Armageddon (1998): The first hate-watch in Film Roundup history! I saw this movie when it came out, in a "friend has an extra ticket" scenario, and like the other movies I saw for free while in college (Very Bad Things, Mars Attacks!, The Phantom Menace), it's awful. But unlike those other movies, people didn't seem to notice that Armageddon was bad! It was the top-grossing film of 1998! It's in the Criterion Collection! (Albeit more as a "representative sample" pick than a "good movie" pick.) Where I saw a uniquely awful film, others saw only a cheesy summer blockbuster.
At the time, my hatred for Armageddon focused mainly on the many, many plot holes and scientific errors in the film. But that's a pretty superficial way to look at a movie. Silent Running has huge plot holes and it's a great sci-fi movie. When I saw Armageddon was showing at the museum, I knew I had to watch it again, eighteen years later, with more mature eyes, to try and see deep into the horror.
Well, it's still bad, and the plot holes and scientific errors are still at the core of its badness. The fundamental problem—pointed out by Ben Affleck during the filming of the movie—is that it would be easier to train astronauts to operate a drill than to train oil rig workers to operate in microgravity. This movie is two and a half hours long, and a lot of that time is devoted to making excuses for why, no, it makes more sense to bring in the oil rig workers.
A big part of this work is establishing that there will be normal Earth gravity throughout this movie. This is because it's 1998 and they can't shoot the whole film on a wire like Gravity, and the sets are too large to pull an Apollo 13. But this technological limitation also makes the plot semi-possible, because Earth gravity negates most of the skill differential between a trained astronaut and a trained oil rig operator.
The one good twist in this movie makes all this unsavory exposition pay off. It's about two hours in and, after seeing one space scene after another clearly shot in Earth gravity, you've forgotten that these people are supposed to be on an asteroid and not on a cheap sound stage. Then a character remembers that, despite appearances, the story has them in a low-gravity environment, and they can exploit this fact to get out of a tight spot. Eureka!
Another big part of the necessary work is introducing four more characters to a cast that's already got way too many characters, because not even Michael Bay can convince an audience that experience on an oil rig translates to skill in piloting space shuttles. So they have to bring in some astronauts after all. It's okay, though, these are the pilots, so they're Air Force jocks, not loathsome NASA nerds.
'Cause this movie hates nerds. Our heroes are nice people, by blockbuster standards, but they're all jocks, except for Rockhound, the creepy Steve Buscemi nerd, and Truman, who was a jock before a tragic accident left him settling for nerddom. I'm sure there's a good movie somewhere that hates nerds, but a) filmmaking is a technically sophisticated activity that demands precision, so on some level all directors are nerds, and b) it's a circle-squaring operation to celebrate a twentieth-century space program while hating on the nerds who build the hardware and keep everything running. In the far future when spacecraft are toys, like muscle cars, you can do it, but not in 1998. I mean, we tried it! NASA was on board and everything. A ton of money was poured into the concept. And we ended up with Armageddon. I see Interstellar (2015) as an attempt to fix this problem, but it swings too far in the other direction and veers into uncritical nerd worship.
The action scenes in Armageddon are illegible. There's a lot of hardware on screen but the effects haven't aged well. The cuts are too fast and there are too many characters. (For much of the movie the characters are split into two groups that don't interact but are filmed on the same sets!) That's why most of the action scenes are accompanied by frequent cuts to a map or readout, or accompanied by shouted measurements, just so we can understand what the hell is going on. It's like hearing "rising tension... rising tension!... moment of maximum tension!... whew, everything's fine!".
So, it's a bad movie, but the world is full of bad movies. What's special about this one? Something dark and horrifying about Armageddon's badness made me willing to watch it again—something I rarely do even to good movies—to figure out why exactly I hate it. Then I read the little flier they hand out at museum showings, and it clicked into place.
Here's the essay the museum chose for Armageddon. It's by Jeanine Basinger, who taught film to Michael Bay at Wesleyan. Just as Armageddon spends a lot of time trying to convince you that its plan is a good idea, this essay spends a lot of time trying to convince you that Michael Bay is a smart guy. His prize-winning student film "told its story clearly, but in a highly nonverbal manner. Bay was ahead of his age group, but he was also ahead of his time. He still is."
[Armageddon] is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense.
That was written in 1999. Now it's 2016 and according to IMDB trivia many of the participants in Armageddon have backed off or disowned it. Ben Affleck mocks the movie in his DVD commentary. Michael Bay has called Armageddon his worst film, although I don't know if he did this before or after Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Billy Bob Thornton, Armageddon's most stalwart defender, is quoted as saying "It's not THAT bad..."
When reading that essay I was transported back, not to 1998, but to 2004. Because that essay reads like a National Review article from a Yale history professor who taught George W. Bush. That's the missing key. Armageddon is uniquely horrible because it serves as a prophetic microcosm of the forthcoming Bush administration.
It begins with the Twin Towers being destroyed. An incoherent response is carried out in a laughably incompetent way. The poindexters who think they know better than the tough-talking action hero get their comeuppance. After a brief period of triumphant flag-waving, the whole thing turns out to have been a huge disaster, and everyone involved backs away from it or pretends it didn't happen. The result is used as an object lesson in how not to do things. The best available defenses are "It's not THAT bad..." and "simply and directly, without pretense."
Michael Bay is absolutely a smart guy, but you don't have to be stupid to make a bad movie. I do think Armageddon belongs in the Criterion collection, but it should be experienced the way I've experienced it: initial, superficial hatred; followed by the realization that something can be an obvious disaster in the making, and happen anyway, to cheers and applause; then the sad hollow satisfaction of being proven right.
Because I'm all about celebrating the cinema, I'll close with the good things about Armageddon. The initial narration and the first scene are pretty exciting—Gravity ripped them off, so you know they're good. One joke made me laugh (Rockhound's parting shot to the loan shark). And finally, Steve Buscemi couldn't save the movie Armageddon, but when the actual 9/11 happened the former firefighter went back to his Little Italy firehouse and put in several days of volunteer work. The guy's a mensch.