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'Armageddon's' Big Bang Theory

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 1998


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, 31 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Like a white-water ride on a Class V rapid, "Armageddon" is a loud, long and bumpy experience. It might make you tense, it might make you nauseous, and its clangorous roar could well give you a migraine headache. Then again, when it's all over you might just want to throw up in a bucket, buy another ticket and get back in the boat for a second adrenaline-stoked slide down that swollen stream.

Allow a day for recovery, however, because the nearly three-hour film is emotionally and physically exhausting. It's an intensely visceral pleasure, not unmixed with pain, like the multiple g-force acceleration experienced by an astronaut during lift-off. "Armageddon" peels your eyelids back and blows your eardrums out until rational analysis is moot.

In "Armageddon," the trip is courtesy of an asteroid traveling 22,000 miles per hour straight for Earth. Your guide on the journey? That lunk-headed Everyman Bruce Willis, whose interchangeable heroics serve equally well on a boat, a plane, a train or a rocket ship. Here, Willis plays Harry S. Stamper, a larger-than-life character based on oil-field legend Red Adair.

Harry's 30 years of expertise as a drilling virtuoso are called into service by the U.S. government when NASA wakes up to find a humongous rock less than a month away from a rendezvous with our planet's atmosphere. How did the pros miss this "global killer" until it was virtually breathing down our necks? Evil budgetary cutbacks, according to the space agency's executive director Dan Truman, played with stoicism and methodical resolve by an unshaven Billy Bob Thornton.

As the pocket-protector brigade at NASA explains it, at this late stage the only solution is to send up Harry and his motley crew of roughnecks, dig a very deep hole, drop a nuke in it and get the heck out of there. Unlike the identically premised "Deep Impact," which focused on the touchy-feely emotions of the folks back on Earth, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his directorial protege Michael Bay ("Bad Boys," "The Rock") have wisely elected to concentrate the action on the asteroid itself and the drama of the people who are sweating to save humanity.

Like "The Dirty Dozen," these so-called "retards" and "criminals" cover all bases of the reluctant cinematic hero: there's decent right-hand man Chick (Will Patton), hot-dogger A.J. (Ben Affleck), space cowboy Oscar (Owen Wilson), horny genius Rockhound (Steve Buscemi), Max the fat one (Ken Campbell), Bear the African American one (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Freddy the expendable one (Clark Brolly). If all goes well, the asteroid will crack into two pieces that will brush harmlessly past us.

Needless to say, all does not go well.

Once on the rock, just about everything unexpected that can happen does, except for the sci-fi cliche where the ground underfoot turns out to be the back of some scaly beast. Viewers may be forgiven for thinking so, however, because of the eerie moaning and groaning emanating from the speeding stone. It's 200 degrees in the sun, 200 below zero in the shade and the surface is covered with razor sharp rocks. In other words, as one of Harry's crew describes it, "it's the scariest environment imaginable."

It's also hyperactive and deafeningly loud. In the tradition of Bruckheimer excess, perfected with his late partner Don Simpson in such films as "Days of Thunder" and "Top Gun," the camera never stands still. The sound of a flash bulb popping is amplified until it resembles the detonation of a bomb. (Imagine the cacophony of a meteor shower.) Huge passages of shouted dialogue are swallowed by the din, with no detriment to the sense of the plot. This is not a movie where words matter.

It is no accident that the asteroid in "Armageddon" is described as "the size of Texas," a state where even the jackrabbits are said to be as big as horses. In this outsize movie, every little thing is jumbo-from the chunks of the Chrysler Building that are knocked off by the meteorites in the very first scene to the wall-sized Old Glory seen framed behind the lovely Liv Tyler, who, as Harry's daughter and A.J.'s fiance Grace, is emblematic of what our American boys are fighting to save in the first place.

In this movie of big shoulders, there is no room for puny emotions. The tepid and perfunctory love scene between A.J. and Grace, where he inexplicably slips an animal cracker under the waistband of her panties, has no more depth than a music video.

But the special effects are stupendous and the suspense is palpable. By the film's ending (shot like one of those schmaltzy IBM "global village" commercials), you may resent the fact that every imaginable button of yours has been pushed raw, but you will be powerless to lift a finger to stop it.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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