Criterion Project #32: ARMAGEDDON (1998)

Armageddon

Spine #40

Year: 1998

Director: Michael Bay

I wouldn’t normally refer to any movie in the Criterion Collection as an anomaly. The catalogue is incredibly varied and disparate, encompassing a vast range of cultures, genres, and subjects with a dedicated goal – the preservation of film history. And I think that distinction is what dignifies my movie of the week, Armageddon, for inclusion in the collection. I won’t mince words – the quality of the film and any thematic or structural worth is lacking compared to the majority of the collection, which might have initially lead me to categorize it as an anomaly. Perhaps it was just a cash grab for Criterion. I think the case could be made for that angle, except I believe the movie represents an interesting piece of late ’90s zeitgeist.

I look at genre films featured in the collection, films such as Godzilla (1954), The Blob (1958) and The War of Worlds (1953), and I have to remember their place in history. All of them are great and enjoyable in their own right, but they, too, suffer from narrative issues you wouldn’t normally lump in with the arthouse classics Criterion is known for. Armageddon definitely has more issues than any of those three films I mentioned, but it’s cut from a similar cloth. They’re the pinnacle of their genre from a particular time of cinema history.

The mid-to-late ’90s saw an uptick in special effects and CGI, prompting filmmakers to churn out a multitude of disaster movies, starting with Independence Day (1996) and Twister (1996). The market became so oversaturated with these films there was even a period of thematic couples being released, such as the volcanic twosome of Volcano (1997) and Dante’s Peak (1997), and the asteroid duo, Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon. Nowadays we see extinction-level event plots constantly in superhero movies, which owe a great debt to the likes of Godzilla, The Blob and The War of the Worlds for whetting the public’s appetite for disaster films. It’s part of the human condition – we’re obsessed with facing catastrophes and tempting fate in popular film.

And Armageddon might be the most enthusiastic example of this kind of cinema.

The basic plot is as follows: a team of the world’s best oil drillers are called upon by NASA and the U.S. government to save the planet from a massive asteroid heading straight for Earth. The plan is to land the drill team on the rock and drill far enough into it to plant a nuke inside and blow the thing in half.

America…fuck yeah.

I was 17 years old when this movie came out in 1998 and I loved it. There’s maximum destruction, heartfelt moments, suspense, thrills, and a sensational cast. And to be clear, I’m not referring to the headliners. I’m talking about the awesome Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Keith David, William Fichtner, Michael Clark Duncan, Peter Stormare, Owen Wilson…and the list goes on. It also features Liv Tyler. So, in short, it checked all the boxes for a teenage boy.

Viewing it later in life, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. It had been quite some time since I watched it and I knew the years between viewings were sure to bear an updated perspective on a space rock movie. So it did not come as a surprise that there are no less than a million laughable/questionable moments, lines, and narrative choices in this movie that jumped right off the screen. Some I knew of before, and some were totally new revelations.

Just a few examples, starting with the obvious – why teach drillers to astronaut instead of teaching astronauts to drill? That’s the easy one. How about, why do they outfit a monster truck with a drill and Gatling guns for their space mission? And *clears throat* – “He’s got space dementia”.

But, you know what? You can write much of that off to two things. First, a poor script. There’s an actual scene in the 3rd act after we’re plunged into one of the many “all is lost” moments and an ancillary character has to pop into frame to remind us of the dreadfully obvious peril they’re in by literally speaking for the script by saying, “We’re not looking too good right now.” Mash some of this horrendous dialogue together with the multitude of subplots running through this movie and it becomes a little numbing. Off the top of my head, there’s subplots about forbidden love, strained family dynamics, class struggle, and philosophical differences between two men about how to *ahem* drill properly. Hell, there’s even a little colonialism thrown in for good measure. It’s no wonder why this movie is a robust 150 minutes long – it’s a full space epic.

The other factor adding to the absurdist nature of the film is its action-first director, Michael Bay, who never met a movie camera he couldn’t whirl around a room of actors for no reason. Seriously, the camera is in constant motion, which is why I picture Bay as more of a child in a man’s body than a mature director. And I don’t say that necessarily in a derogatory sense. Why is the Armadillo a space monster truck with a mini-gun? Because a man with a child’s mind directed the movie. Why do they train drillers to be astronauts instead of the other way around? Because…Whoa! Look at that explosion!!

When it comes to action, this guy likes to go big and you can see the massive budget on the screen. The opening destruction of NYC is an impressive set-piece. And I think this movie might contain the greatest amount of sets and/or some of the most ridiculous sets I’ve ever seen. The training sequences with the drill team learning to cope with the trials of space travel go from massive pool/space simulators to a truly odd looking chamber that houses the Armadillo. But, the silliest creation of all has to be the asteroid set. It has all the earmarks of an old “Star Trek” set with every manner of jagged impediments and holes equipped with pressurized air cannisters adorning the treacherous landscape. Again, this is what every red-blooded American boy might picture the surface of an asteroid looking like – and that’s what Michael Bay is, for better or for worse.

Look at it this way, if he made movies for grown-ups then 17-year-old me would never have gotten the thrill of seeing Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis confess their undying love for one another atop an asteroid. It wouldn’t happen. The movie is everything it wanted to be – dumb entertainment. And if anyone knows how to deliver on that promise, it’s Michael Bay.

But there’s something else going on here, something I never would have caught as a teenager. So, let’s toss out the absurdities and take a closer look at what this movie really is down to its very core: a full tilt, ‘merican propaganda film.

Let’s just start with the biggest, most chest-puffing American aspect of this movie: a concerned citizen alerts NASA of the inbound asteroid, and naturally, they want it kept quiet. The group at NASA are lead by Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), whose plan to combat a global catastrophe is to keep the rest of the world in the dark while an assembly of Americans brainstorm in a little room. They opt not to tell the world about the danger. As Truman states at one point, NASA controls all of the telescopes that can spot the asteroid, except for one. So they have all the power.

I know why you wouldn’t want to inform the public right away, you don’t want global panic. But what’s the purpose of hiding it from other countries and their scientists who might be able to help? It might hurt your ego, but also save the planet? No, they decide to keep the rest of the world out of this planetary problem. America can handle it. We don’t need “their kind”.

Beyond that major red flag lies several small innuendos. What are the names of the shuttles carrying the two teams of astronauts and drillers? “Freedom” and “Independence”, naturally. But there are also LOADS of visual cues. When the shuttles, Freedom and Independence, are blasting off there’s a brief cut to Grace (Liv Tyler) standing in front of a massive jumbotron displaying the U.S. flag flowing in the wind. There’s another cut-away later to a JFK mural with the words “Life. Hope. Love” spray-painted on the brick wall. I basically called Michael Bay immature a few paragraphs ago, but here we have a man who’s fully aware of the imagery he’s using and the message it conveys. These symbols carry a certain amount of power, even if they’re not consciously noticed. Bay might be a terrible storyteller, but he knows the power of visuals.

This pro-American sentiment leads us into the best part of the conversation. Earlier I posed the question – why send oil drillers to space? There are a myriad of funny reasons we could come up with to answer the question. But deep down the answer is simple – because the heroes of the film HAVE to be working class Americans. Ask any Texan, who better to take down an asteroid than a rag-tag bunch of roughneck oil drillers? Is there any wonder why the two seemingly most sensible people in the movie, Harry and Truman (wonder if that was intentional), have southern accents?

I can almost hear the drawl – “I’ll take the blood, sweat, and tears of a hard-working American citizen over any (foreign) space rock (hell-bent on destroying my way of life)!”

*Parentheticals added for subtext*

The hero can’t be some nerdy, four-eyed scientist who’s trained for years to handle the rigors of space, it has to be the no-nonsense oil driller with his hands in the dirt. Which brings us to another powerful subtextual element being used here – the hard-working leader of a tribe of dedicated men who ultimately makes the decision to sacrifice himself for the fate of the world. Taking into account the southern values and the ‘merican vibe running through this film, is there any question what that might be referring to?

This, of course, is without getting into the muddy waters of foreign characterizations in the film. The Asian couple in the beginning and Lev (Peter Stormare) are walking caricatures of their ethnicities complete with uber-exaggerated accents and mannerisms.

Are these deal-breakers? No. They’re more correctly positioned as anachronisms of late ’90s society in America. Which puts the film on par with a great many classics that occurred as a result of a confluence of societal factors.

Did I enjoy this movie this time around? I’ll say I had fun with it. Not the same level of fun I had in the movie theater in 1998, back when this movie was literally made with my demographic in mind. It’s unquestionably preposterous and throws all reason to the wayside. But, on some level, who cares? I found it more enjoyable to pick out the motivations behind the absurdity, of which there is a richness that belies the simplistic, fairly dumb story about oil drillers on an asteroid. And for that reason, above all, I’m happy Armageddon is part of the Criterion Collection.

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