Bruce Willis saves the world but can’t save “Armageddon.” The second and, mercifully, last of the season’s nuke-the-asteroid-or-bust pre-millennium spectaculars is so effects-obsessed and dramatically be-numbed as to make “Deep Impact” look like a humanistic masterpiece. Despite its frequently incoherent staging and an editing style that amounts to a two and a half-hour sensory pummeling, $150 million sci-fi actioner nonetheless has the Willis juice, Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay bad-boy ingredients and Disney marketing muscle going for it to launch it into high commercial orbit.
Only question mark relates to the unexpected endurance “Deep Impact” has demonstrated, and whether the Paramount hit, the biggest 1998 release thus far, will indeed have a “Dante’s Peak”/”Volcano” dampening effect on want-see for this more elaborate and expensive, but even sillier and less engaging, production.
In theory a drama about the imminent end of the world if an asteroid hurtling toward Earth can’t be blown off course by some courageous astronauts, pic plays more like “Con Air Goes to Outer Space.” Making most of the decisions made by the “Deep Impact” team look good in retrospect, filmmakers here take delight in assembling a team of ex-cons, wise-asses, musclemen and jokers as the group that will try to save the world, but by their own example raise serious doubts as to whether humanity is worth saving.
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It took five credited writers, and four more named in the press materials, to concoct this high-concept but otherwise staggeringly unimaginative tale, which parallels “Deep Impact” quite closely in its basic trajectory, if not in its details, tone and selection of characters. Earlier release, while hokey and directed like a careening train, at least took a thoughtful approach to the idea of impending global mortality; in “Armageddon,” doomsday is approached like a giant videogame.
Picking on a New York City only recently demolished cinematically by Godzilla (one of “Armageddon’s” few decent chuckles stems from a fierce little Manhattan dog attacking a plastic toy Godzilla), film begins with fireballs raining down on Gotham, disemboweling Grand Central Station, decapitating the Chrysler Building and generally wrecking the town. Amazingly, however, despite the fact that an asteroid the size of Texas is heading straight for the planet, the U.S. administration figures it can keep a lid on the news, at least until it figures out what to do about it.
Determining, as in “Deep Impact,” that the only thing to do is to implant a nuke or two in the giant hunk of rock to split it apart before it creates a big bang that will assuredly do to humanity what a similar collision once did to the dinosaurs, NASA, repped by exec director Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), recruits the world’s top oil driller, Harry S. Stamper (Willis), for the job. A maverick, but responsive to the greater international need, Stamper agrees on condition that he can select his own team, and it’s here that the picture becomes irretrievably ludicrous: The “Dirty 14,” which will fly up on two space shuttles, consists mostly of miscreants with bad attitudes, and Stamper compounds the insult to professionalism and integrity with the request that, should the group survive the mission, they all be rewarded by not having to pay income taxes ever again.
Exposition, training and buildup to blastoff occupy film’s first half, which also concerns itself with an inane subplot of borderline puppy love between Stamper’s daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), and his top-gun crew hand A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck), a relationship of which Dad for some reason disapproves. The more prominent of the other thesps are given one trait to define their characters: Will Patton has been a bad father but hopes to redeem himself, Ken Campbell is a big man with big fear, and Steve Buscemi likes busty hookers. None of them has any more depth than a character in a 30-second TV commercial.
After a preposterous little “intermission” in which the crew is liberated for some pre-launch raunch, pic be-comes an outer-space saga in which the shuttles dock with a Russian space station to refuel, slingshot around the moon, endure debris from the asteroid and finally land to lay a nuke deep inside the inhospitable black rock. Scripters (who, in addition to those credited, included Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg and Robert Towne, per press notes) come up with plenty of obstacles for the intrepid drillers to overcome, but director Bay’s visual presentation is so frantic and chaotic that one often can’t tell which ship or characters are being shown, or where things are in relation to one another.
Much of the confusion, as well as the lack of dramatic rhythm or character development, results directly from Bay’s cutting style, which resembles a machine gun stuck in the firing position for 2 and a half hours. Perhaps someone will someday reveal how many separate shots make up “Armageddon,” but the count has to be one of the highest in Hollywood history; at a guess, there must be a cut every three seconds or so.
In order to enhance the film’s destructive possibilities, the mini-asteroids that serve as a taste of things to come are given unusually good aim, hitting only major cities — New York, Shanghai and, in a gratuitous late-in-the-game hit, Paris. In a lame attempt to globalize the drama, insert shots show thousands of natives praying in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the Taj Mahal (not a religious site) in India, which somehow only increases the jingoistic, thank-you-America-for-saving-the-world message.
Film’s performance style consists of yelling above the ambient noise, which is usually considerable. Special effects are incessant and sometimes pretty groovy but, given the length of time each shot is on the screen, they’re usually here one second, gone the next. All tech credits are predictably gigantic.