Worth A Look: 16.14%
Pretty Bad: 13.8%
Total Crap: 27.81%
15 reviews, 381 user ratings
by Andrew Howe
18 months ago I watched Armageddon for the first time, enjoyed it, and promptly forgot it. About a week ago I was scratching around the shelves of the video store, staring ruefully at the "Sorry, I'm Out” tags on every copy of The Perfect Storm, when my eye fell upon a copy of the aforementioned film. Since I was in the mood for a little light entertainment, the thought of another night spent in the company of Willis and his band of hard men was not entirely without its charms, so I forked over my cash and wound my weary way home.The next day I fronted up to the local retailer of celluloid delights, purchased a pristine copy on DVD, and watched it again. By the time the closing credits rolled for the second time in two days I realised that I had witnessed one of the all-time great action/adventure films, a fact which is not supported by the reviews it has received (some even saw fit to list it as one of the worst films of 1998). Which is difficult to understand, because Armageddon is a high-octane, rocket-propelled assault on the senses, packed with likeable characters, memorable one-liner’s and jaw-dropping action sequences. I would suggest that it is fit to be spoken of in the same sentence as The Matrix and Aliens, and in the interests of balance I’d like to set the record straight by presenting the case for the defence.
"Everything the critics say it wasn't"
To argue that a film should be forgiven its crimes in the areas of scripting, acting and characterisation because it is meant to represent light entertainment is not a justifiable position. However, action/adventure films need to be permitted a little leeway, because they invariably revolve around highly improbable occurrences (if the events of The Matrix took place in real life, Neo would probably have been wasted by the Agents before he even got close to finding out what The Matrix was), and their primary purpose is to present the viewer with the cinematic equivalent of a roller-coaster ride. I mention this because some critics dismissed the film out of hand on the grounds that it was a stupid action flick, and since I have addressed this argument elsewhere I won’t refute it here, except to say that the action genre is as valid as any other, since films were never designed to be the sole province of serious, “important” creations.
In any event, Armageddon’s scripting, acting and characterisation is, apart from a few missteps, something to admire. Here is a partial list of the performers, and their credibility in the field:
Bruce Willis - left his days as a smarmy, arrogant performer behind long ago, as a single viewing of The Sixth Sense will attest.
Ben Affleck - sensitive performances in Chasing Amy and Dogma.
Will Patton - nothing to complain about in Remember the Titans.
William Fichtner – great support in The Perfect Storm, Go and Strange Days.
Steve Buscemi – memorable performances too numerous to mention (start with Reservoir Dogs and work your way up).
Michael Clarke Duncan – Academy Award nomination for The Green Mile.
Billy Bob Thornton – Academy Award nomination for Sling Blade, not to mention a stand-out role in Primary Colors.
Jason Issacs – gave new meaning to the concept of villainy in The Patriot.
Owen Wilson – one of the few good things about Meet the Parents.
Peter Stormare – great in Fargo and Dancer in the Dark.
And that’s without even considering the likes of Liv Tyler and Keith David who are, if not exactly consummate performers, more than capable of providing acceptable support. It is without a doubt the finest collection of top-notch second and third-tier performers to populate an action film since Aliens, and ensures that the characters don’t have to be written with any great depth to walk tall on the screen. The Perfect Storm achieved a similar feat – all you need is a single scene which tells you something important about the character in question, allowing the viewer to make a connection, and the actor can (provided they possess the requisite skill) run with it from there.
And they are, without exception, a likeable bunch of losers. Willis is hugely enjoyable as the nominal hero, Harry Stamper, not least because he’s permitted a number of scenes which prove he’s not the complete SOB he initially appears to be. Affleck is stuck with the role of the sensitive romantic, but this actually works in his favour since it contrasts (not to mention conflicts) with Stamper’s unwavering commitment to modelling his life on the kind of steel-plated heroes who populate an Eastwood spaghetti Western.
Everyone else is rounded out during an extended astronaut training sequence. One noted critic suggested that this section of the film could have been excised without losing anything, but nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone gets their moment in the sun – Duncan breaking down under psychological questioning, Thornton reflecting upon his inability to join the programme in anything but a technical capacity, Wilson’s neo-hippie outpourings, a touching scene between Patton and his ex-wife – and it is here that we truly bond with these men, to the extent that, by the time the shuttles are heading for the stratosphere, the viewer has an investment in the fate of each and every crewmember. Once things start to go wrong (it wouldn’t be much of a film if everything went according to plan) the action is overlaid by a genuine concern for the characters, with each and every death slamming home with the force of Stamper’s drilling rig, and the film storms its way to an unexpectedly emotional conclusion which, were I not the last of the red-hot tough guys, could have ended in tears.
The dialogue ranges from the inspired (William Fichtner observing the drilling crew walking across the tarmac: “Talk about the wrong stuff!”, Willis’ “Houston, you have a problem”) to the laughable (a NASA employee to Liv Tyler on receiving the news that Affleck is still alive: “Your boyfriend’s back!”, Patton on the asteroid: “It knows we’re here to kill it”), but the action moves so quickly that the true clangers are quickly forgotten. And let us not forget that, when it’s not busy wiping the floor with the human race, this is a very funny film. Peter Stormare’s Russian cosmonaut is an over-the-top delight, and the script is laced with one-liner’s and exchanges between the characters which had me experiencing the kind of deep, satisfying laughter that is the mark of a job well done (it’s worth noting that around 10 writers worked on various parts of the script, so it’s something of a surprise that it holds together so well).
The plot doesn’t bear close scrutiny (one-line summary – NASA sends a hard-nosed bunch of deep-sea drillers to drill a nuke-sized hole into an asteroid which is threatening to destroy the Earth), but it only presents us with two absolute howlers – the fact that the world at large doesn’t realise that there’s a problem until a meteor hits Shanghai (a similar attack which left half of New York in ruins earlier in the piece having evidently escaped everyone’s notice), and an unheralded episode of “space dementia”, which is an outlandish plot device even for a popcorn film such as this (it is, however, a rather amusing sequence, and top marks go to Fichtner for delivering the signature line with a straight face). Otherwise it’s no better or worse than the likes of Con Air, and its efforts in the areas of characterisation, pacing and humour more than make up for the occasional dose of idiocy.
Even if the film exhibited none of the above strengths, the sheer force of the action sequences would still make it worthy of our time. Director Michael Bay evidently possesses a genuine affinity for the genre, proving that The Rock (another stand-out action film) was no fluke. The script doesn’t miss a single chance to shoehorn in a king-sized serving of big-screen fireworks, and the effects are as good as anything yet conceived. The runaround in the exploding Russian space station is a nail-biter, and Affleck’s attempt to rekindle the glory days of Smokey and the Bandit when faced with a seemingly-impassable canyon is like a comic-book brought to life (and that is by no means a disparaging remark – “sense of wonder” is an overused term, but in this instance it evokes exactly that, as do most of the other set-pieces). It’s also worth noting that the asteroid actually looks like what it’s supposed to be (“The scariest environment imaginable”), as opposed to, say, the Martian surface in Red Planet, which looked exactly like what it was (being the rubble-strewn environs of Australia’s Coober Pedy shot through a red filter).
Bay came under fire from some critics for his plethora of quick cuts (the so-called “movies for the MTV generation” syndrome), but this approach has found a home within the action genre (and rightly so) because it helps create the sensory attack such films strive to achieve. Traditional approaches to editing are fine if you’re directing Pride and Prejudice, but big-budget action films require something considerably more frenetic, and to suggest that this style of filmmaking is inferior is to conceivably miss the point.
The film also defies conventional action-film wisdom (“get in, sock it to ‘em, get out”) with its 144 minute running time, but it never flags for a second. There’s always something of interest going on, and the extra time gives the scriptwriters the necessary space to build the characters, script more action sequences than are strictly necessary (you can never have too much of a good thing), and even take a look at what’s happening in the world at large via a couple of brief but memorable sequences.
Armageddon is a “big” film in every aspect of its production, and more often than not that’s a recipe for disaster. In this case, however, it’s a recipe for the mother of all disaster movies, and earns my unwavering admiration for its exceptional cast, likeable characters, eyeball-scorching action sequences, finely-tuned sense of humour, and occasional emotional moments which lend it a weight most blockbusters lack. It’s everything an action film should be, and it’s only when confronted with a film such as this that you realise how often we are forced to settle for empty, soulless, poorly-acted substitutes.Strap yourself in, say your prayers, and let Bay and his friends light the candle - I guarantee it’s a trip you won’t forget.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6&reviewer=193
originally posted: 01/05/01 14:19:02