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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Armageddon

Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck
Director: Michael Bay
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 150 Minutes
Release Date: July 1998
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

A restored and revitalized "Gone With the Wind" opened at about the same time as "Argmageddon," and surprisingly enough, the two films share common ideas. Thematically, both are about the will to survive in the face of disaster. In the former story, Scarlett O'Hara has been reduced to poverty by the devastation of the Civil War and must use her wiles to subsist. In the latter, the Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis) must use his cunning in a rendezvous with an asteroid whose trajectory threatens to destroy the planet. Now, if someone fairly ordinary like Scarlett can prevail against all odds, do you doubt that Bruce is capable of saving the world?

One big question that's raised by any mind in the "Armageddon" audience still unnumbed from the frenetic assault on the senses. Which story has more clout--one about an individual using her artfulness to marry a rich guy, or one about an individual responsible for the continued existence of six billion lives? Common sense would tell you that a story of epic, global scope would rivet our attention better than one involving a single woman and a small circle of admirers. But if you go to the movies quite a bit you may be surprised to find the smaller narratives can be far more appealing. Why? Because we're all human beings and as such relate more easily to stories that are on a human level. To be on a human level means that if you're dealing with a romance, the two performers must be believable and must convey a realistic passion or chemistry. If you're dealing with a crime, you must care what happens to the people involved, whether perpetrators or victims. (Think of our sympathy for George Clooney's character in "Out of Sight" or our involvement with the psyche of the Michael Douglas character in "A Perfect Murder.") And a comedy should make you smile; a satire should have you watch with glee as the big bad corporation gets its comeuppance. (Think of Michael Moore's wiping the floor with the suited downsizers in "The Big One.")

Disaster movies that have no human enemy to hate, not even a hero we can truly care deeply about are difficult to bring off. Humankind vs. nature, then, is the most arduous of conflicts. Whom to hate when a tidal wave threatens to engulf Staten Island? When lava from Mt. Teidie overflows on the island of Tenerife? When an earthquake cracks the New York City into five sections?

Which brings us to "Armageddon," a difficult tale to bring off because there is no human enemy. Michael Bay's movie is frenetic from start to its conclusion two-and-one half long hours later, leaving the audience scarcely a moment to catch its breath. Even when members of the cast are simply talking, the conversation is agitated, overwrought, jittery, as though the individuals are trying to communicate over a pulsating disco beat (which may not be so far off, considering the decibels evoked by music supervisor Trevor Rabin). Writers Hensleight and Abrams--the two credited for a movie which may have had as many as nine scribes--ignore a basic rule: to sustain involvement, a plot must be developed with highs and lows lest the audience be simply desensitized by frenzy. The special effects are satisfactory, but then again with the state of current technology and the millions which were available to carry the usual Jerry "Con Air" Bruckheimer production values to the fans, why not?

Much of this criticism could be tempered if "Armageddon" had any originality, but unfortunately the dialogue apes that of similar movies ("We're not leaving them behind" and "The clock is ticking") and the sentiment is not only banal but false (as when Bruce Willis tells Ben Affleck "I always considered you like a son" despite Willis's every action to the contrary).

The story is much the same as that of "Deep Impact," except that there, director Mimi Leder gave a needed woman's touch in making us care about the folks to be obliterated by an asteroid. "Armageddon" opens on the world 65 million years ago (that's quite a bit older than the globe of the movie "The X-Files") where scholar Charlton Heston educates us that the planet earth had been despoiled by an asteroid--one which kicked up so much dirt that the sun couldn't shine (even on California) for the next thousand years. (History might be dull, but prehistory!)

Cut to the South China sea where business owner Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis) leads his dirty dozen oil drillers while he casually drives golf balls presumably into Sumatra. Approached by an unsmiling general, he is solicited to volunteer himself and his men to become instant astronauts-- to travel into space after a short period of training, exit the ship on an asteroid the size of Texas which is plummeting toward the earth, dig a 250-foot hole into the mean rock, and blow it up with a nuclear device. Figuring this is a good way to get young A.J. (Ben Affleck) away from his beautiful daughter Grace (Liv Tyler), he accepts the mission. With Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) on board to provide comic relief and a motel crew that includes at least two people whose brains must have rattled once too often while drilling, Harry is off to save the world. The men are accorded such hero status that even Chick Chapple (Will Patton), whose ex-wife has refused to tell their small boy that Chick is the father, now instructs the kid with pride on his paternity.

The witticisms are sadly not all on the level of Grace's: When she demands that her father treat her like an adult and Harry wants to know when she became one, she retorts, "Since I reached the age of ten and became older than you." When a NASA official looks at Harry's crew coming out for training, he exclaims, "They look like the wrong stuff."

The film is loaded with logistic flaws. For example, when the ship's colonel acts to defuse a bomb, he breaks into a sweat trying to decide whether to cut the blue wire or the red wire. Isn't defusing a bomb part of a military man's training? Worst of all, when the crew prances about the Texas-size asteroid zooming across space, the rock appears to have the same gravitational pull as Texas. And while we know how to send men to the moon, NASA leader Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) does not even know how to shave himself.

Some individuals try to leave the planet a little better than what it was when they arrived. Harry S. Stamper gets a chance single-handedly to save the world--which would, perhaps, leave it better. This grandiose theme should evoke breathtaking responses in the audience. Maybe it does. But it could also lead intelligent people with an appetite to see Spalding Gray deliver a one-man monologue on a small stage in an intimate theater.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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