Happy 20th Birthday, ARMAGEDDON

1998's superior asteroid movie still works like a charm on BC.

Once I hit high school and started working, making more friends, and doing more homework, I didn't spend as much time rewatching movies as I did as a younger lad, and I almost never saw films a second time in theaters, figuring it to be a waste of money and/or time I could be spending seeing something I hadn't already watched. But on July 1st, 3rd, and 5th of 1998, I found myself happily seated at the Showcase Cinemas in Lowell, MA to watch Armageddon, each time with different friends, and the third time was just as exciting as the first. I am usually quick to dismiss people who walk out of a movie declaring it their favorite movie ever, but while Michael Bay's oil drillers in space opus didn't quite take that crown (my heart will always belong to Halloween), I knew instantly it was a movie I'd love for a long time.

And yes, I'm talking about Armageddon here. I know it's an affront to nearly everything NASA will ever teach you, and I have very little defense for most of the film's first reel (the caricature-laden citizens of New York being blown up and never mentioned again, Bruce Willis firing a shotgun at Ben Affleck), but goddammit the other two hours of the movie just clicks with me in ways very few others can manage even on one or two viewings, let alone what is now probably well over thirty. It's just a perfect stew of things I love: Bruce Willis movies, "men on a mission" movies, movies with power ballads over the end credits, and most importantly: movies where things get blown up every 20 minutes or so, tops. It lacks a Jim Steinman song, true, but he was on the brain, since Bay directed the three music videos for Bat out of Hell II, which is how I became a fan of his in the first place. 

Bay of course was/is a target for the film snobs of the world, and the film got its fair share of critical drubbings that year, which probably didn't sting much when it became the year's highest grossing film worldwide. But I'd be willing to bet that the critics who slammed it then would realize - if they were to watch it again - how good they had it compared to later films like Bad Boys II and the Transformers movies. Unlike those oft-bloated messes (no, I am not a big fan of the Bad Boys sequel; if not for the Transformers series I'd honestly consider it his worst movie), the action is always clear and coherent in Armageddon, even near the end when everyone's in similar looking spacesuits. It was only his third film, so he was still being somewhat reined in by Jerry Bruckheimer (and Disney's checkbook), keeping most of his worst impulses at, er, bay. After that early New York sequence there are no awful stereotypes being played for laughs, the orange filters only come out sparingly, and the film's lone dog is thankfully kept from humping anything (it just eats a Godzilla toy - a then-timely joke about its now completely forgotten summer competitor).

As for the plot, people are going to make the same joke they've made for twenty years now - "Why is it easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than to train astronauts to be oil drillers?" (it doesn't help that Ben Affleck makes the same observation on the commentary), because it's easier to make a joke than to pay attention to the movie, I guess. As soon as the idea is introduced Harry (Willis) asks if they need to do anything astronaut-y (they don't), and their training is limited to making sure they can survive the trip and knowing how their spacesuits work. Several lifer astronauts go along to fly (and then fix) the shuttle and take care of setting up communications, while the actual job of drilling the hole in extreme conditions with the stress of knowing that if they fuck up it'll be the end of mankind falls on Bruce and his guys, because that's what they're good at. And time and time again the script (by most of Hollywood at the time; it's amazing the film's as coherent as it is) demonstrates how difficult it is for them, the experts who barely even manage to pull it off! Long story short, it's a pretty dumb criticism. If the world was about to end I myself would feel better knowing that the plan to save us involved experts in every field necessary, rather than moonlighters who took a few lessons.

It'd be easier to pick the movie apart if the characters weren't lovable in their goofy way. This would be the last time that Bay seemed to genuinely like his protagonists as much as the hardware around them, possibly even more for a change. And Harry's guys love each other too; in the film's middle, when they're training and prepping to go into space, Bay and his writers actually take the time to let them demonstrate their camaraderie, clearly showing how tight they all are and letting us feel that they have a history. This is in stark contrast to most of his other films, where the characters are always angry at one another and never give the impression they'd even care much if any of their co-stars got offed (Pearl Harbor and 13 Hours excepted, given the war setting allowing for easy "brotherhood"). The only conflict between them stems from Harry feeling his daughter deserves better than his protege AJ (Affleck), and even in those scenes there's little doubt he still cares about the guy. 

Over the years, I've found something else to love about it - it's an original summer blockbuster, the kind that we used to get all the time in the '80s and '90s but became rather rare once comic book movies and annual franchises started taking over. Again, it was the year's top grosser - in the twenty years since, only one other original film pulled that off (Avatar), while everything else has been a sequel, a comic book, or a book adaptation. There's something kind of wonderful about the year's biggest box office draw being a movie that you didn't have to listen to some fedora lord complaining that someone's hair was the wrong color, or bemoaning that they left out his favorite scene from whatever source material it was taken from. Twenty years ago we were all on a level playing field for the movie hogging the most screens at the multiplex - that's something that just doesn't happen anymore (incidentally, the only original film in this year's current crop of top grossers is A Quiet Place, which was produced by... yep, Michael Bay). 

So happy birthday, Armageddon. I wish I was celebrating with another big screen viewing as I did for its 15th birthday (I convinced the New Beverly to show it for the occasion; they played it across three nights and I went twice), or even a Blu-ray of the superior director's cut (available from Criterion - yes, CRITERION! - but it's a non-anamorphic DVD), but at least at home by myself no one has to see me cry for the millionth time when Will Patton's ex tells their son that he's a salesman. And then again when she tells him it's his daddy, and then again when he runs into his arms at the end, and also - OK I cry a lot at this movie. And I'll never deny it.