For some reason or other, in 1998 the world was treated to two nearly identical films two months apart. Both featured a rogue heavenly body about to destroy the Earth and an intrepid group of astronauts who try to blow it apart with missiles. One was called Deep Impact. The other, which we’re obviously going to be talking about today, was Armageddon. I’ve always thought of the latter being the former’s fancier cousin, but how alike are they, really? We’re gonna find out.
First off, Armageddon was directed by Michael Bay, known for, among other films, Pearl Harbor, The Rock, and the Transformers series. While he gets the job done, he’s not usually considered terribly innovative or interesting as a director. He gets panned by critics all the time. Me, I’ve always been ambivalent about him, because his types of movies aren’t typically my thing. He’s just Michael Bay.
With that in mind, let’s get to the movie. Which, within about thirty seconds of the title sequence, shows the meteor hitting the earth during the time of the dinosaurs and blowing up. Michael Bay does like having stuff blow up in his films.
Anyway, we fast-forward sixty-five million years, where Mission Control is watching as an astronaut fixes a satellite. Then a meteor hits it and it blows up, ripping the guy’s helmet apart and sending him careening out into space. His space shuttle also blows up from being hit by a meteor. So, lots of things going boom less than five minutes into the film.
The US government thinks it’s a missile attack, so they’re all hands on deck. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, life as usual is humming along, or at least it is until a meteor shower hits and more stuff gets blown up.
That’s when NASA head, Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) gets a call from amateur astronomer who gives him the coordinates for a new giant asteriod he just found. Swell. NASA now has the gargantuan task of figuring out how to vanquish this mammoth threat. The best bet is to land on the meteor, drill holes in it, send some bombs down them, and let the meteor blow up from the inside. To do this, they will need some experts in deep-core drilling under stressful circumstances, and where would they find such intrepid individuals?
Enter Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), who heads a crew of offshore oil rig workers. Harry is a cocky fellow who whaps golf balls at visiting Greenpeace barges with great relish. He runs his rig like a finely-tuned machine. When the military shows up, he’s just finished battling a malfunctioning drill left on by A.J. (Ben Affleck), the guy who’s been seeing his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), for the past five months. Harry and Grace fly to NASA, but not before Harry tells A.J. he’s fired.
Once at NASA, Harry and Grace find out about the gigundo asteroid, and that Harry is going to lead the expedition up there. All righty, then. Harry goes to work, telling NASA what he needs to get the job done. NASA built his drill design wrong. He wants a crew of actual drill operators instead of just astronauts. Since she’s so familiar with the oil business, Grace helps Harry get the group together. Most of them are from her dad’s last rig, including A.J., of course.
Training commences, and it’s the usual gamut of stress testing, underwater drills in the flight suit, and so on. Meanwhile, A.J. and Grace resume their relationship, and they meet wherever they can, even on a cold, dark Saturn 5 rocket thruster. Harry doesn’t like it, but there’s nothing he can really say, and A.J. and Grace get engaged while Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,” swells over them.
As the launch day gets closer, everyone needs to blow off steam and take care of unfinished business. Harry and Grace reconcile at the site of the Apollo 1 fire, ironically enough. Meanwhile, Harry’s rig buddies go to a strip club, where they get plastered and start a brawl. Nothing like breaking some bottles (or maybe someone’s nose) the night before blasting off to save the earth.
NASA figures the mission has a better chance if two craft go up there, so Harry’s crew divides between twin X-71s, Freedom and Independence. For all the non-astronauts aboard, the takeoff is like being at Disneyland.
The first order of business is to dock with the Russian space station to get some extra fuel, and the place is basically held together with duct tape. Lev, the cosmonaut manning it, cautions everyone not to touch anything. Then a fire breaks out, so we can all guess what happens next.
That’s right, ladies and gents. Another explosion. Everyone makes it off alive, but then they get into a rock shower. Even more stuff blows up.
Whew. And they’re not even on the meteor yet.
Back on earth, Grace roams around nervously. For some reason she’s allowed on the floor of Mission Control, and she’s riding the roller-coaster of emotions right along with everyone else, on earth and in space. She listens as A.J. and Harry get separated then reunite, lives are lost, and everyone fights to get the job done. If they get it done.
Armageddon is a buzzsaw of a movie, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It moves so fast that there’s no time or inclination to root for anyone or feel sorry for them. Variety’s Todd McCarthy said the film was like a machine gun that’s stuck in the firing position, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Liv Tyler is woefully underutilized. For most of the last half of the movie she has little to do but take in shuddering breaths. For that matter, the relationships between A.J., Harry, and Grace could have been way more filled out. It’s just all kind of perfunctory. No inside jokes, no reminisces, no gentle ribbing. A.J. putting Barnum’s Animals on Grace’s tummy and singing “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane” are cute, sorta, but there’s not much context.
Soooooo…which film do I like better, Deep Impact or Armageddon?
Drum roll, please…
Deep Impact. Anyone shocked? I sure was. Kinda.
Seriously, the differences between the two films are pretty sharp. One of the biggest is that Deep Impact has the feeling of creeping doom. The viewer knows that the comet is coming, but they don’t know what will happen when the Messiah lands on the comet, or anything beyond what’s on the screen. It’s all up for grabs.
Armageddon‘s worst enemy, on the other hand, is Michael Bay. Again, we all know how much this dude loves explosions. Like, really loves them. It’s akin to Cameron Crowe and blue T-shirts. Problem is, Armageddon’s constant kaboomage makes the ending feel anticlimactic. When there are explosions or meteor showers in what feels like every other scene, it’s a wee bit tough to have a sense of impending destruction, because stuff is already hitting the proverbial fan. While Deep Impact served its denouement cold; Armageddon sent it out in pieces, all of them shrapnel-shaped. And it took a half hour longer for Armageddon to get there than Deep Impact. That’s called padding, folks.
Neither movie is terribly good. They’re not awful, either. They each plod along in their own way. I didn’t hate watching them, but I no longer see Armageddon as the fancy city cousin. Nope, it’s more like the loud, obnoxious one who dances on tables while Aerosmith blares in the background. It has its place. Somewhere.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for the Hedy Lamarr Blogathon…
This film is available from Amazon.