Armageddon (1998), Lookback/Review

Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan: Armageddon made us laugh and cry. What better way to ring in the holidays than with a Texas-sized asteroid on a collision course with our home planet?

Remember the days when Ben Affleck tried to be an action-star? There was Sum of All Fears, which wasn’t terrible, especially for a remake. Then there was Reindeer Games, which was terrible. As for Pearl Harbor, well, let’s not talk about that three hour long “who can save who’s life the most times” game of chicken between Affleck and co-star Josh Hartnett. It was a great relief when one of them finally did manage to die. 

But the movie that started it all, that first showcased Affleck in all his muscled, sweaty, newly whitened teeth glory was that popcorn flick to end all popcorn flicks, the 1998 disaster movie Armageddon.  And lo, it was good (probably because the movie wasn’t actually carried by him). 

Led by ultimate oil driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) a rag-tag group of miners are called upon to save the world. From what, you ask? An explosion of oil that threatens the Atlantic Ocean? A spill in Alaska? Nope. A huge asteroid the “size of Texas” that is on a crash collision with the Earth—which NASA, with all it’s fancy equipment, is unable to detect until it’s almost too late. 

Apparently, the only way to save the planet from impending doom is to send the best miners in the world up to space, drill a hole, put a nuke in it and blast the rock into well, much smaller rocks. Does it make sense? No. Do you want it to? Not at all.

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One of the most enjoyable parts of this movie is—and don’t laugh—the acting. The supporting characters are all played by great actors with fantastic timing, all of whose careers were given a boost after this hit (the movie took in over $201 million domestic).  Featuring (among others) Owen Wilson as crazy “space cowboy” Oscar, Steve Buscemi as wild-boy genius Rockhound, Billy Bob Thornton as Truman the plain-speaking NASA scientist and Peter Stromare as Lev, a loopy Russian cosmonaut. The script features everyone delivering line after memorable line. “Have you ever heard of Evel Kenivel? / No, I never saw Star Wars.” “Great, I got that ‘excited/scared’ thing, like 98% excited and 2% scared. Or maybe it’s more…that’s what makes it so intense, it’s so confusing!” “Get off. The Nuclear. Warhead.” 

Naturally no summer movie could be bereft of explosions and massive destruction, and the film more than delivers. From an oil rig blowing in one of the opening sequences, to Paris being completely destroyed by a massive meteor shower, to a mano-a-mano showdown in space involving a gun, a nuke and a Bruce Willis vs. Col. Willie Sharp (William Fictner) match-up, there’s enough testosterone in the film to grow a chestful of hair to donate to a “Make the Twilight stars more manly” fund.

Despite the bells, whistles, special explosion effects and slick cinematography, the movie is not without emotional pull. Clearly, there has to be a love story and that’s where Affleck and Liv Tyler come in. Playing Bruce Willis’s daughter Grace, Tyler is a sweetheart with a spine and makes being in love with Affeck’s whiny character A.J. believable. Many young boys probably received their first lesson in the birds and the bees with that animal cracker love scene, all accompanied to the lovely strains of Aerosmith singing the film’s featured song, “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.”

However, the real heart of the movie is with Stamper’s crew.  Every time a character is killed off, it’s heartbreaking. No scene can bring both laughter and tears quite like the impromptu “Leaving On A Jet Plane” sing-a-long the crew has, before boarding the space shuttles. It was awful, just awful, when Oscar died upon crash landing on the asteroid. As for those who did not cry at either the good-bye scene between Harry and A.J. and THEN remained dry-eyed when Harry said farewell to Grace….well. Clearly you’re all robots incapable of human emotion.

 Which brings us to the best part of this movie: Bruce Willis. The man has both a badass bald head AND he can act. Whether he’s saving an office building from terrorists in Die Hard, bonding with a lonely boy in Moonrise Kingdom or saving the world for the sake of his little girl Grace (this movie), he’s the everyman who becomes the everyday hero, with a little swearing, some blue collar sweat and a squinty eyed death stare that makes high ranking generals tremble. With heart, wit, and an “it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it” attitude, he carries the movie with  a wink, a begrudging smile and a whole lot of squints. Generous to each of his scene partners, he wears so many hats: unlikely friend to Truman, mentor to A.J., protective father to Grace and friend/leader /I’ll smack you if you don’t behave to the crew. And then he blows himself up to save the world. Forget “the protester” (what was that TIME magazine?), Harry Stamford gets the vote for the ultimate “Man of the Year.” 

When Carey Mulligan was once asked her favorite movie, she replied “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.” That sentiment sums up what makes Armageddon so appealing. No, it may not have made a sweep at the Oscars, or been a critic’s pick of the year, but you watch it and you laugh, you cry, you cheer and then when you catch it on cable you get sucked in and completely forget to write your article that’s due tomorrow. You quote it. You see the actors in other movies and say, “hey, it’s the spacey cowboy from Armageddon!” Bad guys lose, good guys win and enormous asteroids are blown to bits. What’s not to like?

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In the end, Armageddon is a film that gives you immediate catharsis and isn’t that what movies are supposed to do? They’re supposed to take us away on adventure and let us walk in other people’s shoes. If you’re still debating the merit of this Michael Bay directed and produced masterwork, ask yourself, who would you rather be? Harry Stamper or Citizen Kane? If the answer is the former, then you too will add “a Lev” to your handyman repertoire (i.e. always hit complicated machinery with a large tool when it isn’t working – “This is RUSSIAN Space Center!”). If it’s the latter, can you please write a manual on how to enjoy that film? Please. Could the answer to “Rosebud” be any lamer?  

 

 

 

 

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