Over the years, there have been many theories about when the world will end but one of the more prevalent was the mistaken belief that doomsday would befall us on December 21st 2012 based on the Mayan calendar ending on this day. Of course, not only did this not happen but it wasn’t even based on any actual fact to begin with but, nevertheless, doomsday scenarios and depictions of the end of the world have been an enduring genre in fiction so I figured today was a good day to dedicate some time to this popular concept.
Released: 1 July 1998
Director: Michael Bay
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures
Budget: $140 million
Stars: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Liv Tyler, and Billy Bob Thornton
When an asteroid the size of Texas hurtles towards Earth on a collision course set to wipe out all life on the planet in a mere eighteen days, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Project Director Dan Truman (Thornton) has no choice but to draft the world’s best deep-core drilling team, led by Harry Stamper (Willis), and send them into space to split the rock in half before it ends life as we know it.
By 1998, director Michael Bay had started to make a bit of a name for himself in Hollywood following a successful collaborative relationship with producer Jerry Bruckheimer; Bad Boys (ibid, 1995) had been a massive box office success and he was just coming off The Rock (ibid, 1996), the success of which landed him a two-picture deal with Disney’s Buena Vista arm. The first of these films was Armageddon, which was coincidentally one of two asteroid-based disaster movies released in 1998; Armageddon proved to be the more successful of the two, however, earning over $550 million compared to Deep Impact’s (Leder, 1998) $349.5 million box office. However, Armageddon as met with largely negative reviews; it’s famously one of legendary movie critic Roger Ebert’s most hated films of all time and audiences and critics alike found the film’s frenetic editing and more ridiculous moments as egregious as Bay’s bombastic action scenes. Even stars Ben Affleck and Billy Bob Thornton thought very little of the film and numerous scientific minds have attacked the film’s lack of scientific accuracy.
Armageddon’s concept is, admittedly, massively over the top; not only is the Earth threatened with total destruction and mankind with complete extinction by the biggest and most improbable piece of rock ever conceived but NASA deems it easier and faster to train a bunch of oil drillers to fly into space rather than training astronauts to drill. Interestingly, much of the movie could have been the same had the script been tweaked slightly to have, maybe, one or two of the oil drillers join the space expedition as consultants and experts but, regardless, complaints of this nature miss the entire point of the film: It’s supposed to be that a group of all-American, ordinary, everyday blue collar men are called upon to do the impossible and save the world and that’s precisely what makes it such an appealing concept. The primary representative from NASA is Dan Truman, a man who always dreamed of going into space and being an astronaut but was grounded by what looks to be a debilitating knee injury. Still, he’s the unquestioning authority at NASA; when the space shuttle Atlantis explodes at the start of the film and meteorites start raining down across New York City, he immediately organises response teams to figure out the source of the problem.
Horrified by the looming presence of “Dottie”, the incoming asteroid, like all NASA characters in movies he quickly focuses on solutions rather than problems; this means entertaining and demanding any and all possible solutions to the issue in a very short window of time. With no other contingencies in place, he calls upon the expertise of Harry Stamper, initially to train his astronauts but find sit perfectly acceptable to send Harry and his team up in their place in order to get the job done properly. The star of the film is, unquestionably, Bruce Willis; while long before he simply phoned in his performances and offered only the bare minimum of effort, Armageddon doesn’t really call for him to be much more than a semi-snarky, overprotective father who is the best at what he does and, despite being childish and immature at times, is a consummate professional when on the job. No one knows more about drilling (which he regards as a science and an art) than him, and no one is better at it than him; he tolerates no insubordination on his oil rigs. Harry takes Truman’s request and the impending danger very seriously and, unimpressed and insulted by NASA stealing his oil rig design and having “only” trained their team for eight months, he immediately demands that he has to take up his team, men he can trust to do the job properly, and maintains order even when the team overshoots their landing mark and is forced to drill through “iron ferrite”.
Harry’s conviction and focus are total when on a job but are somewhat distracted; he is estranged from his daughter, Grace (Tyler), and disapproving of her relationship with A.J. Frost (Affleck), the youngest member of his team and to whom Harry is basically a surrogate father. Harry is so incensed to discover their relationship that he hilariously chases A.J. across his oil rig with a shotgun but, discounting his personal feelings, doesn’t hesitate to fire A.J. when his arrogance almost causes a drilling operation to be botched and endanger his crew. Still, when called upon to pick members for the drilling teams, he reluctantly drafts in A.J. A.J. just wants Harry’s trust and approval in his ability and instincts, which Harry is reluctant to bestow out of his overprotectiveness and belief that A.J. isn’t quite as experienced as he believe she is. Despite being surrounded by “roughnecks”, many of whom are his close friends and trusted colleagues, Harry is insulted and enraged to find that Grace has “settled” for A.J., believing that she deserves more than to be tied to a roughneck her whole life. Grace, however, vehemently stands by her choice, accepting A.J.’s proposal and stating that she is a grown woman who can make her own choices. Her issues with her father and almost immediately resolved when she learns of Dottie, however, and she is forced to watch the two men she loves the most head off on the most vital and dangerous mission ever conceived. When General Kimsey (Keith David) stubbornly follows the President of the United States’ (Stanley Anderson) orders to remote detonate the nuclear weapon on the asteroid when it’s not ready, Grace aggressively protests and demands that Truman do something since he was the one responsible for involving them in the mission.
The rest of Harry’s team are a bunch of misfits, ex-cons, perverts, and muscleheads…and I absolutely love it! It’s an ensemble cast, with some given more screen time and development than others, who are just there to die. Charles “Chick” Chappel (Patton), a compulsive gambler and estranged from his wife and son, is Harry’s closest friend and conscience; he trusts Harry with his life and follows him to the ends of the Earth, and beyond. “Rockhound” (Buscemi) is a genius on the level of NASA’s very best but chooses to indulge in his love of explosives by lowering himself to oil drilling; he frequently points out that they are way out of their depth on the mission and ends up succumbing to “space dementia” and becoming something of a liability to the team. Another member of the team who stands out is, of course, “Bear” (the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan); Armageddon was one of Duncan’s first, big time roles in Hollywood and he shine snot just through his imposing physical stature but the gamut of emotions he displays, from playfulness to fear and panic, to sombre reflection by the film’s end. Certainly, he’s much more well-rounded than guys like Max Lennert (Ken Campbell), who is mainly the comic relief of the film, and Oscar Choi (Owen Wilson) and Freddie Noonan (Clark Brolly), who basically get a handful of lines between them and are killed when their shuttle crashes on Dottie to emphasise how dangerous the mission is.
Harry and his team are joined by a handful of actual astronauts, the most prominent of which is Colonel Willie Sharp (Fichtner); Sharp is unimpressed with the drillers and personally makes it his mission to subject them to the harshest crash course in astronautics in order to properly prepare them for the rigours and dangers of space travel. Calm and composed, Sharp loses his cool somewhat when the shuttle overshoots its landing mark and grows increasingly concerned that the mission is headed to failure. When the order comes through to detonate the bomb before the hole is ready, he unlocks a gun and becomes almost a secondary antagonist; driven by the fear of the asteroid’s threat, he is prepared to kill to follow his orders to the letter but is convinced by Harry’s strength of conviction to allow the mission to proceed as planned. I say “secondary antagonist” because, if there’s one thing Michael bay was sure to do throughout Armageddon, it’s paint Dottie as almost a sentiment, malevolent force of nature; the asteroid is revealed in stages, bit by bit, almost like a slasher villain. At first, we see only wisps of dust and an ethereal cosmic aura, with the rock’s potential devastation shown to us through a comparatively harmless meteor shower. However, once the two shuttles slingshot around the Moon and approach the asteroid, it looms onscreen like an ominous, malicious entity purposely looking to destroy the Earth. When the teams land, they are beset by geysers of air, quakes, showers of rock, and constant explosions; Chick even suggests that the asteroid is purposely trying to shake them loose and keep them form “[killing] it”, as though it’s a living thing, and it even seems to roar and scream at times thanks to its tumultuous environment.
One of the most impactful aspects of Armageddon is the score; Trevor Rabin’s score is both bombastic and heroic but also haunting, ominous, and emotional. It’s perfectly used to highlight the amusing nature of the drillers’ training montage at NASA and adds just the extra exclamation point during the film’s more poignant and emotional moments. It’s a ridiculous film that plays its concept almost completely straight, which only emphasises the blue collar nature of the idea and adds to its appeal, in my opinion, and the score is a large part of that. It’s interesting to think about the fact that, technically, the plan to blow up the asteroid from the inside out was expected to go off without any real problems; after the shuttle Independence is taken out during the approach to Dottie, Freedom is thrown off by the unexpected gravitational forces from the asteroid and the Moon and lands way past the optimal landing spot. Had they landed in the intended area, it’s possible that much of the deaths and drama wouldn’t have unfolded as they did; similarly, a freak electrical accident causes the Mir space station to explode, almost as though the mission was doomed to failure from the start.
The botched approach sees the teams split into two; while Harry continue son with the mission and believes A.J. and the others are dead, A.J. and Bear work alongside the Russian cosmonaut Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare) on a bit of a side quest to reunite with their friends, which leads to some intense sequences involving the armoured Armadillo vehicle and its efforts to plough through and float over the asteroid’s dangerous surface. With drilling slowed and the mission threatened by the rock-hard iron ferrite, which chews up the drill heads and causes the rig’s transmissions to overload, time becomes a significant factor; the asteroid was projected to hit in eighteen days but the team is given only eleven hours to complete the mission and remote detonate before Dottie passes “zero barrier” since an explosion after this threshold would still result in the Earth’s destruction. The action isn’t simply confined to the asteroid either as the film continues to show that the planet (especially poor old Paris and Shanghai) continues to be bombarded by meteor strikes. This makes the general public aware of the impending “global killer” but, despite Truman’s belief that this knowledge would causes “mass religious hysteria [and] the worst parts of the Bible”, people are generally seen to be united in hope and belief in America’s desperate mission to save the world (at least until the mission appears to have failed, anyway, though the film never really dwells on the worldwide impact of the asteroid’s impending approach). Of course, people will harp on for days about how inaccurate and ridiculous the film is but, honestly, I really couldn’t care less. Armageddon goes to some lengths to cover its inaccuracies as well; the asteroid is described as having a minor atmosphere, somewhat explaining how the guys can just toss poles and equipment around, and the focus is clearly on spectacle and excess rather than scientific accuracy (it’s more exciting to see two space shuttles launch right next to each other, for example, no matter who dangerous and ludicrous that idea might be).
Additionally, the film’s attention to detail and attempts to recreate the inner workings of NASA are impressive; the shuttles aren’t some futuristic ships kitted out with touch screens or absurd technology, for example. They’re cramped and full of the same switches, lights, and efficient use of space that real-life shuttles are known for and, while the team wear quasi-futuristic space suits, they’re still grounded in realism and nowhere near as extravagant as in other films. For me, the real appeal of Armageddon is the central concept of a group of normal, everyday men answering the call to lend their unique expertise to a desperate mission to save all of humanity as well as the appeal of there actually being some kind of solution to a potential, fatal meteor strike on the Earth. The film’s message is one of hope and unity, that all nations and people can set aside their differences and work together for our mutual survival; this is emphasised more explicitly at the film’s emotional conclusion when, following a devastating rock storm on Dottie, the one remaining nuclear weapon is damaged and one of our blue collar heroes must stay behind to complete the mission. After reluctantly drawing straws, A.J. finds himself faced with this ultimate responsibility and, putting aside his reservations and deciding to ensure the future for his daughter, Harry dramatically takes A.J.’s place. Even now, it’s one of the most emotional and devastating scenes I’ve ever seen as A.J. collapses in hysteria and, after tearfully saying goodbye to Grace, Harry overcomes the last of Dottie’s resistance to press the button and save the Earth form destruction. You can harpoon all you want about how stupid and inaccurate the Armageddon is but very few films reduce me to tears more than this one, and this scene, thanks to the surprisingly moving performance from Willis (to say nothing of Affleck and the one-two gut punch of Sharp’s respectful “Thank you, Harry” and Bear’s gravelly, reverential farewell: “Yo Harry…you dah man”).
Now, I’m not really much of a fan of Michael Bay (or Ben Affleck, for that matter…) but I make an exception for Armageddon; this was another of those films that was a formative part of my teenage years and I distinctly remember renting the VHS tape and watching, transfixed, with my friends and being completely invested and using every ounce of my self-control to not burst into tears at the film’s dramatic conclusion. Yes, it’s ridiculous and over the top. Yes, it’s absolutely mental and takes numerous liberties. And, yes, it’s not the most scientifically accurate and realistic move ever made but let’s say, for sake of argument, that it had been. How fucking boring would that have been? I paid to see Bruce Willis drill a hole into an asteroid and save the world and that’s exactly what I got! Armageddon delivers top notch action, explosions, drama, and entertainment from start to finish thanks to its impressive practical effects, sets, and some great use of special effects to give life to an inanimate object. It’s an intense rollercoaster of a disaster film, one geared around hope and unity and normal people overcoming insurmountable odds to destroy the greatest threat the world has ever faced. Yet, it’s also an extremely emotional film and remains, to this day, one of my favourite disaster movies and is always guaranteed to get the man tears flowing.
Are you a fan of Armageddon? How do you feel it compares to Deep Impact and other disaster films? Were you a fan of the concept or did you find the idea of oil drillers being shot into space too over the top? Which of the characters was your favourite and what did you think to Bruce Willis’ performance? Did you like that Michael Bay imbued Dottie with a form of malevolence or did you think that was one of the film’s more ridiculous concepts? How important is scientific accuracy and realism to you in disaster films like this? How are you celebrating the end of the world today? Whatever you think about Armageddon, disaster films, and overblown predictions of the end of the world, go ahead and drop a comment down below.