Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 15, 2010)
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: itís 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/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 severely damaged by the absurd manner in which Nicolas Cage's character ends up 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 its premise, 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 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 scathing 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 essentially reworked 1976ís 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 originality points for its Cold War showdown plot.
Say what you will, but the idea that an asteroid will destroy the Earth unless some dudes 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. (Well, ďnewĒ if we donít hold Deep Impact - released two months ahead of Armageddon - against it.)
Interestingly, Armageddon contains probably the weakest characterizations of any recent Bruckheimer movies. I think that this is because it lacks a human villain. The asteroid is the bad guy, and they try 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 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 offer fairly bland characters. This certainly isn't unique to his films; for example, many, many Disney protagonists - from Snow White to Tiana - are not tremendously interesting personalities. 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 leave 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! Bob's the reason fannies hit the theater seats in the summer of 1998, 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.