"A roller-coaster ride" is how fast-paced action movies are sometimes praised; but of course if the metaphor becomes too apt, many people will feel that it stops being a positive description. Real roller-coaster rides shouldn’t last much more than a few minutes, for one thing. And they don’t often afford a really good view of what’s going on; they’re too fast and choppy. Loud, too. Perhaps most significantly, a roller-coaster ride is an unremittingly one-dimensional experience: qualities like subtlety, wit, complexity, creativity, humanity, and style are all completely beside the point.
Of course, if all that sounds like your cup of tea…
welcome to Armageddon, an action-movie roller-coaster ride
in the deepest, truest, fullest sense of the term. Welcome to a
movie that tries to maintain the speed and breathless energy of a
50-yard dash over an exhausting marathon
Don’t get me wrong, this kind of formula adventure story can be entertaining enough when it’s done right. In fact, just a couple of years after Armageddon, Clint Eastwood demonstrated how to do it in Space Cowboys, a movie that is almost exactly the same as Armageddon, but with less volume and more style. In Space Cowboys, the heroes swaggered, but they weren’t louts; the government officials were bureaucratic but not constipated; the plot was melodramatic but not comic-bookish; and the science was movie science but not brain-dead.
In fact, despite the structural similarities between Armageddon and Space Cowboys (see my review of the latter for specifics), the two movies are actually so different that anyone who likes either film is practically guaranteed not to like the other. I liked Space Cowboys, so…
The plot: A giant asteroid "the size of Texas" is hurtling toward Earth, and government analysts (United States government analysts of course; you didn’t think foreigners could help figure out how to save the planet, did you?) have determined that the only way to destroy it is to send a team of astronauts to the surface of the asteroid with drilling equipment to bore a hole into the asteroid’s crust so that the asteroid can be blown up from within. (Another 1998 movie, Deep Impact, was based upon a remarkably similar premise, but in that film the scenario played out in standard disaster-movie conventions, leaden pacing, a vacant performance by Teá Leoni, and a slam-bang finish that was too little, too late. If Armageddon is a roller coaster, Deep Impact was a golf-cart ride, with the golf cart exploding in the end and golfers ducking for cover.)
When the mission to drill a hole in the asteroid proves daunting, government officials are forced to bring in a crew of roughneck oil drillers led by Bruce Willis, affecting a drawl that changes the whole pitch of his voice, making him sound at times eerily like John Travolta. (Travolta himself, of course, subsequently upstaged Willis by starring in Battlefield Earth, the worst sci-fi flick in a long season of bad sci-fi flicks. Had the release dates of the two films been reversed, I might actually be tempted to suspect that Willis, with his drawl, was deliberately acknowledging the cheesiness of his own film by slyly evoking the star of an even worse one. As it is, it’s just one of those things.)
"Talk about the wrong stuff" is one officer’s disparaging comment as Willis’s team struts about NASA ostensibly preparing for their mission, hamming it up like class clowns in high school, ridiculing the process, flaunting their lack of couth like a badge of honor — all but letting their butt cracks stick out. Yes, in this film the honors science students are obliged to sit back and watch as the shop class saves the world. "The fate of the planet is in the hands of a bunch of retards I wouldn’t trust with a potato gun," bemoans a general. It’s a populist blow against élitism and institutionalism, or… something. Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, and Michael Clarke Duncan mug engagingly, but their characters never become more than one-dimensional.
Meanwhile, much to Willis’s chagrin, Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck (respectively his daughter and hotshot young employee) carry on an affair, sharing cutesy-poo pillow talk and teary farewell scenes. This of course generates Conflict between Affleck and Willis, but also strengthens the Bond between them (as the movie gently suggests with scenes in which Willis grabs a firearm and chases Affleck all over the oil rig trying to shoot him, but later confesses that Affleck is "like a son" to him). After Willis and Affleck depart to save the world, Tyler stands around Mission Control, caring deeply about the fate of her father and her lover. I didn’t, largely because her lover doesn’t come off as particularly likable, and anyway, the only thing in this movie worse than all the gonzo action is when the gonzo action comes to a crashing halt for some excruciating attempts at poignancy and depth.
Then there’s the outer-space heroics, with Willis’s crew blasting off into space in a pair of high-tech space shuttles, docking with a Russian space station, slingshotting around the moon at 15 g’s in order to sneak up on the asteroid from behind, crashlanding on the asteroid’s surface, and so on. Somehow this is all shot to look (when you can make it out at all) more like fantasy Star-Trek spacefaring than anything real astronauts are likely to experience. Watching Armageddon, I realized how easy it had been to accept the relatively documentary-like realism of the imagery of Space Cowboys and Deep Impact — either of which, compared to Armageddon, looks like (really looks like, I mean) Apollo 13 or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Of course, if you can actually sit through Apollo 13 — let alone 2001 — well, it goes without saying that you aren’t the target audience for Armageddon.
Theological note: There is an unusually high number of generic references to God and praying in this movie, which seems reasonable, given the absolute nature of the stakes. The name of the film itself, "Armageddon", is — as the President notes in a typically cornball speech — taken from the Bible; although it doesn’t mean, as he says, "the end of all things." The root reference is a minor Old Testament battle at Mount Megiddo ("Har-Mageddon" = "Mount Megiddo") in which a virtuous Davidic king named Josiah was killed. In the book of Revelation it becomes the scene of a great apocalyptic battle. Symbolically, a great struggle against catastrophic danger might reasonably be described as an "Armageddon."
Overblown, overwrought, and overdone, Armageddon was a movie on overdrive, fueled by adrenaline and testosterone, lurching along in fits and starts. Eastwood’s film exudes easy charm and never takes itself too seriously; it runs on a slower-burning but higher-grade fuel: the likability and established audience goodwill of the four aging leads (Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner). Where Armageddon merely strutted, Cowboys swaggers. What’s the difference? Style.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.