Review: Armageddon (1998)

Michael Bay’s 1998 blockbuster, Armageddon, is often dismissed as trash, a mindless, hyperactive vehicle of destruction and consumption not worth a second thought, but while it certainly is trash, to dismiss Armageddon would be to overlook the significant craft it displays and the ideological, cultural and formal effect it has had on American cinema. Bay’s filmmaking as a whole is often used as a metonym or stand-in for bad, American action films, but as Aren has argued in our previous reviews of Bay’s films, they deserve closer attention for their formal innovations and various pleasures. Upon closer examination Armageddon reveals itself to be a remarkable work of innovation and in its own way as significant a work of political filmmaking as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

Armageddon, as its title implies, promises the familiar tropes of the disaster film taken to their extreme, threatening the entire planet with an extinction level event of cosmic origin. The film opens with a shot approaching the Earth from space, Bay’s constantly moving camera gliding past the moon before settling above our blue planet and showing a CG-rendition of the asteroid presumed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This opening sequence is overdubbed with narration by the legendary actor, Charleton Heston, intoning just before the title card, “it happened before, and will happen again. It’s only a matter of when.”

The opening establishes Armageddon’s emotional tenor as one of fear and a near-religious awe, something that is reinforced by the film’s apocalyptic title and the associations of Heston with Hollywood biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. The film is rife with references to the religion of America. Characters regularly invoke God and the Bible. However, these references have no theological or moral function other than to firmly establish America as central to the planet’s eschatological destiny.

This is because Armageddon is a film about the ideological assumptions of late-nineties America. It’s a film about what threats face a nation after the “end of history.” Armageddon is thoroughly situated as a definitive post-Cold War, pre-9/11 film. After the opening scene with Heston’s narration, we witness the destruction of the space shuttle and a “warning shot” on Earth, as advance debris and small meteorites devastate New York City. Bay shoots that opening with glee; the mix of model work and early CGI is particularly effective, but to a post-9/11 audience, these shots can’t help but unsettle, knowing that an image of the Twin Towers smoking with impact debris would soon become a reality.

There’s a kind of casual indifference to the way that Bay frames these scenes, and it is only one of the things that underlines the film’s fairly nasty tone. For instance, the film follows a bike messenger played by comedian Eddie Griffin in these early New York scenes, ostensibly giving the viewer an interesting character to relate to; but even Griffin’s character is abrasive and shrill; his dog immediately and viciously attacks a street-vendor’s inflatable Godzilla toy (Bay and Bruckheimer assumed that Sony’s Godzilla was their only real box office threat that summer and they show their contempt for their competition in this scene, despite the competing asteroid/comet film from earlier that summer, Deep Impact, out-grossing Godzilla). The amateur astronomer who discovers the asteroid (John Mahon) insists on naming the world-ender for his wife (played by Grace Zabriske of Twin Peaks and Seinfeld fame), Dottie, because “She's a vicious life-sucking bitch from which there is no escape.” It’s meant to be a laugh, but everyone in Armageddon operates under the most hateful assumptions; the movie actually makes you manage to question whether extinction might in fact be a good idea. Is there anything good or noble worth saving? 

The more one considers Armageddon, the more one begins to see the film as having a unified ideological function, and that is to uphold late-20th century American values as absolute, regardless of the moral value of the individual characters. Armageddon is brilliant not in spite of its formal choices, but for the way that it marries the most crassly sentimental consumerism to a vision of masculine militarism and entitlement. It’s as much a work of emotional propaganda as any Hollywood film I can think of. The film’s characters express no qualms or ever reflect on the consequences of their actions. Armageddon takes its heroes’ worth as self-evident.

This brings us to the introduction of the film’s heroes, particularly Harry Stamper, played by Bruce Willis. We first see him on his off-shore oil derrick chipping golf balls at Greenpeace activists on a boat who object to his business. What good is saving the world if you can’t exploit it for all its worth? Armageddon expresses a belief that certain acts of heroism and saving are legitimate and others are not. Harry is quickly recruited by NASA when a plan is hatched to destroy the asteroid by landing a crew on the planetoid and blowing it up from the inside. Of course, they need expert drillers to make this work, and Harry, it is established, is the best of the best.

Many viewers make a big deal of the fact that they find it unrealistic that NASA would choose to train oil rig workers to be astronauts rather than just train the astronauts to do it. The film even nods to this, as Harry has to tell Billy Bob Thornton’s NASA director, Dan Truman, that he’ll only do it if he can bring his own men and do it himself. As he says, “I just don’t trust anyone else to do it.” What does this say about the film’s view of others? In the film, America doesn’t consult with any other nations (aside from using the Russian space-station to refuel), and no one questions their right to mount this incredibly risky mission when the fate of the Earth rides on it. Bay and the filmmakers don’t even leave any room in the film for other nations to play any role. Their feelings and capabilities are, for all intents and purposes, inconsequential. For the film’s purposes, Harry is America. His self-reliance and unwavering faith in himself is central to the film. Even the side-plot with Ben Affleck’s A.J. and Liv Tyler’s Grace is consumed with how A.J. must prove his worth, not to Grace, but to Harry, after which he will earn the right to marry Grace.

The fact that most people fixate on the oil rig part shows just how deeply ingrained are the ideological assumptions the film trades in. The truth is that riggers are highly trained, capable, technical experts. Its perhaps one of the least implausible aspects of the film, but it fits with the film, and Bay’s, obsession with the individual over the collective. In Bay’s films, one can only rely on oneself, not institutions or collectives to accomplish goals.The hero of a Bay film is always somewhat reluctant, but when the fate of the world is thrust upon them they are able to rise to the occasion through their unwavering sense of self.

This may seem to be contradictory to Bay’s ongoing fetishization of the US Armed Forces. As Aren wrote in his review of The Rock: “It is true that Bay does fetishize aspects of institutions and the government. He loves military procedure and ranks and the weaponry that the army has access to, but in his films, the military is never an uncomplicated good. It is merely the means of acquiring whatever tools are necessary to save the day.” In making Armageddon, Bay and Bruckheimer were granted almost unprecedented access to military and NASA training facilities and technology. The actors were allowed to film on the actual gangplanks of a shuttle launch, and Affleck and Willis wore real NASA space suits during the training sequences (one of the only times such a privilege has been granted to civilians). In one briefing session, the characters discuss the mission in a hanger bay between two SR-71 Blackbird and a B-2 bomber. Parts of those planes were classified at the time, and Bay nonetheless secured the right to film them. It’s as much about Bay’s gearhead fascination, but the military stands in for America rather than any kind of collective duty. For Bay, American exceptionalism extends to a distrust of any kind of blind loyalty to institutions and a faith in the more individual characteristics of self-reliance, as is made clear in A.J.’s pushing the machinery beyond what anyone thinks is possible through his sheer belief in himself.

It’s easy to dismiss the film’s plot as nonsensical. There are indeed moments when it’s unclear whether any of it was thought through. For instance, it’s established early on that they have 18 days to mount the mission. But after Harry’s recruitment, he must get the gang from his own rig back together, as a montage showcases what they’ve been doing. It’s not clear how much time has elapsed? Would the characters really have packed up and begun entirely new lives in the few days that must have passed? But the film glosses over this for the effect of developing the characters’ personality traits (mostly a series of inconsistent quirks and attitude problems rather than real character) that is easy to go with.

This points to Bay’s major formal innovations, which tie to his ability to function as a propagandist. Bay eschews most classical Hollywood construction in that his films are not made up of a series of traditionally staged scenes but rather a patchwork of ongoing sequences that don’t really have a clear beginning or ending. The camera frequently cuts across time and space, aiming for the association between images to make the meaning rather than the spatial or temporal relations. This has a couple of effects: one is to eliminate any pause or breathing space in the film. It’s hard to know when one could pause the film or leave to go get more popcorn, because, as Bay has explicitly acknowledged, he doesn’t want anyone’s attention to lag at any point. It has the effect of keeping the viewer’s attention fixed throughout.

The second effect is straight out of Eisenstein’s aforementioned Soviet constructivist playbook. Eisenstein’s major theoretical and formal innovation was the montage, in which meaning arises from a “collision of independent shots.” For Eisenstein, “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other.” The same goes for Bay. On their own, each sequence is a flurry of dialogue and constantly moving cameras. The meaning is drawn out of the effect of the whole, which may or may not be consciously perceived. This is why I describe Armageddon as ideological. The collective experience leaves the viewer with norms, motifs, and narratives that hold up American exceptionalism as paramount.

Another aspect of Bay’s filmmaking that is often underappreciated is his eye for composition. The launch of the twin shuttles is often heralded as one of the film’s best and most striking images, but there are many others. No shot is composed without consideration to light, emphasis of character (Bay favors filming his heroes from the bottom to make them seem bigger than life), and many of the backgrounds and other elements of mise-en-scene are impeccable and at times border on abstract or impressionistic.

So, while montage is mostly a function of editing, individual shots in Armageddon also function to highlight wish fulfilment and emotional content over coherence. Consider the elaborate sets that they use. The room where the so-called “Armadillo” rover is housed at NASA in a large room, filled with spikes around the vehicle. It makes little sense, but it looks impressive and conveys a sense that the vehicle is valuable and needs to be protected. The surface of the asteroid itself is straight out of the Expressionist playbook, with sharp angles and “unpredictable gravitational fluctuations” that emphasize its otherworldliness over realism. As other critics have noted, the asteroid itself seems takes on a life of its own in a sense, “coming alive” as the crews arrive on it.

But Bay doesn’t just use this style in action scenes or hero scenes. In the sequences before the mission, when the characters spend a night away from NASA, A.J. romances Grace at a farm house, with strings of lights in the trees. It seems unlikely that a roughneck would have such a retreat (who it belongs to or paid for it is beyond consideration), but it is as perfect as any diamond engagement ring advertisement, which is essentially what it is.

Ultimately, Armageddon works because it so single-mindedly adheres to ideological and emotional content over realism and coherence at every turn. It’s worthless to comment on the realism or unrealism of the film, because it is as much a fantasy as Star Wars. But it’s a fantasy that is easy to buy into and fail to perceive as fantasy, because it reflects the dominant values of American exceptionalism. People will buy what you’re selling much easier when it already conforms to their desires and beliefs. Propaganda is always easy to see when it’s “other,” but when it so effectively draws on the full power of the Hollywood machine to sell a vision of nineties America, it was hard to see how incredibly false its vision was.

Today, Armageddon almost plays as parody. It’s so hyperbolic in its patriotism and hyperactive in its editing. But it still manages to work in a lot of ways. Harry’s speech to A.J. at the end is still moving even as it is void of content. The exploitation of American imagery from across the 20th century at the end, showing the nation celebrating the heroes, shows a visual literacy that few other filmmakers have. But most importantly, it’s almost frightening how effective Bay was in transforming the tenor of American action cinema, even for those who would claim to hate his films. It’s hard to imagine the basic beats and imagery of films like those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without its existence. Thus, Armageddon has value, in its formal innovation and, despite the crassness of its central conceits, in showing how well the Hollywood production machine can craft a unified vision of ideology for audiences to fully embrace.

Armageddon (USA, 1998)

7 out of 10

Directed by Michael Bay; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams & Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh; starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, Will Patton, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare, Keith David, John Mahon, Grace Zabriskie, Eddie Griffin.