Three times in the last three months, a nice evening with a few friends has been spoilt by the mere mention of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Thus, a by-then quite polite chatter over a few drinks turned into a full-on rage, as I launched into a passionate defence of one of the most gleeful blockbusters of the past 15 years. It’s the kind of thing that could break friendships on the spot.
It’s a film that, even at Den Of Geek, splits us a lot. Take our recent Bruce Willis Ready Reckoner, where Mark Oakley wrongly gave the film a single star. One star! I could barely contain my rage.
Because here’s the thing: Armageddon is a brilliant, almost paradoxically old-fashioned blockbuster, surrounded by a cavalcade of damn fine special effects. And, after stumbling out of the cinema one Saturday night in 1998, I couldn’t help but feel I’d had terrific value for the price of my ticket. Sure, you leave your brain at the door, but what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a big-budget, dumb movie that sets its stall out to entertain from the start, and never veers off course?
Now you may remember that 1998 was the year that two films about meteorites heading to earth were released. The first was the more serious one, Deep Impact, with Tea Leoni and Morgan Freeman looking worried for lots of the film (and standing in the cinema foyer, if memory serves, was count down to the release of Michael Bay’s incoming epic). Elijah Wood was in there too, and it had, to be fair, a good cast and some decent effects.
But here’s thing. It wasn’t a bad movie, granted, but I defy most people to say that when it pops up on the telly, they sit down and watch it right through. Armageddon? Now that’s a different story. Because this time, the world is coming to an end, so everyone’s damn sure they’re going to enjoy it. Crucially, the audience included.
So where to start? The gratuitous bringing in of Charlton Heston for the serious voiceover work at the start was a fair signal of intent, and then that’s before you even got to meet the terrific cast of characters. Bruce Willis is great as Harry Stamper, the best driller on the planet who, for some bizarre and nonsensical reason, is anointed the person best suited to go and save the world, even though he’s never even visited NASA before. They do explain this in the movie, of course, but it’s clearly just plot bullshit to get us from A to B. He drags along a pre-J.Lo Ben Affleck, who’s perfectly decent as AJ, and there’s the small matter of the delightful Liv Tyler between them. All good.
But then enter the rest of the supporting cast. Michael Clarke Duncan is hilarious in the training segments – surely one of the comedy highlights of blockbuster cinema in the decade – and Steve Buscemi laps up another supporting role as Rockhound, the misery who’s just in it for the money. Let’s not forget too the clearly mad Russian cosmonaut, the underrated Will Patton (who has to do, well, some acting), and small turns from the likes of Jason Isaacs, Owen Wilson and William Fichtner.
That we spend some time with these characters, and that they interact with each other, is welcome. And while we ain’t talking Citizen Kane here, there’s at least the time taken to introduce you properly to everyone before they’re thrown into peril. Even on the ground, there’s good casting: Billy Bob Thornton may not do too many supporting roles these days, but he’s just the anchor the movie needs for the oh-so-important Earth-based scenes. What’s a disaster movie without a room full of serious people, well, worrying a lot?
Let’s not overlook, too, the fact that the film’s often very, very funny. The aforementioned training sequence is one thing, but the gratuitous, almost-nonsensical rendition of ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ is inspired. Just inspired. Then there’s the great of potential planet savers negotiating their fee. Anything Buscemi says. A witty script. It’s quite a list.
Effects-wise, as you’d expect, the film also delivers, and still stands up today. But that’s the strength in director Michael Bay’s armoury that we’ve come to expect. That said, I’ve come to conclude that the Michael Bay factor is one of the main reasons for peoples’ dislike of Armageddon, so let’s talk about him.
The man is not a great director. He tends to put his subjects at the centre of the frame and leer at them, more than anything else. But he does know his special effects, and he knows how to construct a blockbuster. The Rock, for instance, is a great-yet-flabby night in front of the telly, and even Pearl Harbor – a mess by most people’s standards – has a bit more to it than he’s given credit for (count me as someone who didn’t care for Transformers, though). With Armageddon, though, Bay hits his blockbuster peak. Simply, the man knows exactly what he’s doing, and just gets on with it. This is a joyful, jingoistic piece of cinema, and bluntly, a ‘better’ director may have been tempted to steer away from the path that Bay relentlessly follows. It’s a spot on marriage of director and material.
This isn’t, of course, a blind appreciation of the film. I can live with babble and pretend-science in the midst of big Saturday night movie, but the part where they eventually land on the asteroid is muddled, and quite confusing to follow. It wasn’t dull, but there’s little question that the back end struggles to keep the film going with the same momentum. That’s not helped by the bloated running time, either, that was surely primed for another 10 or 15 minutes of trimming.
But then we get to that ending. It’s almost a given in a disaster film that someone sacrifices themselves at the denouement for the greater good, but when was the last time they had the balls to let a blockbuster movie star do it in an action flick? This was reportedly at Willis’ insistence, and while I wasn’t crying like the bloke the row behind appeared to be, it did send a jolt. Did Armageddon just kill Bruce Willis? I think it damn well did.
On its initial release, American critic Roger Ebert described the film as “an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained”. The thing is, I think I agree with him, but absolutely love the film nonetheless. Because American blockbuster cinema, with its now-compulsory love of comic books, sequels and franchises, just hasn’t done a one-off blast as good as this for some time now, and surely that’s part of what a summer at the movies is all about?
So shoot me. I love Armageddon. And while I’ll no doubt get torn to bits in the Comments field below, I’m off to go and watch it again. It’s the best disaster of the last ten years…