Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Armageddon: Criterion (1998)
Studio Line: Touchstone Pictures - For Love. For Honor. For Mankind.

When NASA's executive director, Dan Truman (Thornton), realizes the Earth has 18 days before it's obliterated by a meteor the size of Texas, he has only one option--land a ragtag team of roughneck oil drillers on the asteroid and drop a nuclear warhead into its core. Spectacular special effects, laugh-out-loud humor, great characters, riveting storytelling and heartfelt emotion make Armageddon an exhilarating thrill ride you'll want to experience like there's no tomorrow.

Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Liv Tyler, Will Patton.
Academy
Awards:
Nominated for Best Visual Effects; Best Sound; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Song-"I Don't Want To Miss A Thing". 1999.
DVD: 2-Disc set; widescreen 2.35:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Stereo; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 31 chapters; rated NR; 153 min.; $49.99; street date 4/22/99.
Supplements: The longer Director's Cut of Armageddon, featuring scenes not shown theatrically; Two Audio Commentaries by director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, stars Bruce Willis & Ben Affleck, cinematographer John Schwartzman, NASA consultant Dr. Joe Allen, and asteroid consultant Ivan Bekey; Analysis of the Special Effects by Richard Hoover, Pat McClung and Hoyt Yeatman; Deleted Scenes compiled by Michael Bay; Michael Bay's Gag Reel; Aerosmith "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" Music Video and Interview; Storyboards and Production design drawings; Production designer Michael White on the look of Armageddon; Trailers and TV Spots; A total of over 5 hours of special features!
Purchase: Criterion DVD | DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists | Score soundtrack - Trevor Rabin

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A/A-

So shoot me: I like Armageddon. Over time this film has received what I perceive to be more than its fair share of criticism due to its many stretches of probability. Well, just for a second, let's think about the plot: it’s about a bunch of guys who land on an asteroid and explode it!

People seem willing to accept that rather ludicrous concept but then they attack the movie for a lack of internal logic? Please. As far as I'm concerned, a film like Armageddon really only merits criticism if a) it's boring or poorly-made or b) if it goes too far beyond the boundaries of sensible reality. In the first category we have the 1998 Avengers movie; that was a truly awful piece of filmmaking. An example of the latter comes from Con Air; my enjoyment of that 1997 film was tremendously damaged by the absurd manner in which Nicolas Cage's character was put in prison.

Although a lot of people disagree, I don't think Armageddon falls into either of these traps. Yes, I recognize that the main plot is quite a stretch, but if you accept that notion, there's nothing within the body of the film that further pushes matters into the realm of true absurdity. Unquestionably, the film is not boring; it maintains interest over its 150 minutes with very little difficulty.

Put simply, Armageddon is a fun, fast, no-brains-allowed action flick. It faithfully follows the formula producer Jerry Bruckheimer's used to much success over the years: strong cast, lots of action, not a lot of emphasis on character or story. Although I've spent a lot of time defending him on this website, I'm actually not a huge fan of Bruckheimer's work; his reliance on this formula method makes it very hard for any particular entry to stand out from the crowd the way truly classic action films such as Aliens or Die Hard do.

Still, the method clearly works; even weaker efforts like Con Air manage a certain level of interest. I simply don't understand all of the virulent attacks movies like Armageddon inspire. The film never pretends that it will offer anything more than what it gives: an exciting, action-packed romp through some absurd but nonetheless compelling situations. Armageddon promises a requisite number of chills and thrills, and it clearly delivers.

Actually, I find Armageddon to be a step above all other 1990s Bruckheimer pictures except maybe Crimson Tide. I think this occurs because it offers a more intriguing plot than the others. 1996's The Rock remained essentially a hostage rescue movie, and 1997's Con Air offered little more than a variation on the Die Hard model. 1998's Enemy of the State was essentially a reworking of 1976’s Marathon Man. 1995's Crimson Tide scored a lot of points because it was the most intelligent and low-key of the bunch, but it nonetheless didn't earn many points for its Cold War showdown plot.

Say what you will, but the idea that an asteroid is coming to destroy Earth and some dudes are going to fly to it and blow it up at least was somewhat different. It certainly offered a new setting for some of the types of action it used, which was a positive.

Interestingly, Armageddon contained probably the weakest characterizations of any recent Bruckheimer movies. I think that this is because it lacked a human villain. The asteroid was the bad guy, and they tried to give it personality via its design, but it can't quite spit out the bon mots ala Hannibal Lecter.

That means we're left with the contingent of heroes from which to get our interesting characters, and these choices are somewhat less than scintillating. Almost uniformly, Bruckheimer movies feature ordinary male protagonists with extraordinary skills who are placed in situations that have extreme societal consequences; consider the asteroid threatening Earth, the terrorist who'll poison hundreds of thousands of people, etc.

Despite that last factor, the men depicted in these films rarely have the salvation of vast numbers of folk as their goal. No, they are doing it for the ones they personally love. Both Nic Cage's characters in The Rock and Con Air worked simply to save loved ones, as did Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide is a little less clear; he doesn't act the way he does so explicitly because of his wife and kids, but it's still a large factor.

Bar none, Bruce Willis' Harry Stamper in Armageddon falls squarely into this camp. He's not going to destroy that asteroid for any reason other than to save his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler). I think this facet of Bruckheimer films stretches matters a bit - surely the heroes have some concern for society as a whole - but I understand why it gets used so frequently. The concept of performing some risky action for the greater good is much harder to grasp than is the idea of endangering oneself for one's intimates. It helps audiences become more involved in the characters and better understand their motivations.

As does another typical Bruckheimer point: the heroes usually are fairly bland characters. This certainly isn't unique to his films; for example, many, many Disney protagonists - from Snow White to Flik - are not tremendously interesting characters. Still, it's there, and that aspect of Bruckheimer's productions is also very apparent in Harry Stamper. He's the prototypical Good, Solid Man without a lot of complicating thoughts whirling around his head. Actually, he's less "brainy" than many in the Bruckheimer canon. Most of the aforementioned characters seem to possess strong intellects; only Cage's Cameron Poe from Con Air appears as "basic" as Stamper, which does not seem surprising, considering that Con Air offers easily the most simple plot of the various films.

Anyway, Willis is perfectly adequate but unspectacular in the role, as would be pretty much any actor in a part with so little definition. Like I said, Harry's not supposed to be a character so much as an archetype with whom the audience can identify and like. It's up to the supporting cast to provide the interest. Unfortunately, they generally do not succeed in this regard.

As I mentioned earlier, it's usually the villains that get all the fun parts of the story. Since Armageddon lacks a human bad guy, it has to provide punch from Harry's gang of drilling compatriots. Sorry, but they all left me cold. I like Steve Buscemi, but his little wise-ass act is getting a little stale, and he didn't do much for me here. Will Patton's a fine actor, but his role as Chick exists mainly to be right hand man for Harry, so he remains pretty dull. Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler look good as the young romantic leads, but they offer little excitement or interest.

Despite the film's lack of genuinely compelling human characters, it nonetheless provides a surprisingly strong emotional punch. My then-girlfriend cried both times she saw it, and even a tough guy like me felt a tinge of sadness; not enough red meat, I suppose! You'd think that because we don't find the characters all that interesting we wouldn't be all that invested in their outcomes. However, I think it's the fact that they are so generic that makes it easier for the audience to identify with them. When a viewer cries in response to the actions, it's not because he or she cares about the characters; it's because the lack of strong on-screen personalities allows him or her to more easily imagine being in the role and thus he or she can more readily identify how they would feel in such a circumstance.

Like it or not, the true star of the film is the asteroid - let's call him Bob! Anyway, Bob's the reason fannies hit the theater seats last summer, and director Michael Bay understands this. Characterization seems even less important in Armageddon than in most films of this ilk, so Bay's decision to make Bob the focal point of most of the movie makes perfect sense. It may not be the best filmmaking you'll ever see, but it delivers what it promises. Armageddon seems to be a title that can't escape controversy in many realms. Not only did many folk attack the movie itself, but also the decision by the Voyager Company to release a Criterion edition of the film got zapped. Pretty much anyone who posted a newsgroup message about that release immediately received a response that slammed Criterion for adding it to his or her list of "classic and important contemporary films." My message to all these whiners: get over it! If their "criteria" required a film to be award-winning or critically praised, then there's reason for complaint. But "important" clearly lies in the eyes of the beholder. Armageddon grossed more money than any movie in 1998 other than Saving Private Ryan. That makes it important enough to warrant this treatment.

The DVD:

Armageddon appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. That fact was really the only problem I had with this picture; otherwise, Armageddon presented a solid image.

Unfortunately, the lack of anamorphic enhancement meant that Armageddon offered some significant concerns. Sharpness seemed exceedingly crisp and detailed, but this came with a price: serious moiré effects and jagged edges. Throughout the film, I witnessed excessive example of “jaggies” and quite a lot of shimmering as well. Although the movie looked terrific much of the time, the moiré and edge problems could become fairly distracting. Had the film received an anamorphic transfer, these likely wouldn’t have existed; the extra resolution offered by that process would have taken care of them.

Otherwise, this is a virtually flawless image. I detected no signs of any print defects, as the movie looked clean and fresh at all times. Colors were exceedingly vivid and accurate, as the film offered a bright and lively palette that came through swimmingly. Black levels seemed deep and rich, and shadow detail was immaculate; all low-light situations presented just the right amount of thickness but lacked any excessively dark or murky images. Frankly, this DVD would approach perfection without those edge problems; as it stands, I felt I couldn’t award the picture anything higher than a “B+”, even though much of it looked absolutely perfect.

In regard to the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Armageddon, I felt fewer qualms. Actually, I had almost no complaints about this mix, as it consistently sounded terrific. The soundfield used all five channels to a terrific degree, as the film presented almost no periods in which the entire spectrum wasn’t activated. The forward dimensions seemed accurately-spaced and well-delineated, with audio that moved cleanly from speaker to speaker and that appeared realistically placed. The surrounds kicked in with a tremendous amount of information that created a convincing and immersive auditory environment.

Audio quality also seemed terrific. Dialogue sounded warm and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were appropriately loud but they appeared accurate and clean, without any distortion. Even when the various elements became exceedingly loud, they remained clear and crisp, and the effects presented deep and rich bass as well. Music was similarly dynamic and bold, as the score and the various songs appeared fairly well-presented. At times I thought they could have been a little more prominent in the mix, as the effects tended to bury the music at times, but the quality of the reproduction seemed solid. Ultimately, this was a fantastic auditory experience that made the film all the more involving.

The main point - really, the only selling point - for the Criterion DVD of Armageddon stems from its supplemental materials. The previous edition offered only two trailers and an Aerosmith video. This version includes both of those items plus a whole lot more.

Most important of the extras are the two audio commentaries. The first one comes from Bruckheimer, Bay, Willis, and Affleck, while the second hears contributions from cinematographer John Schwarzman, NASA consultant Dr. Joe Allen, and asteroid consultant Ivan Bekey. If you've read many of my other reviews, you'll know that I love audio commentaries and that I also think Criterion produces the best ones. These two aren't the company’s absolute finest work, but I think they're both very good and they complement each other nicely. The Bruckheimer, et al, track clearly offers the most star power and it's definitely the more fun and informative of the two. As was largely true of the Good Will Hunting commentary, Affleck is the star of the show as he offers a nicely irreverent point of view about the movie and his collaborators. Bay also contributes his usual blunt remarks about his filmmaking style and he offers a great deal of valuable details. Willis and Bruckheimer seem much less scintillating, as they are rather reserved and uninformative. Nonetheless, the statements from Bay and Affleck more than compensate for their bland qualities.

The second track sticks mostly to the more technical side of things and adds a lot of good factual information from the NASA side of things. Through it I learned a lot about the scientific inconsistencies found in Armageddon, and I also head a great deal of information that relates the realities of space travel and what the powers-that-be might actually do in such as circumstance. Schwarzman also adds some solid information about the manner in which he shot the film and his interactions with Bay.

The remainder of the supplements on the Armageddon DVD are something of a mixed bag. The version of the film found on the disc is the director's cut, but don't expect much extra from it. The length has been padded by only a few minutes and most of the extra scenes are just minor additions. The most significant new scene features Stamper's pre-launch visit with his father. It's pretty lame, and it probably should have stayed out of the film. Still, I'm happy that we get to see these extra bits, even if they don't actually add much to the experience.

Most of the remaining supplements take the form of video segments. We get a few minutes of what are essentially bloopers in Michael Bay's Gag Reel, and we get a few more minutes of deleted scenes; not much appears here, and they aren't any more interesting than those clips that were reinserted in the film.

The DVD also provides a fair amount of information about the technical aspects of making the film. These are presented in video interviews with the effects and production design guys; the interviews are intercut with actual movie scenes and some behind the scenes material. In total, about 48 minutes of "making of..." information appears. It's all fairly interesting but nothing tremendously special. A small gallery of storyboards also appears.

Finally, as previously noted, the Criterion DVD includes the trailers and Aerosmith music video that also appeared on the standard edition of the film. In addition, this DVD presents eight 30-second TV ads and seven 15-second TV ads, plus there are a couple very brief interviews with the band prior to the presentation of the Aerosmith clip.

All in all, the supplements included on the Criterion release of Armageddon are pretty good but not incredible. There's really not much more here than you'd find on a really nice Warner Bros. or New Line release such as Contact or Blade, although the audio commentaries are better on Armageddon. Unfortunately, the expectations for Armageddon were rather high due to the presence of a second DVD devoted solely to supplements and because of the relatively high list price of $49.95.

Comparisons between this edition of Armageddon and other DVDs probably aren't terribly fruitful, however, so I'll stick to the issue of a comparison between the Criterion and the "basic" DVDs of the film. The main question revolves around whether or not the Criterion version warrants the extra cost over the $29.95 MSRP "basic" edition. While I still find it somewhat disappointing, I think it does.

Put simply, this is the best version of the movie you can buy in any format - DVD, LD, or VHS. It shouldn't be too difficult to find the Criterion version for much less money than $50 - heck, my local Wal-Mart had it for $35, which is only $10 more than they wanted for the "basic" copy. The Criterion edition of Armageddon clearly isn't as all-inclusive and exhaustive as I would have liked, but it still makes for a very strong presentation of an exciting and enjoyable movie.


Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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