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The Asteroid Misses; So Does the Movie

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 1998

  Movie Critic

Armageddon Bruce Willis trys to save Earth from "Armageddon." (Touchstone)

Michael Bay
Bruce Willis;
Ben Affleck;
Billy Bob Thornton;
Steve Buscemi;
Liv Tyler;
Will Patton
Running Time:
2 hours, 40 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Armageddon" the movie certainly isn't drawn from the Book of Revelation, like Armageddon the word (16:16). It's drawn from a book of the revelationless (0:0).

So predictable it could have been written by a chimp who's watched too much TV, the huge movie is as dumb as it is loud, and it's way too loud. Watching it is like putting your head in a tin washbucket while weightlifters whack it with golf clubs.

The second in this summer's annoying-rock-from-outer-space films, this one makes "Deep Impact" look like "Les Enfants du Paradis." But the worst thing is, it's shameless.

It's craven, sniveling, self-degrading in its mercenary need to be a hit. It leaves no stone unturned in its search for the perfect cliche, for the lowest common denominator. It leaves no chord of piety or patriotism unstrummed in its hunger to play a billion-dollar tune. Flags? Babies? Sacrifices? Heroism? Multiethnic brotherly love? It's the worst kind of twaddle: loud twaddle.

News flash: Asteroid will strike Earth in 23 days. Hmmm, nobody's been looking up intently enough to notice something the size of Texas approaching from a galaxy far, far away? Well, anyway, our only hope: Send a dirty dozen of oil drillers – a big bearish papa figure, a muscle guy, a surfer, a fallen ironic intellectual, a bad dad, a rebellious kid, a big fat guy and so on (where's Telly Savalas when you need him?) – out to the asteroid. Have them drill 800 feet beneath its surface, place a nuke in the shaft and blow the thing in two, so that each half will miss the Earth. This is a movie only a dentist could love, especially the part where they forget to give the asteroid Novocain. Maybe it hates needles.

Bruce Willis plays the papa bear, and as Harry S. Stamper, the world's greatest oil driller, he stamps around yelling, "Who's been sleeping in my daughter's bed?" Willis is a little short in the tooth for this role, which essentially requires the avuncular yet authoritative machismo of late, ironic John Wayne (say, from "McLintock" or "Hatari"), so he always seems to be pretending to be a grown-up. He has one cool moment: The movie discovers him hitting golf balls at Greenpeace demonstrators from his oil rig in some southern sea.

Willis is okay in a part that calls for mostly grimacing and growling; Billy Bob Thornton, an actual real actor as opposed to a movie star, is pretty good as the head of NASA whose brainstorm it is to try Operation Messiah. Others are less fortunate: Ben Affleck as the young reb who's in love with Harry's daughter (Liv Tyler, pure ornamentation), Owen Wilson as the surfer dude driller, the normally reliable Steve Buscemi as the intellectual and Ken Campbell as the fat one. But of the conspicuously colorful drillers, only the perpetually brilliant Will Patton really registers, as a runaway father, consumed with guilt and willing to take this last giant risk as his one shot at redemption. These are all cliches writ big; everyone else in the cast is a cliche writ small, down to what the press notes identify as "Newscaster #4" (it's a newscaster-rich kind of movie).

But the problem with the film isn't really in the acting; with a cast culled from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts or the Primate House at the National Zoo, the results would be about the same. It's the entire thing that's been misconceived, from the editing scheme (relentless as a drum set bouncing down a long, steep marble stairway) to the scenic design to the special effects. It's all bunk.

For example, in order to personalize the impersonal and make the asteroid somehow evil – come on, how can an insensate rock be evil? – some production designer has imagined it as a kind of planet of the razor blades. It's all craggy rock formations and spitting fissures but it looks cheesy and indoorsy, like something off a cheap-jack '60s TV series, say, "Lost in Space." Despite all the computer morphing that sends the NASA shuttles zooming around the moon to link up with this craggy, puckered spaceball, you never really believe you're anywhere except on a back lot.

Worse still is the action, most of which turns on men doing baffling mechanical things in very bad weather, amid explosions that are heavy on the flash and really blow the styrofoam to hell and gone. It would have helped if director Michael Bay and his fleet of screenwriters had thought it fit to include 30 or 40 seconds of info about drilling in the 2½-hour film, so that what we see would be at least comprehensible. No, they were too busy plotting explosions; the result is that a lot of the time the men stand around and curse at something that looks like an electric shaver on a pole. Hello, is this exciting or what?

But none of the sequences really vary much. It's too monotonous: The stentorian urgency of all the government figures to the oddball banter of those wacky drillers, the flying debris, the 'splosions squirting flaming propane up to the soundstage rafters, the ticking doomsday clock as the numbers liquefy toward 00:00, and everyone being plucky and heroic and patriotic. You get all this in the first few minutes and you're still getting it in the last few minutes. And the action hasn't been orchestrated to escalate. It doesn't climb through gears and pitches, reaching a screaming point where you go into oxygen debt; it just whizzes tediously along like a car on an interstate, dragging a chain.

By the end, in the last cheesy twist of cornball heroics – the tear running nobly down Willis's cheek was a touch of kitsch so obnoxiously craven I could hardly stay there – I was rooting for the asteroid. Go, Sgt. Rock!


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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