Michael Bay | 145 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Sometimes you have to wait to see a film because it’s not accessible for some reason (no one’s put it out yet, or it’s out of print and costs a fortune, or whatever). Other times… maybe it’s just me, but there are some films that I wait years to watch for no particular reason. Not wait in the sense of “drumming my fingers waiting for the chance”, but in the sense that I’ll get to it someday, it’s just not a priority, for whatever reason. And then one day, with nothing apparently having changed, the time comes when it’s that movie’s turn.
So it was for me with Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 sci-fi disaster epic. It’s a film I’ve been aware of since it came out (how could you not be?) but never cared enough to actually watch, other than a general feeling I’d get round to it one day because (a) it’s the kind of movie everyone else has seen, and (b) when Michael Bay’s good, he is good (at what he does), so it’s at least worth a look. It’s a pretty readily available film — the kind of thing I regularly see in TV listings or on streaming services and consider watching and end up deciding “nah, not today” — so quite what made me finally watch it now — what made me see it in a list and go “actually, yes, today” — I’m not sure. Such are the mysteries of life. Or of my brain, at any rate.
For the few people who haven’t seen it, then, it’s about a giant asteroid heading towards Earth, where its impact will cause an extinction-level event, and NASA deciding the only way to stop it is to send up a couple of spaceships to land on the asteroid, drop nukes inside, and blow it up (it’s a Michael Bay movie, of course the solution is “blow it up”). To learn about the kind of deep drilling this would require, they bring in the best driller around, Bruce Willis, to train the astronauts. But drilling isn’t something you can learn in a couple of weeks — unlike “how to be an astronaut”, apparently, because it’s decided it will be easier to train drillers to be astronauts than train astronauts to use a drill.
If you’re a reader from outside the UK, I guess you’ve probably not heard of Tim Peake. He’s (quite rightly) been big news here for the last year or so because he was our first (official) astronaut. That it’s taken until now for there to be a British astronaut seems remarkable, but there you go. I guess we always let other people do the initial exploring, then come along later to own the place — I mean, that Columbus fella was Italian, and is Italian the official language of America? No it is not. Anyway, Peake is a qualified helicopter pilot and instructor, has a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation, was selected to be an astronaut in a process that involved academic tests, fitness assessments, and several interviews, and then received six years of training, including a mission as an aquanaut, before he went into space. But no, you can totally train a group of drillers to do that in a fortnight.
Many Hollywood blockbusters have ludicrous concepts, but Armageddon feels designed to plow new furrows of ridiculousness. Apparently NASA show the film to new managers and ask them to spot the errors. There are at least 168. It only takes a few minutes before it’s already so OTT that it seems like a spoof of Bay — I mean, the title card explodes for crying out loud. When the president makes a speech just before the launch, the quaint shots of the world listening in make it look like the film’s set in the 1950s. Despite being a full two-and-a-half hours long, Bay manages to make the whole film feel like a plot-summarising montage. The average shot length must be Moulin Rouge-level crazy, though where that film weighs super-fast-cut scenes against more measured ones, I think Armageddon is out-of-control-freight-train fast for every last second. Bay is so impatient, the credits start rolling before the film has even finished! And why the fuck does the drilling vehicle have a fucking great machine gun on it?!
Apparently Michael Bay thinks it’s his worst film. In 2013, he said, “I will apologise for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could.” The problems stretch further than that, Michael.
Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. The bit where Bruce Willis’ life flashes before his eyes is actually really good — ten seconds of artistic moviemaking in a 150-minute movie! Visually it looks great throughout, meaning DoP John Schwartzman is possibly the only person who comes out of the whole thing entirely unscathed. The special effects are excellent for 1998. I thought Independence Day’s were still effective when I re-watched it earlier this year, but Armageddon’s feel much less dated, and it was only made two years later. As an effects showcase, it absolutely still holds up today. That said, the top of the Chrysler building falling off, complete with plummeting screaming people, is considerably less palatable since 9/11. And just a minute later there’s a shot of the World Trade Center with burning holes in it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been re-edited to remove those shots, especially as it’s a Disney-owned movie and they have a history of self-censoring stuff that is no longer considered acceptable.
Armageddon was, famously, released the same year as Deep Impact, which I watched many years ago but remember as a character-driven drama about an asteroid threatening the end of the world. Armageddon’s action-packed bluster was more successful at the box office, of course, but Deep Impact was the more mature movie. Maybe I’m wrong — it has a lower rating on IMDb. But then, that is IMDb. I should probably watch it again, but even without doing that I feel pretty confident saying it’s the better film.
If Michael Bay knew he was making a comedy, Armageddon might be a great movie. But he didn’t. While it’s definitely bad, I did kind of enjoy it… but mainly to laugh at. Make of that what you will.