It’s twenty years this month since Michael Bay’s adrenaline-charged asteroid collision movie crash-landed into our cinemas. Armageddon was released in July 1998 with much hype and heroic fanfare. Bruce Willis goes into space to save the world from a killer asteroid? Michael Bay directing? That annoying Aerosmith song? What could possibly go wrong? Yet the film was critically mauled and seems to have been one of the most hated films of the ’90s according to contemporary reviews. Much has been written about the trademark face/punch style of the director, which is particularly lacking in subtlety here, but has the passage of time been kinder to the film?
Towards the end of the ’90s filmmakers in search of the next big action movie smash began to move away from the endless Die Hard rehashes that dominated the early part of the decade. A sub-genre emerged of action-disaster films that mixed all the classic action movie clichés with end of the world scenarios. Bruce Willis plays a blue-collar oil driller tasked with saving the world from a rogue asteroid intent on wiping out all life on Earth. Armageddon arrived in July 1998 but was preceded by its ‘twin’ movie, the more thoughtful Deep Impact, by a few weeks. Comparisons between the two films would ultimately damage the reception Armageddon received as Michael Bay’s film came across as being the loud, brash and obnoxious younger brother of the siblings.
So what went wrong? Firstly, the key to the success of all action movies is pacing: knowing when to slow things down and when to speed things up to maximise the impact of the big set piece scenes. A big problem with the film is that Bay doesn’t know when to let up and when to put the foot down. Armageddon starts frantically and never stops until the climax. Instead the director uses loud noise and rapid editing to punctuate the film. However, this ultimately takes away from the storytelling. We don’t have time to pause and think as we are yanked along into the next big scene and then the next. However, there are plenty of exciting crowd-pleasers delivered throughout the movie so perhaps, on occasion, Bay gets away with it.
There is also a problem with the cast. There are solid turns from the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs and Michael Duncan Clark in likeable supporting roles. Bruce Willis, in the lead role, carries the film with an impressive performance. Contemporary criticism of him now seems harsh as his performance is all good leading man stuff.
However, it’s the inclusion of Ben Affleck that really lets the film down. A poor actor and an even worse film star, Affleck plods through the film delivering everything with charisma-free clunkiness. He is completely unable to communicate any kind of inner life to the audience and so his role as the hero-in-waiting to Willis’s mentor, such a classic staple of action films, flops terribly. Never, in the history of cinema, has there been a performance so lacking in the basic skills of acting (though this might be a slight exaggeration).
The film also suffers from having too many characters. When one of the spaceships crashes on the asteroid resulting in the deaths of several characters it is completely unclear who has died or even what their names are. Half of the cast could have been discarded during writing and nothing would have changed; there are simply too many passengers in this space adventure. If some ruthless editing had taken place during scripting then a better film would have emerged with characters we knew and liked.
So where does all this leave the film now? Armageddon may have been mauled at the time but on the whole it has aged quite well. Yes it’s big and in your face but it’s a story about the end of the world goddammit! It is certainly more entertaining than Deep Impact. There are clichés aplenty but clichés add to the fun if used correctly. There is plenty of humour, the core cast are, mostly, on good form, and the ending is big and explody (real word) in a satisfying way. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that Michael Bay’s direction damages the film’s legacy overall and was largely the reason why the critics hated it.
20 years on it’s clear that a better director would have slowed things down in places, would have gone for tension rather than excitement in some scenes, would have allowed the characters to breathe a bit and allowed us a chance to get to know them. The critical perspective at the time may have been a little harsh, but there’s no doubt this could have been a much better film. Completely ignoring a fundamental principle of adventure film-making that, sometimes, less is more, Bay, as he does in all his films, goes for the rollercoaster: fun and exciting, but quickly forgotten.
Although it’s far from being a classic, Armageddon, after 20 years, is still a fun, silly and, ultimately, entertaining movie to watch on a quiet Sunday night and as a legacy you can’t ask for much more than that.