Those asteroids that hit this morning... those were nothing, the size of basketballs and Volkswagons. This new one we're tracking is the size of Texas, Mr. President. It's what we call a 'global killer'... the end of mankind. Half the world will be incinerated by the heat blast, the rest will freeze to death in a nuclear winter. Basically, the worst parts of the Bible.
The second 'falling rocks' movie of the year, "Armageddon", has arrived on the heels of the surprisingly popular "Deep Impact", which is still maintaining a top ten position in the North American box office. This high-octane thrill-a-minute take on the genre, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer ("Con Air") and directed by Michael Bay ("The Rock"), is a winning roller-coaster ride that manages to remedy many of the shortcomings of "Deep Impact".
The movie begins with a computer animation and voice-over by Charlton Heston ("The Ten Commandments") depicting the death of the dinosaurs by a comet strike. Sixty-five million years later, humanity faces a similar calamity-- the first indication of trouble comes when a meteor shower destroys the Space Shuttle Atlantis and impressively lays waste to New York. NASA, under the leadership of Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton of "Sling Blade" and "Primary Colors"), finds the reason for this unexpected crisis-- a rogue comet has collided with the asteroid belt and sent a number of asteroids towards Earth. The largest asteroid headed for Earth is the size of Texas-- a 'global killer'. With only eighteen days remaining until Armageddon, several proposals are made on how disaster can be averted. The only viable solution calls for astronauts to land on the asteroid and place a nuclear device deep within the asteroid's core (sound familiar?). Of course, America will lead the charge in saving the world (USA! USA!)! Setting the ambitious plan in motion, Truman rounds up the only people on the planet with enough accumulated experience to execute the complicated drilling operation-- Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis of "Mercury Rising") and his rag-tag group of oil drillers, who all seek redemption in form or another.
Stamper, a rough-around-the-edges roughneck, has raised his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler of "Heavy" and "That Thing You Do") alone since his wife left him many years prior. His protege, A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck of "Good Will Hunting" and "Chasing Amy") is a bit of maverick who desperately wants to prove himself, and whose romantic interest in Grace is a source of irritation for Stamper. Charles Chapple (Will Patton of "The Postman") is a stand-up guy who regrets his failed marriage and not being able to watch his estranged son grow up. The rest of the team is rounded out by your typical collection of wise-cracking stock characters with shady pasts and unpaid parking tickets, most notably Rockhound (Steve Buscemi of "The Wedding Singer" and "Con Air"), a double-Ph.D'ed genius who likes busty strippers. With the clock ticking, Truman and Stamper must get the team's sorry-asses in gear for the monumental undertaking, which seems doomed to fail, given the quality of the hired help.
"Armageddon" addresses many of the shortcomings of "Deep Impact". By focusing on one major story thread, that is, the mission to deflect the course of the asteroid, "Armageddon" is able to avoid the narrative and emotional dilution that plagued its predecessor. One of the main problems with "Deep Impact" was that it did not have the emotional impact you would expect in a finding-courage-in-the-face-of-impending-catastrophe type of movie, because it had too many characters and stories to tell in the space of a two-hour movie. The amount of screen time that could be devoted to each character and their conflict was reduced to a bare minimum, which inhibited the ability for the audience to sympathize, or even 'fall in love' with them-- "Titanic" had a strong emotional resonance because James Cameron chose to concentrate on Jack and Rose's story. The emotional resonance of "Deep Impact" was diluted because we were only given quick glimpses of each character at various times, so when the 'great moment of self-sacrifice and epiphany' came, the impact was not as resounding, and came off more like contrived and melodramatic pathos. In "Armageddon", the focus is primarily on telling the stories of Stamper, A.J., Truman, and Grace-- their challenges are set-up, their struggle is presented, and the pay-off comes in a satisfying emotional high.
"Armageddon" also came off as a more humorous and evenly-paced pic, in contrast to the "Deep Impact", which was not only overtly-grim, but was also stuck in first-gear for the majority of the first two acts with a story that lacked a sense of urgency. Being a Bruckheimer production, known for its trademark John Woo-inspired visual style, "Armageddon" is characteristically punctuated by many white-knuckle action sequences. The direction by Michael Bay, despite a distracting preponderance of frantic fast cuts (often to the point of confusing the on-screen action), judiciously uses dramatic lensing and slow motion to convey the dramatic intensity of the story, and Bruckheimer purists will most certainly not be disappointed.
Finally, the performances were decidedly stronger in "Armageddon", though there is no stand-out performance in this pic on the level of Morgan Freeman's portrayal of the President in "Deep Impact" (which incidentally, was wasted with many missed opportunities). Instead, the talent is spread around a little bit more. which is not surprising given the stacked deck of actors who have cut their acting teeth in critically-acclaimed independent features-- Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton, and Liv Tyler. Bruce Willis comes across as a more interesting and endearing protagonist than Tea Leoni's character in "Deep Impact", despite the limited character development. And at least he could deliver his lines without sounding stilted. Affleck, Tyler, and Thornton were also memorable in their respective roles, bringing a certain air of respectability to their stock characters.
Sure, "Armageddon" is noisy and has the subtlety of a video game, but with a more focused story that concentrates on fewer characters, it is able to rise above its action movie trappings and provide the emotional highs requisite in your prototypical disaster movie. Though it does not venture into the philosophical, moral, and social implications of such a devastating event, which "Deep Impact" attempted with mixed results, "Armageddon" is certainly more enjoyable and satisfying nonetheless. If you only see one 'falling rocks' movie this year, this is the one.
All images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.