Seeing it again today, Armageddon is no less awful or ridiculous, but the vulgar auteurism on display is more comforting than ever.
For a movie so blatantly ripped off from someone else’s idea, 1998’s Armageddon remains a unique disaster film. Legend has it that Deep Impact writer Bruce Joel Rubin had every ounce of his script swagger jacked by an exec at Disney who wanted their own apocalyptic blockbuster, so it’s no shock that the two films are forever entwined in the public consciousness.
But where Deep Impact director Mimi Leder crafted a humanist portrait of a world facing its own impending extinction with an eye towards scientific accuracy, Armageddon helmer Michael Bay went a different route. The former was a deeply researched and thoughtful take on a sci-fi concept, while the latter more closely resembles the theoretical meteor hurtling towards us. It’s a messy, loud, unstoppable force of nature culled from the collective, conflicting efforts of five credited screenwriters. It’s a disaster of a disaster film held together by crash zooms, whip pans and the emotional potency of late period Aerosmith.
Armageddon answers the difficult question of how humanity could hope to prevent the untimely end met by the dinosaurs with a baffling solution: have NASA train a crew of professional oil men to fly into space, land on a meteor, drill an 800 foot hole into it, and then drop a nuke inside that hole. As Bay and his clown car full of high powered Hollywood scribes see it, the world will be saved with the logistical equivalent of a bar joke punchline.
In the 20 years since its release, the peculiar style mayhem maestro Bay pioneered in the ‘90s has helped shape tent pole filmmaking, his heavy cutting and Dionysian visual excess feeling almost pedestrian anytime he brings it out for a new Transformers film. But Armageddon remains the high water mark of the aesthetic, the logical apex of his brand of spectacle. There’s a reason typing the words “why is Armageddon…” into a Google search bar will always autocomplete to “…in the Criterion Collection.” Few films possess the sheer intensity or dazzling visual sumptuousness Bay’s best work typifies, but his projects are always built upon mystically stupid concepts that call into question the validity of his authorial voice.
Where Deep Impact was a somewhat cerebral rumination on the simple concept of a giant rock of space death hurtling toward Earth’s orbit, Armageddon is a two and a half hour music video about America’s relative invulnerability. Impact is a more sober, “what if?” take on the Toby Emmerich/Dean Devlin school of worldwide catastrophe, as interested in the philosophical implications of human extinction as the logistical recreation of scientific hypotheticals. But Armageddon doesn’t really give a shit about that. The two films represent the cavemen vs astronauts argument. One film sought to tell a story about all of humanity facing something cosmic and terrifying together, while the other feels like a boxing match between an American flag on steroids and the entire known universe.
There’s no real globalism on display within this Gordian knot. The end of the world is seen as the responsibility of America to prevent, not a unifying threat for every nation to team up against. Armageddon, above all else, remains a sterling distillation of the jingoism Bay has used throughout his career. The film truncates the establishing act setting up this threat into a breathless sprint of men in situation rooms and looking over control centers freaking the fuck out before casually intercutting the proceedings with the slapstick slice of life of Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his merry band of drillers. This isn’t a movie about the science or the logistics of space travel. Neil DeGrasse-Tyson would have an aneurism trying to fact check this film.
This is a movie about meat-headed ideas of masculinity that more powerful than time immemorial. When Stamper is shown the NASA build of a drill he designed, he immediately lectures them on not putting it together right. It’s the ultimate middle American refutation of intellectualism that a team of astrophysicists, in the face of apocalypse, aren’t worth half an angry dad with a spiritual connection to pulling crude oil from the ground. It’s a fantasy for handymen and salt of the earth bros that with the future of humanity on the line, their specifically American sense of ingenuity and perseverance is what will save the day, not any salaried eggheads with graphing calculators and Ivy League condescension.
But that’s the frustrating side of Armageddon. The real reason it’s endured after all these years is because of how easy it is to enjoy that boneheaded rhetoric ironically. When Ben Affleck asked Bay to explain to him how the core premise wasn’t flawed and laughable, Bay told him to shut the fuck up. And he was right! Affleck, for all his talent, has never made a movie this good, because it requires a brazen disregard for critical opinion that the man who co-wrote Good Will Hunting just doesn’t possess. If Affleck was really in tune with Bay’s approach to bombast, he wouldn’t look so depressed doing press for Justice League. He’d embrace the trash and try to have a good time.
See, above all else, Armageddon succeeds because it’s fun. In reality, if a giant chunk of rock ends up coming our way, we’re probably all going to die. For all our technological innovation, we’re no better than the dinosaurs. When the reaper comes for this Godforsaken hunk of dirt, we’re going to go out screaming. But the way Michael Bay sees it, we’ll survive because we’re too stubborn not to. Armageddon is wish fulfillment writ large, a compendium of circumstantial evidence that the same capitalistic gluttony that is slowly killing us and the planet we inhabit will somehow save us from the cosmically ordained death sentence we so richly deserve.
In 2018, the idea of the world ending is almost soothing, but two decades ago, Bruce Willis sacrificing himself to save us all while “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” blasts through the surround sound was almost poetic. Seeing it again today, Armageddon is no less awful or ridiculous, but the vulgar auteurism on display is more comforting than ever.