July 1, 1998
“There was some criticism that I made NASA look dumb in certain places. In fact if you heard some of these asteroid theories of what they are thinking of doing, it just sounds asinine.” –Michael Bay
ARMAGEDDON is Michael Bay’s third movie, but in some sense it’s the one where he revealed his true face to the world. There were plenty of examples of his style and character in BAD BOYS and THE ROCK, but it was ARMAGEDDON that first presented the full breadth of his trademarks: awesome awesome macho bros, pretty pretty sunsets, government employees portrayed as insufferable weiners even though they’re in the right, spinning cameras, haphazard editing all over the fucking place, chaotic mish-mashes of explosions and sparks and machinery and debris and smoke and crap, beautiful shots of people in various locations around the world, weirdly hateful characters presented as cutesy comic relief, an army of highly qualified writers seemingly locked in a cage and forced to duct tape a bunch of dumb ideas into the most unwieldy structure they can come up with that has a running time at least 30 minutes longer than the story has earned, and of course an ensemble of talented actors improvising jokes with no regard for any sort of desired rhythm or tone of storytelling.
In 1998 I hated this fucking movie. It was one of my big disconnects with mainstream audiences, following BATMAN FOREVER and INDEPENDENCE DAY, giant hit summer blockbusters that most people liked but I couldn’t stand. It seems like many of those people have disavowed it over the years, but it definitely has a following. I have one personal friend and a few internet acquaintances who consider it among their favorites. I’m not sure how much of that is ironic.
I guess I can partly understand in that it stands out as a particularly crazy example of the form. Before we even meet most of the main characters we already have
1) A space-eye view of an asteroid destroying the dinosaurs (narrated by Charlton Heston!)
2) An exploding logo
3) A spectacular astronautical disaster. It’s the only movie I know of that wants you to have a profound and overwhelming patriotic reverence at the sight of a Space Shuttle, but also to whoo-hoo and high five your buddies when it explodes and sends seventeen types of debris at the camera like an old school show-offy 3D movie. ARMAGEDDON believes that you are in absolute awe of anything having to do with NASA, and also that you definitely weren’t traumatized by watching the Challenger astronauts disintegrate on TV as a kid. In fact it thinks you were disappointed that that shit didn’t blow up cool enough.
On the famous Criterion edition commentary track, Bay credits the idea to an unnamed “very young writer” who “rewrote 53 pages in two days and I read the script and it was pure shit,” but when Bay told him that the opening was boring and “you’ve gotta grab the audience by the balls,” this writer pitched blowing up the Space Shuttle. And I guess we can infer that Bay considered that to be a worthwhile ball grab.
The main character, arguably, is The Best Damn Deep Core Driller There Is Harry Stamper, played by The Best Damn Hollywood Actor There Is Bruce Willis. When NASA (Billy Bob Thornton, ON DEADLY GROUND) figures out that an asteroid the size of Texas is about to knock Earth the fuck out and the one way they can maybe stop it is to send guys to drill a big hole and put a nuclear bomb in it, they make some calls (and probly type “best damn deep core driller there is” into Yahoo! or AltaVista) and find out Harry is the guy. Next thing you know he and his rowdy team of macho oil jockeys are being briefly trained to astronaut shit up so they can save the world, maybe.
The part of the movie that I most understand the appeal of is this chunk after a bunch of buildings get destroyed but before any amateurs go into space. As Affleck puts it on that same commentary track, it follows “the sort of DIRTY DOZEN model… a gang of rough and tumble everyday guys that are needed to do a job.” Bay also calls them “everyday guys,” but his take is that “That’s what makes this movie fun. It’s the everyday guy given the opportunity to save the world or just sit back and watch it end.” So, not just that underdogs get a chance to be heroes, but that they could end all human life if they chose to, that power is what makes it fun. I guess if that’s what gives you a boner, Michael Bay.
Anyway they ride motorcycles and go to strip clubs, trying to live the HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN lifestyle, and oh my goodness, old man science is really gonna have to loosen up that starched collar and take off that pocket protector if he’s gonna rock ‘n roll with these outrageous party animals. For example “NASA” shows them their “space vehicle” The Armadillo and they’re like look pal, real Americans don’t need all this smarty pants space machine crap, and they yank out the equipment they aren’t familiar with and throw it on the ground and plan to make a few changes to the thing. NASA probly spent years and millions of our tax dollars researching and designing and building that stuff but since some oil drillers didn’t know what it did FUCK YOU EGGHEAD, IT GOES IN THE TRASH. I’m gonna put a skull handle on the gearshift though. HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? IT’S A SKULL. THAT’S MY THING. GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT, I WALK.
I don’t like this part of the movie, but I get it. In the tradition of the ol’ “Just How Badass Is He?” speech Thornton gets to do a “Just How Good At Drilling Is He?” voiceover. These guys are the best in the world, blah blah blah. I tend to enjoy that type of shit. And there are some training montages and they have their last night out and etc.
Bay talks up his NASA consultants, but admits that rather than try for an accurate depiction of the agency he wanted to show “what my perception of NASA would be,” which mostly means that he went to their real offices and didn’t think they looked cool enough. “I was VERY unimpressed when I went to NASA. Just in terms of the look and the lack of design. Um, but I was also very impressed with, just, the intelligent people that I met there and the systems that they’re doing.”
For the movie he gave them a cooler building, and an office that has weird spikes on the wall (?), making sure it doesn’t look like the real place, which he claims more than once on the commentary smells like your grandma’s old TV (I can’t relate to this, seems like a pretty specific memory).
“What I tried to do with NASA is sexy it up… the astronauts we saw, they’re not studly, they’re little guys, you know, they’re not the guys you saw in the movie THE RIGHT STUFF. Astronauts are… they’re scientists.”
So now that the Everyday Guys are teamed up with Sexy NASA, I guess we got ourselves a movie, right? The trouble is that they have this mission to go on this asteroid, and then they go on the mission, and you realize “oh shit, this really is gonna be about them being on the asteroid now, isn’t it?” And from that point on it’s mostly irrelevant that they’re “rough and tumble” or “everyday guys.” Now they’re just astronauts who look and behave the same as the professional astronauts, except for the occasional Steve Buscemi wisecrack or whatever.
To me, anyway, it’s really boring, these adventures on this soundstage set of a spiky planet. They have to drill a hole, and get to a certain depth. Strap yourself in, this is gonna be the main section of the movie. The most exciting thing they do on the asteroid is jump the Armadillo over a ravine and compare it to Evel Knievel. That can only take up so much screen time, I’m afraid.
I guess it’s arguably more exciting than the earlier part on the MIR space station, where they meet a cosmonaut (Peter Stormare, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK) and refuel and then there’s a big explosion. I can’t follow the geography of this action scene even though they literally have a computer readout showing everybody as dots on a map, which Bay admits on the commentary they added as a last resort when the editing was not communicating where they were. I’m honestly impressed that he was conscious of that. Doesn’t always seem to be of concern to him, especially in those days.
Of the many reasons I hated this in 1998, that was the main one. I remember at a certain point in the movie becoming very distracted by the pace of the editing, ignoring the conversation and trying to count how many seconds each shot lasted. It was a while before I noticed one longer than two seconds. That was only the second time I’d noticed fast edits and haphazard camera placements making a movie difficult for me to watch, so it was a new phenomenon. The first one was CON AIR, which shares a producer and two editors.
I think the buck stops with Bay on filmatism, but I should mention he’s working with cinematographer John Schwartzman (ROCKULA, AIRHEADS) and editors Mark Goldblatt (ENTER THE NINJA, NIGHTBREED, T2, SUPER MARIO BROS.), Chris Lebenzon (TOP GUN, HUDSON HAWK, CON AIR, MALEFICENT) and Glen Scantlebury (CON AIR, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES).
In 2018, ARMAGEDDON still feels pretty chaotic. There are sequences where everybody’s wearing the same astronaut outfits and vibrating, so I can’t make out their faces. There are a bunch of astronauts who are barely if ever introduced and I can’t keep track of them. There are a couple odd things like closeups of Thornton having a brace on one foot when he mentions it, but I never saw it in a wide shot. But, as I suspected, all this is tame compared to some of Bay’s TRANSFORMERSes, the Neveldine/Taylor movies and some of the post-BOURNE shakycam action, so honestly it didn’t bother me much this time. I guess my brain has adjusted to this type of shit.
So the bigger problem now is that – how can I put this? – I don’t like Bay’s attitude. Any time you hear rock ‘n roll guitars on the soundtrack it means someone is about to do a “funny” rebellious thing, so Harry is introduced on his oil rig hitting golf balls at a Greenpeace boat. Bay claims that “the only reason” he’s attacking Greenpeace is for being hypocrites because their boat needs gas to run, and Harry claims to donate to them, but I don’t see any way to interpret this that doesn’t include fuck you you hippie dweebs the environment is for pussies.
Then Harry catches his adult daughter (Liv Tyler, THE INCREDIBLE HULK) in bed with his employee A.J. (Ben Affleck, PAYCHECK) – as is her right – so he chases him around the rig firing shots at him. The ol’ “get away from my daughter’s vagina, it is my most sacred possession” routine, always good for a laugh. There are jokes about Rockhound (Buscemi) enjoying underage girls, and maybe this is a petty thing to complain about, but it annoys me how delighted they are with their plan of demanding to not have to pay taxes anymore. No, I’m not gonna ask for a million dollars – I’d rather have less if it means not having to do my part to pay for infrastructure and social services. On the commentary track, of course, Bay proudly takes credit for the line, because “what better way to screw with the government than to never pay taxes again?”
Take that, the government who prevented the extinction of all life on Earth (SPOILER). We didn’t need your dumb space shuttles. We could’ve just stayed here and pointed our drills upwards and drilled it when it hit.
Of course, Bay seems less passionate about stickin it to the Man than stickin it to women, or at least the wife of the amateur astronomer who discovers the asteroid who storms into his telescope wearing a bathrobe over a nightgown and growls “Your Stouffer’s pot pie’s been on the table almost ten hours. I want a divorce!” The “Stouffer’s” detail is the kicker for this scene. Clearly we’re supposed to scoff that it’s only a frozen meal. A good wife would’ve prepared a pot pie from scratch for him to waste! So the crowd goes wild when he yells “GO GET MY GOD DAMN PHONE BOOK! GET THE BOOK! GET THE BOOK! GET THE BOOK!” If it was now they’d start chanting “Lock her up!” And even moreso in the later scene where he asks if he can name the asteroid “Dottie, after my wife.” She looks very surprised. Touched. Then he adds, “She’s a vicious life suckin bitch from which there’s no escape.”
Am I right, fellas? Ha ha. Wives are the worst. Always ruining our lives trying to be ghostbusters and have access to health care and taking too many short cuts in the preparation of food.
Like INDEPENDENCE DAY or other disaster movies, Bay has the occasional montages of people in different parts of the world looking up at the sky or spending their possible last moments with their family or watching the live coverage or whatever. He uses real people and locations and gives it the majestic look of some heart-string-pulling commercial for AT&T or something that would play during the Super Bowl. On the commentary, Bay refers to some of them as “these Americana bits” – timeless, picturesque farmland stuff with little boys running in slow motion playing with toy Space Shuttles. This is it, the real world, the real people, living their real lives. We are all around the country, all around the globe, but we are all the same, united in our fate. We are together. We are one.
Except for some reason the parts in Shanghai are filmed on an enormous, stylized set on a soundstage and it looks like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN or some shit
For a movie about an international team fighting stateless space debris, it’s surprising how much Bay can make it feel like flag-waving propaganda. Willis and others are occasionally framed in front of American flags, which also wave in glorious slow motion in some of those “bits.” The two shuttles on the mission are named “Freedom” and “Independence.” In the opening space disaster there’s a closeup of debris hitting and destroying the flag patch on an astronaut’s shoulder, like a not-very-subtle director might do with a bullet hit in a war scene.
OUR WAY OF LIFE IS UNDER ATTACK!!! BY SPACE ROCKS!
He knows people get a boner from this stuff and thinks it’s okay to throw it in there devoid of any meaning.
“It was a movie that really hit the chord of America, it was very patriotic,” Bay explains. “We made it that way because, as my grandfather always told me, you can make money if you sell stuff to middle America, and that’s what this movie– this movie really hit the heartland of America. And you know, it’s kind of odd when you make a PG-13 movie. You’ve got to actually kind of dumb it up, you’ve gotta kind of, you gotta make it for that 13 year old and, but you’ve gotta make it interesting enough for an adult.”
Failing to walk that delicate line are an elite team of deep core screenwriters, “the best money can buy” according to producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It’s always been easy to joke about it taking, according to the credits, five writers to concoct a movie of this, uh, quality level. Most of them have done stuff I like, too. The idea reportedly came from rough and tumble Jonathan Hensleigh (DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, THE PUNISHER, KILL THE IRISHMAN), but I also read that the first draft was by the everyday Robert Roy Pool (OUTBREAK). There’s also J.J. Abrams (JOY RIDE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3, SUPER 8, THE FORCE AWAKENS), who at that time was starting to do TV shows I believe but I don’t know much about it. And there’s Tony Gilroy (the BOURNE movies, MICHAEL CLAYTON, THE GREAT WALL, ROGUE ONE). My guess for the “very young writer” is Shane Salerno (SHAFT, SAVAGES, the upcoming AVATAR sequels, though he also wrote ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM). Uncredited writers who worked on it were Paul Attanasio (QUIZ SHOW, DONNIE BRASCO, creator of Homicide: Life on the Streets), Ann Biderman (COPYCAT, PUBLIC ENEMIES, creator of Ray Donovan), Scott Rosenberg (CON AIR, GONE IN 60 SECONDS, KANGAROO JACK, PAIN & GAIN) and might as well throw in Robert Towne (CHINATOWN, TEQUILA SUNRISE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE).
As crazy as that is, I’ve always thought the real joke was how many acclaimed or award winning screenwriters were in the cast itself. Thornton had won the Oscar and WGA awards for best adapted screenplay with SLING BLADE in 1997. Affleck had just won the Oscar and Golden Globe for best original screenplay with GOOD WILL HUNTING. Owen Wilson had written BOTTLE ROCKET and had RUSHMORE coming soon. Buscemi had written and directed TREES LOUNGE.
Just as Summer of ’98’s first space debris ensemble movie DEEP IMPACT used Jon Favreau’s SWINGERS heat to add indie respectability to the cast, ARMAGEDDON had Wilson at a point when Bay could call him “a great new up and coming kid who I found in BOTTLE ROCKET.” His only previous Hollywood movie was ANACONDA. As mentioned, Thornton and Affleck were a few movies into cashing in on major indie success; likewise Stormare was only two years into his FARGO career breakthrough.
That’s a cooler cast than GODZILLA or LOST IN SPACE, that’s for sure. But I bet it trailed behind them in the selling-crap department. The Armadillo has guns on it. Bay says they cut the scene that gave an explanation for it, but that the real reason is that toy companies told him guns sell well. There was a Revell model of “Space Shuttle with Armadillo Drilling Unit” and a “Russian Space Center.” Hot Wheels also made an Armadillo and a “Shuttle Launch Microscape” as well as big ass action figures of Harry and A.J. in their space suits. And they come with drills for heroic drilling in your backyard.
There were also… cups or something at McDonalds.
When Disneyland Paris opened in 2002, it memorialized ARMAGEDDON’s space station explosion scene with a how-special-effects-are-done attraction:
But it will soon be closed to make room for Marvel Comics rides, so now the movie’s most lasting marks is giving us the god damn Oscar nominated “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” Aerosmith love song to get stuck in our heads for an unfortunate number of days after watching the movie. According to Bruckheimer, the song came about because Bay read in the newspaper that GODZILLA had a soundtrack album, and he said “How come we don’t have a soundtrack?” And he heard a Diane Warren song and knew that Tyler’s dad was in Aerosmith, so luckily
she had another job in the movie besides sitting alone in a dark NASA office worrying. There’s two Aerosmiths mixed in there with ZZ Top, Bob Seger and Jon Bon Jovi. Whoever said Nirvana killed the old long haired style of rock n roll obviously never mentioned it to Armageddon: The Album.
Meanwhile, the score by Trevor Rabin (THE GLIMMER MAN, REMEMBER THE TITANS) alternates between trying to make you put your hand over your heart and sounding like TITANIC, and I don’t think the latter is an accident. Multiple people on the commentary mention bulking up the love story in response to the success of that movie.
Long before fellow Summer ’98 releases FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, INSOMNIA and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, ARMAGEDDON was enshrined in a special edition DVD release from the prestigious Criterion label, a controversial choice that inspired rumors and head scratching. The edition (never ported to Blu-Ray) includes a director’s cut, a laudatory essay by Bay’s Wesleyan film professor Jeanine Basinger, and the commentary track I’ve been quoting so much in this review. The track (edited together from separate interviews) is legendary for how much Affleck makes fun of the movie’s logic, but he doesn’t necessarily come out looking great. It pointedly cuts from Affleck mocking the goofiness of “stunt acting” to Willis solemnly noting that his stunt double almost died when a pipe hit him in the head.
Affleck does have some funny comments, but I hadn’t heard as much hype about what a weirdo Bay is. He brags that he thought Affleck had “baby teeth” and that he made him wear fake teeth to look more heroic.
Thanks to that illusion of manly incisors, ARMAGEDDON was the #1 worldwide moneymaker of the year (behind SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in the U.S.). And other than the Spielberg one it might be the Summer of ’98 movie people still bring up the most two decades later, even if it’s to complain or argue. It definitely caught on more than its nemesis DEEP IMPACT, even if that one seems to play more often on basic cable. Man, I really don’t like this movie, but unlike the dinosaurs it seems to be here to stay.
(please read this review in Charlton Heston voice)
Summer of ’98 connections: They put in a scene right at the beginning where Eddie Griffin’s dog attacks a toy Godzilla. Willis and Stormare already had MERCURY RISING playing in theaters. THE X-FILES also starts with a prologue where something bad happens millions of years ago that is about to come back in the present day. According to Bruckheimer, they originally had the asteroid discovered by kids. He didn’t find it believable, so he had it changed to the wacky woman hater character with the telescope. He doesn’t mention that that also would’ve been the same as what happened in DEEP IMPACT.
Unfortunate dating: They show one of the World Trade Center towers on fire.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.