|Aug/Sep 1998 Film and Cinema|
Capsule: A group of working-class heroes are humanity's
only hope to destroy a meteor headed straight for Earth.
This is a very heavily cliched film. It uses comic-book-
style editing, too many melodramatic plots, and too much
over-ripe camerawork. Some of the visuals are undeniably
impressive, but the script is aimed at twelve-year-old boys.
Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4).
Spoiler: I list some of the cliches used in this script.
They say that any film that opens with an overhead view of a city has got to be bad. Another bad opening is the words "A Jerry Bruckheimer Film." Bruckheimer's name indicates that it will likely have more action than sense. Armageddon is our second film of the season to deal with a possible meteor impact on the Earth and it out- Bruckheimers Bruckheimer.
What is there to say about the plot? An asteroid knocked from orbit is on a collision course with Earth. Such a collision, we are told in the pre-credit narration by Charlton Heston, destroyed the dinosaurs. (Curiously, the president of the NRA resists suggesting we could prevent collisions if only we were all armed with large rocks.) The film gets off with a bang as in the first minutes we see the first of the mini-meteor showers, all of which seem predominantly to target land masses and major cities. (Being fair, there is a line in the dialog saying that they are hitting a wider area.) Later in the film we see the destruction of three cities including Shanghai. The latter looks like the Aberdeen area of Hong Kong. (Jerry, there are no junks in Shanghai any more. It's a propaganda thing. They got rid of the junks.)
The survival plan is to place a nuclear bomb in the core of the asteroid. NASA, in an effort headed by Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) needs to train its astronauts to drill to the core of the asteroid. Truman calls in foremost drilling expert Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) to train the astronauts and Stamper convinces Truman it would be easier to train drillers to be astronauts. With the fate of the Earth in the balance Truman makes this dubious concession. Astronauts, it seems, can be trained to know all they need to know in two weeks, but it takes a lifetime to know how to be a good driller. So Stamper's drilling crew are on their way to space. Of course, first comes the training, with our high-spirited drilling team making life miserable for the NASA trainers. Then after the training comes the even more riotous R&R, and these drillers are really wild by NASA standards. At no point does it seem to dawn on our happy drill team that losing the whole Earth with its Michelangelos and its Pizza Huts could be a real bummer for all of them. Finally comes the dramatic cliche-ridden space mission, complete with gun threats, a "which-wire-to-clip?" ticking bomb threat, and a "success-with-two-seconds-to-spare" climax. It is amazing how much of Goldfinger they could shoehorn into this film.
That Armageddon should follow so closely on the heels of the similar but far more intelligent Deep Impact is a near ironclad guarantee that Armageddon will suffer by comparison. Even so the difference in quality beats the point spread by a gap as big as the state of Texas. This film is a sort of The Dirty Dozen in Space, and if nothing else it proves you can get into space piecing together nothing but off-the-shelf cliches. It fact apparently it took six writers or more to find all the cliches necessary. The main character and his crew, for example, are based on the old John Wayne film, The Hellfighters. There are some scenes of the astronaut training in which the viewer may not know what is happening or why it is funny without having seen The Right Stuff. Armageddon, it seems, was not so much written as assembled after a scavenger hunt. Then there are the in- jokes. Without knowing what films have been released this summer the viewer may not realize why one character is named Truman and or why the visual joke with the toy Godzillas. It is a pity that the film did not come out next year when the scavengers could have raided Deep Impact to at least get some idea how Earth people react to impending world- destruction. The "we-all-wait-and-pray" reaction shown in this film seemed hokey when George Pal used it in When Worlds Collide. And Pal's street riots in War of the Worlds were more realistic than what we see in Armageddon.
Bruce Willis plays an unflappable expert, always keeping things on an even keel even in the face of trouble like the world as we know it possibly coming to an end. This means that he never has to do much in the way of acting. He just plays his usual bland character. Will Patton made a memorable Civil-War-esque villain in The Postman. Here as the second in command on the team he does not play so flamboyant a character, but he is always watchable. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare who were the mismatched partners in crime in Fargo are reunited as a wisecracking American driller-astronaut and a burned-out (in more ways than one) Russian Cosmonaut. Together the two of them account for about 87% of the interest value of the crew in space. Liv Tyler, playing Stamper's daughter and the lover of another of the flying drillers, seems to dissolve into a one- woman Greek chorus in the second half of the film. She silently looks on, watching the action from Mission Control and strikes poses.
More and more we are seeing a style of film editing based on the comic book. It made sense for films like The Crow that were based on comic books. Here we have in the action sequences many short cuts, each showing about what you would see in one panel of a comic. Sometimes the camera lingers over a single static and over-composed or melodramatic image, as if one is to pause over the composition. For example, Liv Tyler may be standing at attention in front of an American flag watching her father and her lover blast off. In another scene we see just her hand touching a television screen that a moment before showed what was happening in space and now has only static. Buried deep in the film are about fifteen minutes of beautiful state-of-the- art special effects. These at times reach the level of breathtaking. But everything else about this film is formula. The action cliches do generate the same suspense they always do. But the thought that went into Deep Impact only points up the total cynicism about what the audience wants that went into making this overly familiar mess. As a science fiction movie, it has more action than thought. I give it a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Nobody seemed to care much about my comment that the angle of tipping seemed to vary erratically from scene to scene in Titanic, but I will make another comment about the geometry of the action. When cities are shown being hit by smaller meteor showers in Armageddon, the meteors should be coming in on parallel or near parallel courses. They come in from different directions. Is the idea that they blew apart and just happen to be converging again?