treats the devastation of New York as a huge sign that the chips are down, but “50,000 people in Shang-hai” seem almost like a footnote. The destruction of Paris is seemingly just slotted on in there because it had been a few minutes since the last explosion on the screen.

In fairness, there are serious flaws with the film. The romance between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler makes George Lucas’ love stories seem like works of art. That animal crackers scene is more painful than watching all the world landmarks explode. The movie mostly manages to crash through cheesiness back into the realm of entertainment again (kinda like going so far over the top, you’re back down on the ground again), but there are moments the movie goes too far. Of course, given this is a Michael Bay film,“too far” is a relative term. Still, the line “he’s got space dementia!” is perhaps too far. And the question “what are you doing with a gun in space?” seems redundant in a Michael Bay film.

What are you doing with a gun in space?

In fairness, the movies simplicity works in its favour. Bay whirls the camera around so fast and pumps his orchestral score so loud that it’s sometimes hard to make out the dialogue. By filling the film to the brim with a rich selection of archetypes, Michael Bay makes it so that the audience can follow what’s going on even if they’re half asleep. That isn’t exactly how I like to watch movies, but you have to admire it. Armageddon is a great movie to watch with a bunch of slightly drunken mates and laugh over one another. After all, this is a movie where the boffin utters the line, “this is as real as it gets.”

Armageddon isn’t great. It’s not even that good. However, it does what it says on the tin. The movie is so big and bombastic that it’s almost overwhelming. And, in a strange way, I suppose that you have to admire it.

4 Responses

  1. Jesus, you’re really churning out the posts. Great non-review, I think I’ve learned enough to stay away from this one (The Island will always be my favorite Bay film, as crazy as that sounds).

    • Thank Justin. It’s been a busy week. I’m fairly sure I might take a week or two off in the near future, but I’ve just had a rush of stuff to kinda talk about, so I’ve been trying to keep up. And I do like The Island, against all odds, but I love The Rock. Have you seen it?

  2. After the first caption I was waiting for a Dwayne Johnson professional wrestling quotation of some kind

    “Geddon” actually does do what I expected it to – come down in flames – but I’m not sure admiration is a world I would use to describe my feelings for it. Still, it is good for a laugh.

    • Yep, I’m not sure I admire the film itself, but I admire its honesty and conviction. It’s so single-mindedly focused on providing some good old-fashioned explosions featuring good, old-fashioned All-American rednecks that you can’t help but be impressed. No pretense of character growth or development, no shallow contrition to foreign markets, just big explosions.

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