Michael Bay has survived every epithet in the Movie Critic’s Mean Word Handbook. We’ve called him a “hack” and a “bullshit artist.” We’ve called him “the Devil,” “the Antichrist,” and even honored him with the title “American Uwe Boll.” All of these characterizations are false, missing the quintessence of Bay. In their rush to (rightly) condemn the man’s aesthetic failings, critics have miss the essential and obvious point: Like a great many evil things, Bay is first and foremost a creature of the late 1990s, an artistic distillation of that time, with all the glory and the horror that implies.
He is the apotheosis of American film making. This fact alone explains his commercial success. A child of Los Angeles, and therefore raised by movies, he once told USA Today a very illustrative story from his childhood. At age thirteen, he produced and directed a model train wreck complete with real explosions supplied by lit firecrackers – his first practical special effects. He filmed the whole thing with Mom’s camera and (one assumes) without her permission. His bedroom caught fire. The fire department showed up. Bay got grounded for two weeks. “It was a little Super 8 movie where the aliens invaded,” he said.
Ignoring this damned eerie portent of his future (I mean, Jesus Christ…a train wreck? I couldn’t make that up), young Michael ran off to Little Ivy land (Psi Ups all the way!) where he became the teacher’s pet of Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University. Hot out of college Bay landed a job at Propaganda Studios, the most-honestly named advertisement production company in America. At the time Bay began directing his first music videos, Propaganda was a subsidiary of Polygram Entertainment, which was (and still is) also famous for owning Interscope Records. Thus Propaganda sat poised to become the largest producers of music videos in the United States, securing steady work for its stable of hungry, young directors.
Originally founded in the 1980s by a team of producers and directors who no doubt set out to do just that, future historians will look back and see Propaganda for the directorial incubator it really was. Michael Bay’s fellow Propaganda “classmates” include David (Fight Club, The Social Network) Fincher, Alex (Dark City, The Crow) Proyas and Simon (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) West. But does that parade of names mean Propaganda was some form of “talent” incubator? Or that Hollywood studios of the 1990s were so desperate to find directors who’d shut up, take orders, and make films for teenage douchebags that they shook every tree they could find?
If you’ve watched more than two Michael Bay films, I’d forgive you for thinking the latter. West never had any talent and Proyas has since flamed out with two spectacular failures called Knowing and I, Robot. Which brings us to Will Smith, who proved his High-Priced Action Star chops in Bay’s first feature, Bad Boys.
Bay lucked out there, in that his two stars were also comedians, their natural talent for improvisation honed by years working (day-in, day-out) on their separate TV shows. You could say something similar about Bay’s sophomore effort, The Rock. After all, it remains (arguably) his best film simply by virtue of the place it will always hold in my mother’s heart for starring both Nic Cage and Sean Connery.
Armageddon breaks what, until then, had been Bay’s mold: hyper-kinetic, orange-tinted, bland, predictable, and thus safe, Buddy Cop movies. This, though…this is a hyper-kinetic, orange-tinted, bland, predictable, and thus safe disaster movie! Starring Bruce Willis and providing the template from which all subsequent Michael Bay pictures are derived. This, for better or worse, is Bay’s ur-text.
In light of that sad fact, and Bay’s “aliens come down and attack” story, one could see Armageddon as Bay’s grand revenge against Roland Emmerich, served piping hot. Which, we all know, is the wrong way to go about it…but I know what Bay would say to that: “Dude, waiting for it to cool down would be gay. Like you, quoting Star Trek at me. What a looser…hey, wanna see me blow up that car?”
Bay’s favorite teacher defends his work to this day, the shiniest example being her defensive and dismissive essay attached to the Criterion Collection release of Armageddon. And, yes, Criterion considers this to be such a “classic” example of American film making they released their own collector’s edition. “Although it qualifies as a science fiction/disaster movie,” Basinger saw it
as an epic form of the old Warner Brothers movies about working-class men who have to step up and rescue a situation through their courage, true grit, and knowledge of machines—productions such as Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and Alfred E. Green’s Flowing Gold (1940)…This film makes these ordinary men noble, lifting their efforts up into an epic event. Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet.
Leave it to a film historian to reference a rip-off of Howard Hawk’s Tiger Shark and a film that pretty much tells the same story as Armageddon…only with well-fire in place of the asteroid. Both of Basinger’s comparisons use standard Love Triangle plots in place of Armageddon’s case study in the Elektra Complex, but, like most film historians, I doubt Basinger really gives a rat’s ass about stories or their power, or in telling them well. If she did, she wouldn’t have to desperately justify her prize student’s work, going so far as to admit
Yes, it gives audiences a lot to absorb. Yes, it cuts quickly from place to place, person to person, event to event. But it is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense.
As another great movie icon of the mid-to-late-1990s once said, “Re-he-he-he-he-he-eeeallly?”
Armageddon opens with a quite-nice shot of space. Once the Moon rises from the bottom of the screen – allowing us to judge our relative speed – we realize we’re already trapped inside a sweeping, Michael Bay CGI pan-and-spin, as if the camera were, say, a spaceship about to destroy the Earth by crashing into it at 0.5 lightspeed. Instead, as the camera swings us into high orbit above the Yucatan, narrator Charlton Heston steps up to make sure we all know damn well what the hell it is we’re looking at.
“This is the Earth…” Heston says. Gee, thanks, Moses. I would never have guessed. Do go on. “…in a time when the dinosaurs roamed a lush and fertile planet.” A piece of jagged rock passes over our head the same way that Imperial Star Destroyer did in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. We’ve no idea how big it is since it’s going faster than we, quickly receding into the distance. Helpful Narrator, save us from ignorance! “A piece of rock just six miles wide changed all that.” Whew. Now we know how big it was for sure.
The asteroid strikes just as the “A Film By Michael Bay” title fades across the land bridge between North and South America. Nothing symbolic about that…or the great flaming orchid the asteroid sets blooming from the side of the world. The camera pauses to take a 360 degree spin around the explosion as shockwaves of fire spread outward. “It hit with the force of ten thousand nuclear weapons.” I think Moses missed a decimal point here. Try ten thousand times the force of all the nuclear weapons on Earth, ever, COMBINED. “A trillion tons of dirt and rock hurtled into the atmosphere, creating a suffocating blanket of dust the sun was powerless to penetrate for a thousand years.” The camera halts its stationary circle as Heston pauses for breath, resuming its previous pan across Earth’s bow. As we fly across the terminator (don’t worry; it’ll be back), a lens flare meant to stand in for that limp dick of a sun just mentioned (couldn’t even shine through a trillion tons of dirt, the pussy) fries out our retinas. Or maybe that was only my pleasant fantasy. Unfortunately, I can still hear the Helpful Narrator. “It happened before…it will happen again.” On the dark side of the world, Bruce Willis’ pre-title credit appears. So we know who got the real money outta this deal. “It’s just a question of when.”
Recrossing the terminator (told you), we see the main title sprout from that ring of fire which now completely encircles the Earth. The letters travel with us into space, black outlined in lava-orange. We’re exactly two minutes in and the soundtrack’s already swelling to full-on, Speilbergian Orchestra Mode. Heston’s concluded and the Earth is one big dinosaur barbecue. Emotional moment, no? Certainly a nice enough way to open you film.
Sure, Heston’s narration is superfluous, but so are most pre-credit chin-wags. You could replace the whole thing with a title card reading, “65 Million Years Ago,” and let the soundtrack and imagery tell the audience what to feel…but I guess this is what Basinger means when she says the film “gives audiences a lot to absorb.” Armageddon is a film that patiently and exhaustively explains itself, as if it were addressing every horny sixteen-year-old who might’ve tuned for the chance to shore up his supply of Liv Tyler-fantasy material.
Or maybe I’m still projecting.
In any case, Bay finds a quick, easy and unintentionally-hilarious way to undermine the very emotional house he’s just spent two minutes and untold millions of dollars assembling. Radiant heat from the title’s lava outlines soon cause the black lettering to catch fire, bombarding the audience with orange sprites that could’ve come from a Space Invaders game. They even make that pew-pew-pew noise as they zip by. Eventually, the title explodes, its burning pieces drifting off to join the oort cloud or slam into Mars and give those shapeshifting bastards what-for. Take that, John Carter! And all you Warlords! Take it and like it! That’s Michael Bay up your ass! (Though somebody had better warn J’Onn J’Onzz. Maybe this time he can save his family…though I doubt it).
So a droning narrator (1) explains obvious facts to an (2) obviously-contemptible audience over shots of (3) a gigantic explosion. It’s as if someone filmed every pyromaniac adolescent’s dream and put their titles over it. Those numbers indicate the three hallmarks of Bay’s life’s work. Let’s see if we can catch ‘um all.
The explosion that destroyed the title must’ve torn the fabric of space time because now the card at the bottom of the screen says its “65 Million Years Later.” Aww, you mean Uncle Charlton isn’t going to read us the whole story? Too bad. Still, at least Earth looks alright…if the reflection off the helmet of this astronaut we’re looking at is any indication. Eventually, Bay cuts to a pull-back shot of the satellite our brave Space Cowboy’s working on just so we can see where the hell we are.
The shuttle Atlantis floats behind Space Cowboy #1. Atlantis‘ captain tells Huston that “Pete’s looking real strong.” Cut to Huston, where there monitors say something different. Pete is breathing real weird (from what we can hear over the soundtrack) and NASA commander Billy Bob Thorton’s not taking any chances. He’s going all out, offering Pete “a buffalo nickel if you’ll just calm down.” They’ve apparently “got plenty of time, buddy, so don’t you worry.”
Great, Billy Bob. You had to fucking say it. All that follows is officially your fault. And it’s been a full minute since something blew up. Gagh! Bay! I need my fix, damnit! That lens-flare of a sun just won’t do it for me.
Thankfully, a meteor shower arrives to perforate Pete, the satellite, and the shuttle but good. Furious inter cutting between Huston and the shuttle begins, showcasing Michael Bay’s penchant for cutting to a new shot every two seconds. Someone we don’t know says “My Lord.” Cut to Pete, his face plate blown out, spiraling away into the void as he screams…with what air, I don’t know. Cut to the shuttle, now dotted with big, fiery balls…fed by what air, I don’t know, but this’ll be twice as long if I pause to note every gigantic space explosion. Like that one. Or that interior explosion. Or that exterior explosion. Cut to NASA shills saying obvious shit like, “We’ve lost all contact,” and yelling incoherent watermelon phrases into their desk phones. Cut to Billy Bob looking concerned. Cut to the shuttle, still exploding. Cut back to Billy Bob, still looking concerned, but now he’s telling his stable of techies to play back that last transmission.
Cut to a door that reads “Space Command: Pentagon.” An offscreen voice tracks “multiple bogeys” as we zoom in through room itself. Let there be no doubt: Bay’s always had a great and abiding love of giving the Pentagon visual rim-jobs. After all, they let him play with all their wonderful toys.
You know what? Michael Bay is still that thirteen-year-old kid with a model train, a fist full of firecrackers, and not enough sense to swipe a fire extinguisher out of the hall closet. And yet, this enthusiastically adolescent mindset is the very thing that endears him to his fans. Bessinger’s defense of this ADD-editing amounts to a template for all Bay apologias, past, present and future.
Armageddon is not for the faint-hearted, the slow-witted, or the dim-eyed. (Those who claim that it was hard to tell where characters were in relation to each other in the space should take another look.)
Well, teach, I hate to break it to ya, but my confusion has nothing to do with spacial relationships. It has more do do with the fact that I’ve just met these headless chickens I see on screen and have no idea who the hell any of them are. We don’t even know their names. The only named character in the film (so far) just died sucking vacuum, so I’ve got no reason to give a shit about any of these people, or the obvious tragedy they’ve just gone through.
As the credits play we watch the confused Military Industrial Complex response to the shuttle-killing meteor shower. Thinking it a missile attack, the Pentagon scrambles some fighters from…somewhere…where the sun’s either going down or coming up. This is the first Magic Hour Shot (Bay Hallmark #4). They’ll be plenty more, but at least this one reminds me of those stock footage “fighter jets launching” shots that used to litter old daikaiju movies.
Meanwhile, at a mountaintop observatory…somewhere…a shrill voice screams for “CARL!” (John Mahon) Meet Dottie (Grace Zabriskie), Carl’s loving wife, who barges into his telescope room to remind him, “Your Stoffles Pot Pie’s been on the table for two hours. I want a divorce.” Jesus Christ, lady. Non sequitur much? Not that Carl’s listening. His eye in the sky spies something burning up there (in space…with what air I don’t know, but Jesus Christ) and he insists Dottie “get my phone book…get those names a’ those guys from NASA.” Dottie politely inquires as to the relative power dynamic of their marriage. Carl responds by screaming at her to “GO GET MY GODDAMN PHONE BOOK!” He then channels every Harry Potter fan ever, chanting, “GET THE BOOK! GET THE BOOK! GET THE BOOK!” All without leaving his chair. A touching, character scene a la Michael Bay, who seems to believe all married couples are shouty, inept, horrible people. That’s right: Michael Bay, great American filmmaker, hates the institution of marriage. I just said it on the internet so it must be true.
Cut to Magic Hour shot #2, but at least we’re back in Washington. There’s the Iwo Jima memorial. Blink and you’ll miss it, since the film’s concerned with what’s going on in the back of a limo speeding toward the sun…rise? Thanks to some anonymous white guy in glasses we, along with General Keith David (fuck yeah! DOD put their big guns on this project – if the asteroid knew it was fucking with Goliath, it’d shit its non-existent pants), learn that Space Command has ruled out the possibility of missiles. “Until we get definitive, reliable, alternative confirmation, General,” Goliath insists, “we go to Def Con 3.” I’m sorry, but… “definitive, reliable, alternative confirmation”? From someone other than Space Command? They’ve got more spy satellites than God and the terrestrial eyes of the entire U.S. Military. Who else are you honestly gonna call, General?
Oops, too late to ask. Time to cut to New York City and…a character known to the IMDB as the Bike Messenger (Eddie Griffin). No surprise he’s pedaling into Manhattan’s sun…set?…canyons and monologueing to his pet pup, Little Richard, about how, “me and you, baby, we goin’ to the top! BIG TIME!” Oh, joy. A Token Black Dude. (Keith David, of course, doesn’t count, being inherently Bad Ass and thus no one’s Token but John Carpenter’s.)
For a change, the film remains with one of its characters for more than thirty seconds, following the Bike Messenger into Manhattan. “What’s a matter, Little Richard?” Bike Messenger asks the dog as they go walkies. “You been ridin’ all day, man, you need to take a dump?” Thus Armageddon reveals its idea of comedy. And this is the kind of “masterpiece” Criterion collects? Is this one of the “ordinary men” that Armageddon goes out of its way to make “noble”?
Sadly, yes. Bike Messenger stumbles into one of those TV stores with the big windows and the display wall of sets all turned to the Plot Specific News Network. You know, the kind of TV store that only exist in movies. BM stands frozen as the news reader talks about the shuttle explosion. We can assume BM’s ignored all those newspapers people were reading in the establishing shots Bay just used to cover his entrance into the city. The ones with “SHUTTLE EXPLODES” in thirty-six point Scary Font on the front page. That doesn’t perk our BM’s notice…but a wall of TVs…now that makes an impression.
Not on Little Richard, though. He’s much more interested in the phalanx of Godzilla action figures some fat guy’s hawking just down the sidewalk. Little Richard knocks them over like ninepins and engages the fat man in what would seem to be a completely lopsided tug-of-war, finally pulling BM away from PSNN. “Yo, fool!” he hollas in Eddie Griffin-ese, “don’t be kickin’ Little Richard, man, what the hell your problem?” My problem? The editing here is so frenetic (and the makers of the film are so chickenshit) they didn’t actually depict the fat man kicking Little Richard. (Though they did showcase that Godzilla figure’s magic ability to transform itself from a thirteen-inch plastic toy into a seven foot blow up doll, and back, between edits.) Then our BM sacrifices whatever respect I might’ve had for him (stereotypical cliche that he is) by insisting to the fat man (who looks vaguely Hawaiian, but hey, who am I to judge?) “If I wasn’t a Christian I’d be throwin’ your fat, pineapple-eatin ass through the window.”
Whoa-ho-ho, there, movie. Seriously, time out. When your racist stereotypes start trading racist epithets with each other you might want to dial it back down. But Armageddon‘s not done yet. It’s got to stage one more New York in-joke of the kind that’s only funny to people who either live or film in New York…and who happen to be assholes.
First, a fiery asteroid fragment slams into the fat man, annihilating his “pineapple-eating ass.” Before we can learn the fate of Bike Messenger or Little Richard we cut to a cab stuck in the traffic jam that big explosion just created, what with all the cars flipping into the air (Bay-ism #5). The Cabbie (Mark Curry – Mr. Cooper, how could you?) does nothing at all to reassure the two Asian Tourist cliches cluttering his back seat. “It coulda been a terrorist bomb, coulda been a dead body, somebody shot, stabbed…” The lady tourist interrupts to insist that she “want to go shopping!” “Mee too,” Mr. Cooper responds, in what’s probably his best Asian accent and the worst I’ve ever heard.
Back to Bike Messenger. Damnit, he survived. And the amount of dust and soot on his face keeps changing between shots. Anyway, this part is so frickin’ stupid I can’t even believe I’m about to type it, but…Eddie Griffin’s still got Little Richard’s leash in his hand. So not only did he survive an orbital meteor strike…his dog’s leash did, too. What the fuck’s that thing made out of? Adamantium? Little Richard’s dangling over the new bottomless pit that used to be the 52nd Street subway station. “Don’tcho worry bout it!” BM shouts, “We’ll getcho outta there!” Dude, just let him go. He obviously survived the strike and jumped down the hole of his own free will, just on the off chance death’s sweet embrace would get him away from you and your stupid, Eddie Griffin voice. God, it’s like glass in my ears. I can’t imagine how it would sound to your dog. How did that space rock not kill you, anyway? It exploded on impact, blew cars into other cars…and still, somehow, left the fat guy’s legs sticking out of the hole, Elmer Fudd-style.
Now we come to the Good Part, the part that made all the trailers: New York City’s destruction by flying space rocks. It’s executed with all the skill and panache Michael Bay can muster. Cars blow up. A bus blows up. Meteors slice through iconic pieces of the New York City skyline…including the Twin Towers. Even Mark Curry explodes in his own, Token Black Dude way. “We at war!” he shouts to the panicked civilians. “Saddam Hussein is bombing us!”
Wow. This is just getting weird. Stop it, Armageddon. I don’t want you to be prescient…and little bits of business like that make you look downright psychic. They’re half the reason I’m examining this film at such Beggian length. Here I am, trying to get through all of this without making a Bush-era joke, but no. You had to have Mr. Cooper shout “Saddam Hussein is bombing us,” like a Neocon Chickenhawk, circa mid-summer of 2002. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the prototypical “compassionate” conservative, right here. Of course it’s Mr. Cooper.
Seriously, though…did Bay’s and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s success on Bad Boys convince them to snatch every black sitcom star they could find? Was Will Smith “tainted” after cementing his Leading Man status with Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day? Did Emmerich steal Michael Bay’s dream film and his favorite star? You could’ve cast Smith in Affleck’s role and made a big deal about how you were dealing with race in your Disaster Movie, too…but given Eddie Griffin and Mark Curry’s characters, I’m glad you didn’t. Both are prefect examples of why black people, as a demographic, should boycott Michael Bay’s films. I don’t just mean at the theater, either. Writers, DPs, grips, and especially editors…all ya’all, walk away from the man. I don’t care how much money he has. Look at the roles he gives our people: either we’re swaggering, one-dimensional psychopaths (that is, the heroes of Action Movies) or we’re illiterate, Jive-talking Sambos.
That’s why the (over)reaction to the twin racist cliches in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen struck me as so damn funny. Bay’s pulled shit like that for ten fucking years. Oh, but, now that he’s turning sci-fi robots into racist cliches instead of actual actors, now we’ve got permission to notice? Well, screw you, world. I noticed ten years ago and tired to sound a warning. Did ya’all listen? No! And here we fucking are.
Explosion, explosion. Grand Central Station buys it but Eddie Griffin and Little Richard survive by huddling next to a fire hydrant as debris flies over their heads (Ironhide becomes the flying junk in the revised version of this shot that appears in Bay’s first Transformers movie), disproving the existence of a benevolent and/or just God who would’ve killed them both five minutes ago when I first requested it! Cops yell at people to “get outta here” and a giant space rock neuters the Chrysler Building. As its phallic top-half tumbles to the ground, proceeded by the screaming bodies of its former inhabitants, the whole thing explodes like a prop full of CGI fire…leaving quite a small cloud, all things considered. It looked impossibly small at the time…and subsequent New York City-centric disasters in the so-called “real” world have done nothing to change that assessment. It’s all a cover-up man. Those reptilian shapeshifters want you all sucking the mainstream media sack! Visit my site, www.chrystlerbuildingtruth.org, to learn how to defend yourself from the coming police state assault on our American FREEDOM! Sheeple, heed the megaphone!
Sorry. Went all Alex Jones on you for a moment there. Back at NASA, Billy Bob gets a call from General Kimsey…which is Keith David’s name in this flick, apparently. Be nice to know Billy Bob’s, too, but oh well. Seems Chicken Little was right and this time the sky really is falling. After a terse but pointless conversation (we learn The President wants answers, but who cares?) NASA takes another call from…hey, it’s Carl! Looks like he got his GODDAMN PHONE BOOK after all and discovered something Billy Bob immediately declares TOP SECRET. Carl waves that off and asks that his discovery be named “Dottie,” after his “vicious, life-suckin’ bitch from which there’s no escape” of a wife. Dottie responds with a one-fingered salute (Bay-ism #6), speaking for us all. “That’s sweet, Carl,” Billy Bob says, speaking for the average Michael Bay fan.
The Man Himself appears in the next scene, playing a mute Hubble Space Telescope scientist who helps NASA snatch a picture of Dottie. Surprise, its a big rock. Just like Charlton Heston talked about in the prologue. Moses said it would happen again and here we go. Yet The President (Stanley Anderson) still has to ask what “the anomaly” is because this film needs both a Ghost Ship Moment and something for the trailers. “It’s an asteroid, sir,” Billy Bob says. “It’s the size of Texas.” The president asks if it’s going to hit, despite the fact it technically already has…what with the whole bombardment of New York City and all. “We’re efforting that as we speak, sir.” Sorry, Armageddon, but “effort” is not a verb. I don’t care how many letters you stuck onto the end of it. “Efforting.” Honestly, movie, now you’re just making shit up.
Finally, eleven high-speed, densely-packed-with-crap minutes in, we meet Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper, hard-working oil company owner and amateur golfer extraordinaire. We meet him as he drives balls at a Greenpeace protest ship circling his rig in the South China Sea. “I give you $50,000 a year in donations!” Harry screams at the damn, dirty hippies. Which apparently gives him permission to pelt them with golfballs. Yes, how dare those people take time out of their no-doubt-busy lives to peacefully protest your selfish exploitation of the planet’s resources for your own profit? Would you have preferred they strap some C4 to the support pillars of your rig and let high explosives do their protesting for them?
Harry’s best friend and co-driller Chick (Will Patton) shows up at this point to deliver the opposition voice, and I’m not talking about his “maybe they think drilling for oil is an evil thing,” line. I’m talking about how “number two chewed a hundred an’ eighty feet last night.” Chick gives Harry “two guesses,” as to who’s responsible, “but you’re only gonna need one.” Enraged that someone, on an oil rig of all places, would dare to rape the Earth without his express permission, Harry tosses his golf club into the sea.
Yes, it’s Ben Affleck in his first disastrous role in a Michael Bay disaster of a movie, playing the Michael Bay Identification Character, A.J. After the jump cut we find Harry pounding on the door of A.J.’s bunk with…that golf club he just threw at Greenpeace’s boat. Must be enchanted, like Thor’s hammer, always returning to the hand of a worthy wielder. Harry and A.J. have a conversation about how Harry’s the boss of him and “beyond pissed” about the whole “number two” thing (which I am trying, desperately, not to make into a bad joke). The whole speech is full of clunky exposition from Willis to the tune of, “Maybe when you’re all growed up and you got your own oil company and $8 million dollars of your own money on a contract…” Bor-ing.
So boring, in fact, that Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) tries to hide from the Exposition Storm under A.J.’s bed covers. She fails to realize Harry possesses the Mjollnir of Golf Clubs, capable of detecting Elf-pussy from three mystical lands away. Enraged that the only two attractive young people within miles could possibly have the gall to get it on (and not invite him, I’d imagine) Harry proceeds to chase A.J. around the oil rig with a shotgun.
Let me run that by you again. The owner and operator of an oil rig in the middle of South China Sea (who, inexplicably, still does all the work of a wildcatter despite…ya know, owning the whole damn place and all) chases his daughter’s lover over pipe and down catwalk with a shotgun. This man is criminally insane. He should be in a hospital somewhere, securely tied down, not running a dangerous, environmentally-devastating operation miles from the nearest hospital. We “meet-cute” Harry’s crew as they repeatedly fail to stop him from recklessly endangering their lives…and, it just so happens, the lives of every human being on the planet.
See, back a NASA, they’ve got a conundrum. How to stop an asteroid the size of Texas from wiping out life on Earth, as Dottie’s set to do in under eighteen days? Simple: you can’t.
Back on the rig, Grace gets Harry to calm down after one of his errant shots wings A.J. (Nowadays I’ll bet jilted Daredevil fans love Armageddon for this scene alone.) They argue over how Harry thinks A.J.’s a bad choice for Grace. We’ll soon see reason enough to credit Harry’s assessment, but at the moment Grace counters with her own Exposition Storm. Throughout, Harry looks around frantically, as if seeking for a bed to hide under. Jokes on you, man. The only bed on this rig seems to be A.J.’s…and, quite frankly, ewww! In the course of Grace’s two minute speech we learn she’s been seeing A.J. for months behind Harry’s back and she’s her crazy father’s daughter: stubborn to the point of pig-headedness. One must assume her mom left Harry for just that reason, though the film does a good job never out-and-out saying so. Maybe it was Harry’s penchant for negotiating family difficulties with shotguns. “Look,” Grace says, “I was raised with roughnecks by you and now you get all shocked and shaken when I fall in love with one.” This is, essentially, Liv’s entire speech (along with her best line). You could’ve distilled it down to this one line and had two whole minutes of film to lavish on more explosions.
Back at NASA, General Keith David begins to realize he’s surrounded by idiots. All their plans to stop Dottie are bullshit, General Keith David knows it, and he’s itching to put a nuclear phallic symbol up Dottie’s arid, rocky ho-ha just out of spite. But Dr. Ronald Quincy “from Research” as Billy Bob says (that’s supposed to mean something to us; really) who’s “pretty much the smartest man on the planet” (and also Jason Isaacs, last seen around here in Event Horizon) has an better idea. Nuclear missiles wouldn’t put a dent in Dottie head on (half the explosive force would just get wasted on space, though the film’s too dumb to mention this), but Pretty Much the Smartest Man on the Planet figures one could drill into Dottie, plant one nuke in the hole, and crack her like the egg of a laser-eyed space chicken. Unconsciously (?) echoing Michael Bay’s first film, PMSMP illustrates this point by asking the assembled military brass to imagine holding a fire cracker in their hand.
Billy Bob means to bring in “the world’s best deep-core driller” to get this drillin’ done. And since he got credit before the title, I think we can all guess who “the best” is. As Billy Bob narrates, “Whenever they said it couldn’t be drilled, this man drilled it.” By God, Billy Bob, that’s what she said!
This is the best plan NASA could come up with to save the world? Please, Dottie, wipe this human race out now, before Grace and A.J. can breed. Hey, maybe this was the ice world Jerry O’Connel and friends wound up on in that one Sliders episode…a man can dream, can’t he?
So after an explosion on the rig gives Harry a chance to fire A.J. and run around screaming orders at everyone while Bay confuses us with more Shakycam, an Air Force helicopter arrives. Steve Buscemi has a moment of Odious Comic Relief, but they’re here for Harry, so Buscemi’s safe…for now. No matter where they’re taking him, Harry demands Grace be allowed to come along. The Air Force, remarkably, consents, and when they get to NASA, Harry further demands Grace be briefed right along with him, TOP SECRET or no Urgent Matter of National Security. Here I thought this movie was supposed to be some Great Patriotic piece of agitprop, but Harry’s strutting around telling the military what to do like he’s King Shit of Turd Hill. Billy Bob’s briefing, complete with a description of the effect Dottie’s impact will have on Earth, is quite like that opening animation we saw…only now, instead of seeing it, we get to hear Billy Bob talk about it. To Harry and Grace. Oh Joy. Harry agrees to help out and Billy Bob takes him to that hanger from The Rock so he can meet the astronauts he’s meant to train.
Instead, Harry points out another example of NASA being idiots. Just for fun, let’s tally them all up, shall we? They couldn’t see Dottie coming thanks to budget cuts. They couldn’t come up with a better plan because…otherwise, the movie would’ve wasted all that time on Harry and Grace and A.J. Now, not only have they swiped designs for an Extra-Super-Special-Awesome Harry Stamper drill out of the patent office, they admit they’ve done so to Harry’s face…and they can’t get it to work. Because…? Who knows? Someone turned the blueprint upside down or something. And the film needs an excuse to show off how smart Harry is…how full of that practical, hands-on, can-do, know-how. You know, like the regular, common, everyday folks this film supposedly lionizes. The regular, common, everyday folks who own oil companies staffed exclusively by their best drinking buds and their hot, hot (hot) daughters. That get contracts with the Chinese.
Holy shit, a thought just occurred to me: what if Harry Stamper is a Communist sleeper agent? The Manchurian Candi-Driller! At least we finally learn Billy Bob’s character’s name – Dan Truman, head of NASA. You’ll always be Billy Bob in my heart, Dan.
Anyway, Harry dresses down Dan‘s handpicked astronauts and begins waxing poetic about how raping the Earth is an “art” that he’s “done it all my life and I still don’t got it all figured out.” Is Harry Stamper, legend in his own field, admitting to the head of NASA that he really doesn’t know jack shit? That he’s basically just been lucky all this time? That he’s really just an insane asshole who runs around oil rigs with loaded guns and chucks golf balls at protesters instead of doing any actual work? No! He tells Dan he’ll save the world (gee, how big of you, Harry) if, rather than have him train astronauts to be drillers, NASA train his crew to be astronauts.
Against all notions of common sense, Dan Truman agrees. Whatever Dan Truman has on the President must be filthy. We must be talking full-on, Kennedy Family stuff here. How else could Dan get away with entrusting the fate of the human race to Harry Stamper, King Dipshit, his hot daughter, and their seven dumb-ass friend?
As those seven gather around a NASA-issue conference table (the camera spinning around them much as its spun around Billy Bob’s similar conference table-centric gatherings – most of which I’ve omitted, since this film has more conference room meetings than a season of Star Trek: Voyager), it occurs to me how much of this movie’s first half-hour is pure repetition. With so many characters in so many groups scattered across the globe one group must continuously tell the other what we, the audience, figured out from Charlton Heston’s prologue. NASA has to tell The President. NASA has to tell General Keith David. NASA has to tell Harry. Now Harry has to tell everyone else. But first the FBI has to track each of them down…I smell Montage! To the tune of Aerosmith’s “Come Together” cover. Previous generations of disaster movie avoided this by locating their diverse cross-sections of humanity in some central location. Unfortunately, in this case, the One Central Location is planet Earth.
Our Heroes (finally assembled) are A.J., whom we know (and who started up his own oil company in the time it took Harry to get briefed by NASA) Bear (Michael Clark Duncan! It’s like a Daredevil reunion up in here); Fat Max (Ken Hudson Campbell); Rockhound (Steve Buscemi, and thus the Odious Comic Relief); Chick, whom we met; Oscar the Spacey Cowboy (Owen Wilson), who rides horses as the sun…sets?…rises? Whatever. And…some guy in black we don’t know now, but who we’ll eventually learn is named Noonan. Red Shirt Alert!
General Keith David is as unimpressed as we are with Harry’s handpicked team. Dan Truman insists “they’re the best at what they do”…and what they do isn’t very nice. (Buh dum tish!) Harry enters the scene to aptly demonstrate this, announcing that his team has made a few requests. “Oscar here’s got some outstanding parking tickets…Noonan’s got two women friends he’d like to see made American citizens, no questions asked…Max would like you to bring back 8-track tapes…Chick wants a full week’s Emperor’s Package to Cesar’s Palace…hey, you guys wouldn’t be able to tell us who actually killed Kennedy would you…? Bear would like to stay in the White…Horse? White House…Oh, yeah, and one more thing: none of them would like to pay taxes again. Ever.”
Our Heroes can’t really get much more quintessentially American than that. The fate of the entire world might very well be at stake…but that certainly won’t stop Our Heroes from trying to wring all the perks the can out of their nation – their world – in its hour of need. These are the “ordinary” “working-class men” this film makes “noble” with its epic, sci-fi epicness: selfish, arrogant, spiteful, narrow-minded assholes with a sense of entitlement so large they all must’ve been only children. They’re still children, playing God with the life of their entire species. (In other words…Americans! Buh-dum tish! Thank you, I’ll be here all night!) And I’m supposed to spend the next…hour and forty-five minutes?…Jesus Christ…rooting for these jerks?
At least now the Medical Montage can kick in, giving us a series of Odious Comic Relief vignettes. Good thing, too. I sure needed something to break up all this unbearable tension. Look out for a cameo by Udo Kier, playing a NASA psychologist who looks quite worried…with good reason. If you had to psychoanalyze Steve Buscemi you’d probably look like that, too. And especially look out for the impromptu table dance Michael Clarke Duncan puts on to demonstrate how healthy he is to the doctors. Again, these are the “ordinary” people? And the film is, somehow, ennobling them by making them strip-tease us and tell us how wonderful they are? Everyone fails NASA’s psychological and physical screenings, of course. Someone even tests positive for Special K (!) and Harry – paragon of “ordinary” “working-class” virtue that he is – defends this with the lame excuse that, “some of these guys are pretty big.” Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen: anti-tax, pro-drug…shit, he’s a Libertarian. A Libertarian, oil-drilling collaborator with our future Chinese overlords! That does it. Fuck you, Harry Stamper, and fuck your whole crew, too. You are the personification of off-shoring, the one who “took our jobs”!
Since he and his crew are also “the best” they still advance on to the next Montage once they meet Air Force Colonel Sharp (William Fichtner). Time for some Zero-G Training to the tune of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” And I gotta wonder: did Steven Tyler insist his daughter land the Obligatory Hot Chick role before he hitched his star to this turkey…or did Hot Daughter put in a phone call to Daddy Tyler at Big Papa Bay’s insistence? We’ll never know and I don’t really care…but at least we ate up another few minutes wondering about it.
Time to explain The Plan to Our Heroes. Basically, they’re going to take off, refuel at “the Russian Space Station,” meet the station’s only inhabitant, Cosmonaut Andropov (Peter Stormare), slingshot around the moon (because Apollo 13 was so long ago, who’s going to remember?), land on Dottie’s ass, and crack her in two before she gets too close to the Earth. Detonating before that Zero Barrier will allow Dottie’s surviving chunks to sail idly by with no terrestrial trouble. Is any thought given to all the medium sized chunks that might chose to survive the blast and hang out between Dottie’s bifurcated halves?
No. So what could possibly go wrong? Time to have another interminable scene reinforcing Harry’s dislike of A.J. “I didn’t work all these years so my little girl can marry a roughneck. She’s better than that. Better than all of us.” Why? Because she can speak Chinese? She wouldn’t even be here if not for your insistence, Harry…and, besides, isn’t being a roughneck what got you into a position to save the world? Where’s your “ordinary, working-class” man-pride in yourself and your accomplishments? Is it just because A.J. ignores everything you say? Maybe if anyone other than A.J. and Grace stood up to you once in a while you’d be able to take rejection like an “ordinary,” “working-class” man, instead of whining about who your daughter’s boning to God and everybody. Or was Harry’s insistence that Grace is “better than all of us” meant to sabotage criticism of this film’s flagrant anti-intellectualism? Making your one major female character smarter than everyone else doesn’t really cover your hatred of smart people, Bay-kun.
And since one scene reinforcing their relationship isn’t enough, we get another. This time, A.J. disregards Harry’s advice and fails a simulation when he “blows” the simulated Superdrill’s simulated “tranny.” Harry chews his ass out just long enough for Michael Bay to check “Stupid Character Scene” off his To Do list. The next scene finds Harry telling, rather than asking, Billy Bob to let his crew have their last night on Earth off. And, of course, Billy Bob acquiesces. Sheesh, dude…why don’t you just shave the phrase “Harry Stamper Access Only” into your back hair with an arrow pointing down?
So now it’s time for the Last Night on Earth Montage, to the tune of that one damn Aerosmith song this movie (unfortunately) made famous, “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” Grace and A.J. hold a debate over the Metaphysics of Animal Crackers that soon devolves into a creepy-bad Steve Irwin impression. Grace asks, “Do you think it’s possible that anyone else in the world is doin’ this very same thing at this very same moment?” A.J. hopes so but, personally, I don’t. For the sake of the Animal Crackers, please, God, no! Please, Dottie, kill this planet! Can you even hear me, you vicious, life-sucking bitch?
The other roughnecks finally get a defining character moment…their first non-Odious one since they agreed to sign on to this farce of a plan. All of a sudden we’re supposed to take these walking cardboard cutouts seriously? I’m sorry, but after an hour of bad one-liners, table dancing, and their awful mish-mash of “working class” accents, these lowlife jerkoffs aren’t about to tug at my black, chitinous heart strings. Chick’s is the most Spielbergian thanks to its rampant sentimentality, since he goes off to visit his son and ex-wife…whom, we learn, has a restraining order against him. So Chick’s the blue-color version of D-Fens from Falling Down…how endearing. How “noble.” Too bad he can’t go on an armed rampage through downtown Wherever-This-Is-ville. That might actually be interesting.
Rockhound’s scene saves the film from that, and it’s easily the most Bayian montage so far. Rockhound, Max, and Oscar spend their last night at a strip club…of course…working-class nobility, thy name is Armageddon…where all the girls grind away to Aerosmith’s “What Kind Of Love Are You On.” Cue inevitable bar fight. Cue arrest. Somehow, the arresting officers refrain from caving Buscemi’s face in.
Since even the film itself is getting sick of Aerosmith songs at this point, circumstances align to annihilate Shanghai while Our Heroes party hearty. Guess some of Dottie broke off from the pack, meaning to punish the Earth for that damned Animal Cracker’s scene. There’s a line of dialogue about warning someone of the impact but Billy Bob’s all, “Warn who? All of South East Asia?” Actually…yeah! That might be nice, Billy Bob. The actual destruction of Shanghai ends in all of two seconds…but at least something blew up. I was starting to think our director was slipping.
Billy Bob tries to convey how broken up he is about all the destruction, but even he looks as worn out and bored as I feel. At least we’re on the same page. With Shanghai devastated Dottie finally becomes public knowledge…because, for some reason, the destruction of Shanghai (at sunset…or sunrise) proves harder for the global media to ignore than the destruction of a Space Shuttle, the orbital bombardment of New York City, and the creepy, frantic moves NASA’s making on all of a sudden, for reasons it (presumably) won’t reveal to the public.
I gave up on basic plot logic before I even began this and the film rewards me by allowing Billy Bob time for an expository speech. (Finally!) Seems he always wanted to go to space but his bum leg prevented it. A bum leg that, until now, has never once been established, has had nothing to do with the plot, and will have nothing to do with it from this point forward, besides providing yet another sentimental tug at our hearts. A thankfully-Aerosmith-free Montage preempts any further reminiscence as Our Heroes suit up for their mission. How did Rockhound and the others get out of jail? If you cared enough to ask, this definitely isn’t your film. During the inevitable Saying Goodbye scene, A.J., Bear, Max and Rockhound put the cherry on top of this torturous banana split by serenading Grace with a rousing chorus of “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” Their harmony is non-existent, their voices are discordant, and this is Hell, right? All that masturbation, premarital, and extra-marital, sex has finally caught up with me and now I’m in Hell?
Alright, fine. Malbolgia!? I know you’re out there! Where’s the damn demon army? I’ll lead it straight up Gabriel’s ass if it means getting me out of this. Hello?
First, The President has to make his own Rousing Speech, attempting to capture some of that Bill Pullman magic from Independence Day. Here the film sheds any vestige of being a brainless action movie and becomes straight-up, unadulterated, State-sponsored propaganda. It’s the next great thing in Montage…or maybe the last one never ended…either way, it’s a wonderful exercise in emotional manipulation through the strategic deployment of the sappiest visual and musical cues Michael Bay could find. It’s as if he were B.F. Skinner and we his white rats.
The President fills his speech with empty intimations about how all human history has led up to this moment, how we have the technology, the capability, to build the world’s first bionic man blow Dottie up real good. Random visual asides back President Generic, attempting to inject some of kind of scope into what’s so far been an hour and four minute exercise in worshiping stupid people: a hay barn in Small Town Amerika populated by what looks like three generations worth of Wilford Brimleys. A woman chewing her nails in the front seat of an old pick-up, an American flag waving mournfully in the background. Shepherds in Ireland, cafe-rats in France, Muslims in Mecca, Hindus at the Taj Mahal, and a little black kid in New York(?) listen to the speech on their radios. There are shots of NASA HQ and shots of Our Heroes getting into, and then out of, the vehicles that transport them to Florida, where the twin ships Our Heroes will be flying out to Dottie await: the Freedom and the Independence. Don’t you just love that sly subtly of Armageddon‘s American Triumphantalist Subtext? Ah, who am I kidding: it’s the text, the index and the cover all at once.
Now, finally, an hour and nine minutes in, we get the standard Countdown and Liftoff sequence. More than enough time to notice the Freedom and Independence are CGI mods overlain across actual space shuttles (except for one or two shots where Industrial Light and Magic forgot to paint them up). More than enough time to think about the logical inconsistency in this plan. They take off…and fly straight to the Russian Space Station in order to refuel…even though they just took off. The fuel they use to get into orbit comes from external tanks NASA fills up special for the purpose, theoretically leaving the shuttle’s internal tanks at 100%. Unless they sent Our Heroes into space with the internal fuel gauge stuck on E…which is just stupid…fitting in with the film’s “smart people are idiots” message.
So after visually gut-checking Apollo 13, America’s twin birds dock with the Russian Space Station to get fuel they shouldn’t need. And meet yet another ethnic cliche, shoehorned into this flick for his “quirkiness.” Just what this film needed: more Odious Comic Relief! The very act of re-fueling Freedom and Independence causes the Space Station to explode and the smell of burning ham chokes everyone to death…wait, no. That was just me wishing again. In a curious turn, everyone makes it off the station alive and no one bitch slaps A.J., since watching the fuel gauge was his job and, in true A.J. fashion, he managed to fuck it up. (Not that Andropov is blameless – he was dumb enough to put A.J. in charge of something.) Thus, having failed at everything else, Armageddon finally fails as a gratuitous disaster movie. Here I thought waiting around for celebrity stars to die was the entire fucking point of this genre.
However, once the Freedom and the Independence reach Dottie, Armageddon succeeds at being a Bad sci-fi movie. Oh, how it succeeds. This is the genuine, B-Movie article: every space exploration cliche from 1940s, 50s and 60s, and every Action cliche from the 80s and 90s, compressed into an hour and change. Its a melodramatic special effects orgy where people finally do die…though, thanks to frenetic editing, I’ll be damned if I can tell you how. Maybe you shouldn’t have flown right into Dottie’s tail, assholes.
Both ships crash far off from their intended targets because of this monumental error. Oscar dies, and Affleck wins the Unintentional Hilarity Olympics thanks to the weak, weak way he mourns his fallen comrade…falling apart like a little bitch in the face of adversity. Like A.J. always does. It’s not even acting on Affleck’s part – it’s acting like he’s acting. I hate to jump on the Hate Ben bandwagon or disagree with Kevin Smith (plenty of time for that after Pearl Harbor)…but maybe Affleck’s just the kind of guy who needs the right director. Still, A.J., Bear and Vlad the Russian Cliche make it out alive. So does Harry’s whole team, damn their eyes. Why couldn’t Rockhound die?
Speaking of Kevin Smith, A.J. straight-up quotes Clerks, telling Vlad “we’re not even supposed to be here.” Still, the Freedom‘s location beacon’s still on, so A.J. and Co. pile into the mobile drill tank and head for Freedom. Not that things are any better over there. Harry and Co. overshot their landing zone by a good twenty-six miles and Dottie’s iron flesh promptly murders two of their prize penis extensions.
Back on Earth, the President and the Military (represented by Keith David) finally have enough of this farce and engage “secondary protocol.” In a wonderful change of pace, Billy Bob’s naive faith in the Power of Harry does not carry the day…not even after he monologues to the President about how Harry’s “the best.” General Keith David turns the bomb on…and, for some reason, the bomb’s set to a six minute countdown. I’m wondering “Why?” Isn’t there some “Override Timer” button in that nuclear football suitcase? Why not blow it up now and vaporize the whole cast? I’ve been waiting for someone to suggest this for an hour now.
If they did, Harry, Rockhound, Max, Chick and Air Force Colonel Sharp wouldn’t have time to descend into existential despair as everything that can go wrong does go wrong up on Dottie. Sure glad they went with actual drillers rather than the “very fine” astronauts Harry dismissed twenty-five minutes in. Colonel Sharp, being an Air Force asshole, eventually betrays them once the drilling fails to go as fast as he wants. This earns a Harry Stamper Beatdown and a prompt conversion to the Light Side of the Force after another Harry Stamper Rousing Speech about how he’s “never missed a depth he’s aimed for.”
The two defuse the bomb with a trend-bucking three seconds to go. Bruce says, “Huston, you have a problem” and hits us with yet another Harry Stamper Rousing Speech. Everyone at mission control cheers, including Grace Stamper, who’s role in the film has devolved from Boring Love Interest to Lady in Waiting. Rockhound humps the nuclear bomb and reminds me I could be watching Dr. Strangelove. Colonel Judas theorizes Rockhound’s succumbed to Space Dementia and…seriously, Dottie’s one awkward robot away from being the Forbidden Planet. Then someone finally dies! And glory be, it’s Max biting it thanks to an exploding gas pocket Our Heroes hit up. (Blue flames! In Space!) Meanwhile, back on Earth, a Dottie fragment erases Paris from existence because it’s been too long since ILM got to do something. Other than CGI the greenscreens out from behind Our Heroes as they run around the jagged, Dottie sets.
After A.J. and Co. jump “the Grand Canyon on the asteroid” everyone reunites. But now the Bomb’s broken. In the end (after the most ponderous hour of disaster movie in cinematic history) Bruce Willis sacrifices himself to save mankind, right after he learns to trust A.J. and bless his relationship with Grace…somehow. Because he’s “never missed a depth I’ve aimed for.” Incidentally, Affleck redeems himself here, selling the emotion of Bruce Willis’ death a lot harder than he sold the death of Owen Wilson…though given that it’s Owen Wilson and Bruce Willis we’re talking about, I understand.
Having skullfucked any chance of being a good movie somewhere around the script’s eighth draft, Armageddon becomes the apotheosis of a modern, big budget, Bad Movie experience. And as I said ages ago, Armageddon is the Bad Movie classic it is because all of Bay’s follow-ups films were assembled from its cannibalized parts. Poorly written scripts full of one-note, exposition-spewing idiots, marinated in explosions and cameras that can’t stop spinning. A somewhat-exciting opening action sequence gives way to a overlong, Odious Comic Relief-laiden Second Act, which the Third Act attempts to make up for by cramming in every overblown, physics-defying action beat the Second Act lacked…times ten million. At sunset. Or sunrise. Whatever. In slow motion.
Take your pick: Pearl Harbor, The Island, Transformers One, Two or Three: they’re all Armageddon in disguise! Shameless cash-ins on this film’s unprecedented success because nothing sells like ham-fisted appeals to Ugly American Nationalism, couched in special effects and stuffed with Designated Hot actors. The Japanese perfected the art of these “Our Nation Saves the World…In Space” stories back in the ’60s…but at least their movies starred giant monsters and people that looked (and acted) like human beings. Here, the great existential threat to mankind is literally an inanimate lump of rock…which is just one more metaphor for Michael Bay’s career so apt I couldn’t make it up.
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