There's a moment in every Michael Bay film when you realize you’re...watching a Michael Bay film. Typically, said moment occurs early on; in Armageddon it occurs within the first two minutes. The opening scene consists of the Earth blowing up, and as if such a sight is not enough to strike awe into viewers, in the following scene Bay obliterates a space shuttle. It is confirmed, then: Armageddon will be nothing less than pure spectacle.
Of all the currently active directors, I can think of few better people to direct a disaster film than Bay. Bay’s style is well known to all who like to be entertained. His direction is extravagant and ruthless, fast moving and fast cutting and fast paced and action packed. We’ve all seen moments in Michael Bay films where non-combustible things inexplicably blow up. How and why does this happen? In the final analysis, few will bother caring because it’s all too exciting. The same tropes that make him beloved among action fans lead him to be scorned by critics, but one gets the feeling that Bay isn’t ever upset by this. His only interest is to make an able picture that is 100% entertainment. Armageddon is as good an example of this as any.
Armageddon carries the disaster film torch from the likes of The Towering Inferno in the best manner possible, for not only does it lift the tropes of the genre, but it updates them to a modern setting. Bay provides the viewer with the constant threat of things exploding; he offers angry soldiers wielding handguns in space; he allows for emotion between characters; he has a Russian astronaut surfing on the back of a space tank while the space tank is drifting off into space.
Despite the plethora of awesome nonsense, Armageddon’s narrative is simple. A large asteroid is hurtling toward the Earth with eighteen days remaining until catastrophic impact. The director of NASA (Billy Bob Thornton) heads a plan to land a team of deep-sea drillers (led by Bruce Willis and including the likes of Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, and Owen Wilson) on the asteroid, where they will drill a shaft and detonate an atomic bomb within the giant rock, thereby splitting it in two and hopefully forcing it away from the Earth.
Over time the disaster film genre has split into two halves: one based around characters and plot, and one based around the exhibition of the disaster. Armageddon could only fit into the latter camp, a group that it engages well with. Here Bay focuses primarily on the event, while still retaining intrigue between characters. Yet it’s clear that the main show is colored yellow and orange and produces smoke, makes a bang, and is dangerous. Bay actually has the audacity to blow up the International Space Station as if the sight doesn’t mean anything. To its credit, although Armageddon is essentially a sequence of big explosions the film hardly suffers. The screenwriters, Jonathan Hensleigh and J. J. Abrams, turn to tension as the glue that holds the story together. Though there is drama between the characters it serves only as a sideshow; our sights are set on the asteroid being blown up and the mission being accomplished. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and perhaps a little guiltily we rejoice in each setback because it provides for new exploits and new outrageousness and new heroic accomplishments. Even though we are well aware that the mission will succeed – with an underdog crew and patriotic overtones, how could it not? – we are willing to suspend that notion until we actually see the payoff at the end. This is nothing more than a demand of the disaster genre.
The circus of fun is achieved with special effects. The explosions are remarkable but the long stretch on the asteroid’s surface is decidedly ordinary. It’s fairly obvious that the asteroid is actually a soundstage. Interestingly, the effect is marred because the sky isn’t black enough and there aren’t enough stars. But we gravitate to the action, and no wonder: it’s provided by a man that stuffed firecrackers into a train set as a child to see how the train would blow up. The key, as watching this film indicates, lies in composition. The camera is thrown back and is still enough for shots to last a few seconds. The exploding space shuttle, for instance, is allowed to paint itself all over the frame before Bay cuts to another angle. The result is different from the modern trend of close camera/fast cutting, which accordingly results in the viewer seeing little. Bay wants the images to be carved into your retinas.
None of this is to say that Armageddon lacks any semblance of narrative or is short of decent characters. Its focus is not that of the likes of Titanic, but there is enough material to fill the genre’s quotient. Willis is on the ropes with Affleck because Affleck is dating Willis’ daughter, Liv Tyler. Tyler is the emotional heart of the film. She wants both her father and her boyfriend to survive the trip into space. She exists only to be pitied and to be empathized with; emotion and love is her MacGuffin. And although the rest of the crew is treated quickly – all important members are introduced in a montage-like sequence that lasts two minutes – there’s never any doubt about who they are.
Over a decade later, Armageddon is a film notorious for summoning critical distaste. Science-minded folk hate the picture because it’s inaccurate (though they miss the point that it’s clearly a stylized work of fiction, not a narrative meant to be suggesting reality), and many, in what is nothing more than a fruitless endeavor, have compiled lists of the scientific errors contained within. Noted critics generally pan the film, each for their own reasons. It’s long been on Roger Ebert’s list of most disliked films. And yet, despite a gloomy reception, the film is part of the highly esteemed Criterion Collection. One might wonder which side we’re meant to believe.
The reality, I would suggest, is that, as aforementioned, Armageddon is meant as 100% entertainment. To interpret it as something else would be misguided. It is an illustrious entry in the disaster genre, and it set the scale for other epics in the decade that followed.