Armageddon: The Great American Movie

No, Michael Bay…YOU da man.

By Matt Springer
March 03, 2002

This is the way the world will almost end. Not with a bang or a whimper, but with Bruce Willis on a big-ass rock in space, detonating a nuclear bomb that will save all of humanity. You think Jesus is a savior? Try John MacLean on for size. Yippie-kay-ay, motherfucker, and Amen.

This is Armageddon. This is the 1998 summer blockbuster that grossed $201 million in the USA alone. This is the Great American Movie.

The final moments of Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis gives his life to save Liv Tyler, Aerosmith, Jerry Bruckheimer, and other less important parts of the planet, are just the climax of two hours of the most gaudily patriotic moviemaking since Yankee Doodle Dandy. You simply can’t escape it.

You can count up how many American flags appear in the film if you want; I’m betting it’s easily around forty. Characters stump around gritting lines like “The United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?” The asteroid isn’t even spotted by anyone who isn’t American–all the scientists and skywatchers that span the globe can’t beat the red-white-and-blue ingenuity of a crazy old guy in a trailer.

Beyond those outward examples of ubernationalism lie some more insidious illustrations. This is not just a film where America is the world’s best hope for salvation; it is the only hope. There are no alternatives. Consider the fate of Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare), a Russian cosmonaut who is living on board a space station where the American rescue team must stop to refuel. The man is a buffoon–he essentially blows up the MIR on accident, then stumbles around slurring his words as though he’s been subsisting on nothing but Russian vodka for the past eighteen months. When he does accomplish something, he brags egotistically. It’s hardly the stoic portrait of heroism that even the biggest American goofball becomes once they’re rocketed up to the asteroid.

You can’t watch Armageddon without presuming that director Michael Bay and producer Bruckheimer believed that they were crafting a film that is as much about the American spirit in the late twentieth century as it is about a big asteroid and Liv Tyler’s midriff. You also can’t ignore the fact that many Americans flocked to see this film over and over again during the summer of 1998. Together, you have the perfect combination for a maddening moment in cultural history captured on over two hours of the most testosterone-drenched film stock in moviemaking history.

But it’s as much an example of postpatriotism as it is megapatriotism, which is to say, they’re selling America even as they seem to be celebrating it. Their more recent “masterwork,” Pearl Harbor, took the national-pride-as-marketing-tool gimmick to an overt level, selling America the heartrending story of a pivotal national moment as a Titanic-style melodrama–something that seems even more shameless and exploitative in the wake of September 11. The government even helped out with Harbor, offering an aircraft carrier in Hawaii to host the film’s premiere. But this trick has been around for years, some may say decades. It’s the media onslaught that cranks the volume up to mindsplittling levels. National pride has sold movies before, but it sells movies more powerfully than ever now, and that shallow pride is there in spades in Armageddon.

Thus we must ask ourselves–or rather, I must ask myself, and you must continue reading, unless you’ve given up on me already, in which case you can click on and piss off for all I care–what is the America of Armageddon all about? What can we learn about our fair nation from watching this meaningless yet meaningful little flick, this Citizen Kane of asteroids-hurtling-toward-Earth movies?

Let us first turn to Willis, who appears in Armageddon as perhaps the greatest and most clichéd tough-guy action hero of his career. “No, Harry, YOU the man,” Michael Clarke Duncan whispers as a souped-up space shuttle soars away from the exploding hunk of rock, and he’s right. Harry Stamper is the man. There’s a really big disaster heading toward Earth, and all the scientists in the world can’t really figure out how to stop it, but good ol’ Harry and his buddies can fly up to space after just two weeks of training and save the planet. Only the brusque General Kinsey (Keith David) manages to see the absurdity of the situation: “The fate of the planet is in the hands of a bunch of retards I wouldn’t trust with a potato gun.” Right on, General!

Which brings us to All-American Armageddon Truism #1: Any working-class schmoe with a buttload of experience and a no-nonsense approach is more qualified to save the planet than your average military mastermind, scientific genius or qualified astronaut. If you should know what you’re talking about, you don’t, unless you’ve been sweating it out in the trenches of the real world all your life.

That had to be a huge ingredient in the film’s broad appeal. In its own gaudy way, it’s a paean to the blue-collar stubbornness that is an essential part of the American spirit. You can rationalize the risks and pound out math figures all you want, but just give an elbow-greasy American boy a nuke and a big drill, and he’ll take care of that asteroid. Not just because he has the know-how and he has the intestinal fortitude, but because when he says he’ll reach a depth, he reaches it, damnit.

Though Armageddon has much to offer us in the way of strong male role models, the same can’t be said on the female side of the spectrum. In fact, it’s possible that if women weren’t, y’know, HOT, there might not be any women at all in the film. As it stands, the only female character of any substance is Grace Stamper (Tyler), daughter of Harry and girlfriend of A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck).

There’s no denying that this film had to be a career boost for Tyler; any time you can appear in a massive summer blockbuster, the scripts must just pile up outside your door. But it’s not exactly a huge step forward for women in film. Tyler’s chief role in Armageddon is to cry “DADDY!” while her father and her best fella do all the hard work up in space. She even has to lay back giggling while Affleck engages in weak schmaltz on her belly.

“Do you think it’s possible that anyone else in the world is doing this very same thing at this very same moment?” Tyler coos to her love.

“I hope so,” he replies, gritting his teeth and scanning her breasts. “Otherwise, what the hell are we trying to save?”

She’s not just a weak, powerless character; she also has to speak solely in romance-novel-reject dialogue. She’s the anti-Ripley. Where Sigourney Weaver paved the way for strong women in action films with her work in the Alienfilms, Tyler turns her back on that progress, grabs a hanky and flops around Armageddon as this simpering, blank-slate character. And that brings us to our All-American Armageddon Truism #2: All women belong at home in the kitchen, unless you’re a stripper or the daughter of a brave man trying to save the planet, in which case you belong at NASA, waiting for that man and the love of your life to come home.

Finally, we come to Mr. Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. It’s really his talents that infuse the film with its pure American drive. He directs like he’s running for President–it’s jammed with pure ambition. The camera is always moving, even when it seems static. It sweeps and pans and dives all over the place.

Bay never really quits, and in doing so, he delivers the most American contribution of all: He surpasses even the most jaded action fan’s expectations with ease. He goes over the top, and then leaps over the “over the top.” We’re not just talking about your average summer stupid blockbuster here. We’re talking A LOUD AND FAST AND ENDLESSLY CLIMAXING FILM. There are explosions every five to ten minutes, souped-up space shuttles zig-zagging behind an asteroid the size of Texas, and threat upon threat to the safety of the film’s heroes.

For example, once Armageddon finds Harry Stamper and his motley crew, the “plot” becomes a series of “thrilling” dangers and pitfalls for the drillers, the NASA crew on Earth, the Department of Defense, and that crazy Russian cosmonaut. From its first moments, the movie is relentless in its constant devices of suspense.

And if major characters aren’t being threatened with certain death, then either major cities are being bombarded with chunks of the asteroid, or Ben Affleck is making kissy-poo with Liv Tyler. No joke: every “silent” moment ofArmageddon is either crammed with romantic cliches or crammed with action-film macho cliches. “Character development” is replaced with a series of one-liners; we’re expected to invest not into a group of fictional drillers that we’ve come to know through the course of the movie, but into Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, and Billy Bob Thornton.

This is all fitting. Only Bay would dare serve up such a preposterous mix of bravado, chauvinism, and cliche. Being a stupid GUY, I find this sort of filmmaking to be tremendously exciting. And being an American, I find his neverending quest for the bigger thrill, the louder explosion, the more stunningly inept plot twist to be a sign of hope for our nation’s spirit.

There’s your All-American Armageddon Truism #3 for ya: Too much is never enough. It’s true of the film, and based on sales figures, it’s become increasingly true for the moviegoing public at large. But while many carp on the constant need of our nation’s film fans to be blown away by ever-increasing budgets and incredulous special effects, I salute this overpowering segment of mainstream American filmmaking.

Roger Ebert has called Armageddon “the first 150-minute trailer,” and as usual, he’s hit the nail on the head. But what he sees as a massive flaw can just as easily become a massive asset, if that’s what you’re into. Me, I’ve seen plenty of trailers that are more entertaining than the movies they precede, so I say bring on the feature-length trailers. It’s almost a new style of filmmaking; it’s a true rock ‘n’ roll movie in the most obvious sense of the term. That’s not to say that it features Zeppelin riffs constantly, but that it has the pacing and intensity of hard rock music, with the editing style of a good MTV video. Therein lies the trick: it’s not aiming for the brain, but for the stomach, the heart, and the groin. Like a timeless Rolling Stones single, if you think it through too much, it can fall apart. But if you just let your bootie wiggle in its seat and cheer along with the rest of the crowd, it’s one hell of a great time. And of course, what’s more American than rock ‘n’ roll? Nothing, you pinko commie bastard, that’s what!

In a sense, the movies of Bruckheimer and Bay appeal to the five-year-old child in all of us. It can be both exciting and scary to discover that there’s a little immature bit inside our psyches that’s still into empty entertainment, a dumb kid who gets tremendously excited by watching stuff blow up and following quippy anti-heroes as they redeem themselves. It’s even scarier when you remember just what that little boy thought about America, and how far you may have come from those apple pie and Superman-inspired notions about our nation.

Or maybe you don’t have that little boy inside of you anymore. In case you’re curious, here’s an experiment. Go rent Armageddon and watch at least the first set of explosions, in which New York is demolished by a series of asteroid chunks. If you’re not grinning from ear to ear at the glorious apocalyptic mayhem on the screen, then pop out the tape and watch some Fawlty Towers. Because in just over two hours, Bruce Willis will be saving America as Michael Bay knows it, and I for one will appreciate it very much.