90s Movie Challenge Week 37: Armageddon (1998)
Hello to… (Jason Isaacs? Ed) Well, yes, because he is in this film. I was going to say hello to our lovely 90s-tastic readers first (Oh, okay. Very good. Carry on then. Ed). Where was I? Oh yes! Welcome back to another #90sMC. This time we hand over to Paul Childs who takes us back to 1998 to talk about a truly meteoric movie.
And guess what guys, it’s time to embrace the horror! Look, we’ve got front row tickets to the end of the earth. Because this week’s film is…
Some spoilers follow…
So then, Armageddon, eh? That’s a film and a half, isn’t it?
I sat down to watch this a week or so ago on the same day that the running time of the new James Bond film No Time To Die was announced. 007’s latest adventure weighs in at a bum-numbing two hours and forty-three minutes. Twelve whole minutes longer than Michael Bay’s 1998 disaster movie.
When I told Mrs C about it she said “Why can’t they just make shorter films? Oh, by the way, aren’t you supposed to be watching Armageddon. How long is that?”
I had to break it to her. Two hours and thirty-one minutes. That’s a long film. Although not really by today’s standards when you take into account the Lord of the Rings films, Avengers: Endgame, The Wolf of Wall Street, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and many more. Longer films are becoming the norm and bloated 90s epics, I think, are partly to blame for that. When I talked about Titanic earlier this year I bemoaned the fact that the movie’s central romance actually harmed the story of the doomer liner, padding it out for dramatic effect, and as Mrs C and I sat watching Armageddon the other day, we realised that it suffered from some of the same problems as its lengthy contemporaries.
And so we came up with a plan. If we were to edit Armageddon, what would we take out? How would we streamline it?
So that’s what I’m going to talk about here, instead of your usual movie retrospective. If it’s behind-the-scenes factoids you’re after then I recommend looking up the brilliant Film Stories podcast episode on the movie.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Michael Bay?
Well, that really is the question, isn’t it? Mr Bay has a bit of a ropey reputation these days, largely due to the style-over-substance, eye-watering metal fests, the Transformers movies. However, his fourth movie, Pearl Harbor certainly didn’t help with that (and it’s another one that outstays its welcome).
So we decided that Armageddon was pretty much where this dip in quality started. Now don’t get me wrong – we both enjoyed the film, as we have on numerous other occasions. And we did’t think that the movie as a whole is particularly indicative of the dip in quality in Bay’s output. However, we felt that we were able to pinpoint the exact moment, about halfway through Armageddon when it happened.
And it’s quite interesting.
This is it:
We both agreed, when talking about it afterwards, that the film takes a significant nosedive in quality once the character work is over and the space adventure begins. Everything leading up to the point where the would-be astronauts are blasted into space is top-notch. As a storyteller in the first half of the film, Bay does a great job introducing us to quite a large cast of characters, giving them all appropriate amounts of screen-time to let the audience get to know them This is a classic trick by the makers of disaster movies because we, the viewer, are invested in their stories and we feel their inevitable demise all the more keenly when they happen.
Once those rockets take off there is very little character work. William Fichtner’s astronaut, aside, I can’t think of much at all.
From the moment they take off, it’s very much action all the way, sadly giving Bay leeway to do what he thinks he does best – big explosions. This second half is overlong and bloated. There are too many cliffhangers. I get that it’s a dangerous mission and people are risking their necks but the relentless cycle of Peril-Run Away-Explosion starts to get a little tiring. So recommendation number one is to ease off a little on the action. By its very nature, Armageddon is already quite exciting. We don’t need the cinematic equivalent of a frying pan to the face to remind us to feel exhilaration.
Second – This guy:
This ladies and gentlemen, is Rockhound, as played by the brilliant Steve Buscemi. I don’t have a problem with Buscemi’s performance. It’s just fine. I do, however, have a problem with the character, as did Mrs C. you see, Rockhound is pretty much the live-action equivalent of Family Guy’s resident sex pest Glenn Quagmire. Okay, so we get that he impresses a stripper with his stories about how he’s going to save the world. Fine. That’s a funny joke, especially given the payoff at the end when she realises it’s true.
What’s not okay is the continual “humorous” suggestions that he might be some kind of paedophile or sexual predator. Mrs C said “I’d cut that shit out right now! It’s not funny now and it wasn’t funny then.”
Hard to argue with that.
And then there’s all the stuff with him going “Space Crazy” towards the end. It just slows the pace down too many times.
Keep all the stuff about him being a geological genius and the one who uses humour to buoy the rest of the team’s spirits. Get rid of all that other stuff right away. You instantly get back about ten minutes of screen time.
Okay, what next. Aha:
The whole animal cracker scene. Just throw it in the bin. I know couples do engage in silly stuff; I’m half of one myself and I could regale you with endless tales of some of the uproarious antics Mrs C and I get up to. But I won’t. Do you know why? Because nobody needs to hear that stuff, let alone see it played out on a thirty-foot high screen.
Yes, I know it was there to show us the young couple having one final tender moment before he leaves on a jet plane, but it just feels so… off. The reason for this scene’s inclusion, I believe, is that having seen the success of Titanic, execs at Disney requested they up the romance factor.
No! Get rid.
What else? Oh, I know… This:
Okay, so I’m not specifically talking about the character of Lev Andropov, as played by Peter Stormare. Lev is something of a caricature and he is there pretty much to provide comic relief. In that respect, he works well. He’s likeable, funny and, when it comes down to it, ultimately heroic. You have no arguments from me there.
It’s the whole sequence on the space station. The film doesn’t need it. All it does is provide a stop-gap between the build-up and the pay-off. So what if flying up into space and then refuelling is something a manned space mission might really do? This is science fiction. They can do whatever they want. They can take off with full fuel tanks. Who cares that it goes against how real space travel works?
Armageddon notoriously made several scientific errors – 168 of them. They’re so glaring that NASA sometimes uses the film as a “Spot the mistake” training video.
Bay himself admitted that they made the conscious decision to not always follow the science if it got in the way of the story. So what happened here then, Michael?
Just have Lev on one of the shuttles right from the start, as an international liaison. Problem solved.
What next? Ah yes…
This is the moment when Ben Affleck’s AJ, Lev and Bear (played by the brilliant and still sadly missed Michael Clarke Duncan) jump a canyon in their moon buggy, accidentally float off into space, and use the vehicle’s limited thrusters to, essentially, fly a car through the void of space. This is NOT The Dukes of Hazard so please stop it.
Now I know above I said that science was fair game for sacrifice on the altar of entertainment, but this is just one jump too far (Nice, Ed). In fact, the whole sequence with the two shuttles getting separated and AJ’s team (minus Owen Wilson’s Oscar who didn’t wear his seatbelt with disastrous consequences) having to find their way to Harry (Bruce Willis) to help complete the job of drilling a big hole and dropping a bomb down it just drags on a little bit too long. They’re on an asteroid that appears to throw things and roar at them (despite it being, inexplicably, a vacuum) – I think it’s exciting enough without that.
So, with all mine and Mrs C’s brilliant changes, I reckon that we’ve been able to shave off about thirty to forty minutes from the running time, making Armageddon not only an emotional, action-packed adventure but also an efficient one.
Now, all of the above is barely serious rambling, largely for the purposes of entertaining you good folk. We both do like the film and we enjoyed it on its latest showing. However, with our Critical Hats on, we did wonder if Armageddon couldn’t have been just that little bit better if the studio had either tightened their belts or taken Michael Bay to one side and had a quiet word with him about excess.
Next time Chris Lupton takes us all the way back to 1990 to look at some very shady characters (He always was the kind of guy who rooted for the bad guy in movies, Ed). Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that they are bad guys… (Well what would you say then? Ed) I suppose, if pushed, I’d have to say that they’re…
(Smooth, Ed). Haha, that’s funny. (Funny, how? Like I’m a clown? Am I here to amuse you?). Oh no…