Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Movie review: Armageddon

Of all the Michael Bay movies I have ever seen, Armageddon was the loudest and Bay-iest. I don't think this review quite captures the schizoid sense of hyperkinetic boredom the movie induced in me; I kept realizing throughout the press screening that I was in a movie theatre, watching a film that was very loud and flashy indeed, only to have my attention wander off for a few moments until I remembered where I was again.

Chris Galdieri
webdate: 6/26/98

Despite its enormous budget, generally talented cast, and high concept,
Armageddon is an overlong disappointment that fails to use any of its
potential assets to its advantage.

The premise of the movie is simple: a Texas-sized asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. Since the asteroid is too big to blow up from the outside, NASA sends a team of deep-core oil drillers, led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), to drill a hole deep into the asteroid, where a nuclear warhead can be detonated and thus prevent the asteroid from destroying Earth and every living thing on it.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie are promising. NASA discovers that the asteroid is approaching when a meteor shower destroys the space shuttle Atlantis and meteor strikes rain down on the Earth from Finland to South Carolina. NASA chief Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton, easily the best thing in the movie) convenes a meeting of top scientists to figure out exactly what's going on. And what's going on, they determine, is that the asteroid will strike Earth in a mere 18 days. The meeting itself is everything the rest of the movie isn't: suspenseful, informative, and tense, with a sense of impending danger that's strangely absent from the rest of the movie.

The film goes astray with the introduction of Willis' oil drillers. The urgent tone of the movie goes flying out the window as the drill crew, whose personality quirks (one's a cowboy, one's a womanizer, one's a gambler, one's a fat guy, ad nauseum) seem to have been decided by focus group, becomes the focus of the action. Aside from the wild improbability of NASA picking amateur astronauts to carry out the most important mission in the history of humanity, there are so many drillers that it's difficult, if not impossible, to keep them straight, never mind get to know or care about them.

One driller who does get plenty of attention is A.J. (Ben Affleck), who is clandestinely seeing Harry's daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler). This romance, along with Grace's estrangement from her father, is presumably intended to give the film an emotional resonance, but it falls flat. Affleck and Tyler have no chemistry and their scenes are almost painful to watch. An early effort to establish Grace as a strong young woman is quickly abandoned and Grace becomes just a daughter and girlfriend waiting for her father and her boyfriend to return from the mission. Worst of all, once the drillers set out into space, Grace has absolutely nothing to do but wander around Mission Control looking concerned. Which she does, in shot after shot after shot. Tyler's performance does nothing to compensate for the writing, but in all fairness to Ms. Tyler, it's doubtful that anyone could have made this character work.

One of the most maddening aspects of Armageddon is the lack of attention paid to scientific detail. The movie is rife with such impossibilities as sound in space, characters breathing in airlocks which should be empty, and spacesuits (made from a substance that looks suspiciously like corduroy) that magically compensate for the microgravity of the asteroid's surface. One of the characters actually gets "space dementia." A more reasonable explanation would be that the character had too much oxygen in his air supply, but that would have required too much homework for the scriptwriters.

The movie also asks us to believe that NASA, which we're told is as woefully underfunded in Armageddon as it is in real life at the start of the film, has two top-secret super-advanced space shuttles that can be prepped for launch in something like a week, and that these super-shuttles have been designed to land on and take off from the craggy surface of an asteroid. And while I'm no geologist, a hole less than a quarter of a mile deep doesn't seem like it would make all that much of a difference on an asteroid we're told is the size of Texas (and is that in cubic or square feet, anyway? And why are things always the size of Texas? Wouldn't an asteroid the size of Rhode Island or Delaware be plenty scary on its own?).

Armageddon also suffers by not describing in any detail just what the drillers are supposed to do when they get to the asteroid. Sure, we know they're drilling a hole and dropping a nuclear warhead down it, but we're
never told anything about drilling. The result is that we never have any idea what the drillers are doing on the asteroid's surface, and thus there's no real suspense during the actual drilling scenes. Since we don't know what's happening we can't care about what we're seeing, and whenever anything happens, we don't know what it means until one of the characters reacts.

The soundtrack is particularly distracting. Ambient noise, sound effects, and what seems like an endless string of Aerosmith songs all overwhelm spoken dialogue for what feels like almost a quarter of the film. And with a running time of two and a half hours, the film is far too long.

Somewhere along the line, this could have been a genuinely good science fiction film. Instead, it's a mess that veers from scene to scene with little internal consistency and never gives a reason to care about what was happening onscreen. Armageddon promises a bang but delivers a whimper.

No comments: