Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Armageddon (1998)

The other night I watched the 1998's more action-oriented celestial impact film Armageddonwith my friend Nick for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. You can listen to the podcast here. And now for the review...

The Plot

One sunny morning the Space Shuttle is destroyed in orbit by a meteor shower that devastates New York City. It turns out that wasn't a freak incident--there's a Texas-sized asteroid heading for Earth and said meteor shower was just a bit of debris preceding it. Thanks to NASA's low budget for watching for potential celestial impacts they don't have time for more conventional approaches to deal with the oncoming extinction event. Instead they have to hire a bunch of oil-drillers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) to drill into the asteroid and plant a nuclear bomb to split it in half. Things are complicated by Stamper's disapproval of his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler)'s relationship with his protege A.J. (Ben Affleck), who will also be going on the mission. They've got 18 days to train for the mission and save humanity while more debris rains down from the sky...

The Good

*The movie starts out depicting the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, states that something like it can and will happen again, and then New York gets destroyed by the outriders of a Dinosaur Killer 2.0. This is a pretty damn important point to make. We're well-overdue for a celestial impact, and relatively minor events like the Tunguska Event and the Chelyabinsk Meteor don't count. And as NASA honcho Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) points out, NASA's budget for watching for these kinds of things only lets them watch three percent of the sky and it's a big-ass sky. In TVTropes terms, Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped.

*The special effects have generally held up quite well, despite the movie being nearly 20 years old. The asteroid itself is very cool-looking, as are the scenes taking place during the landing and the drilling. Instead of being one big inert rock, it's got an actual tectonic ecosystem including gas pockets, fault lines, a landscape, etc. That makes drilling the shaft to drop the nuclear bomb a much more time-consuming and dangerous proposition and makes for a more suspenseful film.

*There are some very good visuals in the film, including a scene involving a frozen corpse flying through space and the camera pulling back from Grace's hand on a snow-storming television screen.

*The movie has very good pacing and is generally extremely entertaining. I went into this thinking it would be a stupid Michael Bay explosion-fest, but it was overall a very well-done summer blockbuster movie with a surprising amount of heart.

*I liked some of the characterization of the secondary characters, including the biker-redneck propensities of Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan). And Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) is pretty darn funny.

*Although many people are rightly suspicious of training a bunch of non-astronauts to engage in a space mission in less than three weeks, the movie actually takes pains to explain this. Most of the more conventional methods of deflecting an oncoming Dinosaur Killer (like planting a rocket on it to push it off-course) would take far too long. This insane plan is literally the best of bad options, especially when its sheer size prevents simply bombarding with nuclear missiles.

*There's a lot of good humor scattered throughout the movie, starting at the beginning where New York is ravaged ("SOMEBODY DIAL 911!"). The way they introduce Harry Stamper--him hitting golf balls at some anti-drilling protesters--is pretty funny, as is his pursuit of A.J. through the rig with a shotgun when he discovers Grace in A.J.'s bunk.

*The scene where A.J. serenades Grace with "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and the other members of the crew join in as they're leaving for space was shorter than I remember it. Something like that would either be very sweet or very obnoxious, and keeping it relatively short avoids the latter.

*Early in the film, a character's recklessness and propensity for trusting his hunches pays off, but another character warns him of the potential dangers to other people's lives. This is touched on again later in the film and plays an important role in the film's climax.

*This is something I didn't catch until the end of the film, but one character is basically a Christ figure. Not just for his general self-sacrifice, but a very particular "the righteous for the unrighteous" (1 Peter 3:18).

*While we're on religion, I like how Harry and Bear are depicted as sincerely praying. And the president's speech on how everything humanity has done, both good and bad, has helped pave the way for the mission to save the Earth reminded me of Romans 8:28.

*At the end of the film, a bunch of military planes fly the missing-man formation. And it's rather poignant.

The Bad

*For something that darn big, 800 feet being deep enough to blow it in half even with a nuclear weapon (even if it was some kind of outsized monster like the Tsar Bomba) is awfully shallow. TVTropes has an explanation for why this might actually work (TL;DR the rock is two smaller pieces glommed together and isn't stable to start with), but that isn't in the movie. There's an article I found online somewhere that suggests the amount of energy needed to save the Earth in this situation would be hundreds of thousands if not millions of times more powerful than any nuclear bomb. The "two smaller pieces" theory, if it was actually in the film, would have helped fix that problem.

*There's a scene where the other drillers call Harry on his overprotective attitude toward Grace and they make a bunch of comments on how she's coming of age, she's experiencing hormonal surges, etc. That kind of thing would be appropriate if she were 15, but Liv Tyler was 21 when the movie came out and Harry tells the protesters their fuel-inefficient boat is putting his daughter through college. Grace might be older even than most undergraduates, given how she seems to have an office manager/client liaison-type job and might even run Stamper Oil's Human Resources (she tells NASA how to find the crew once they've scattered).

*Some of the family drama we see the night before the crew blasts off for the mission is a little dull, although it does help build up characterization.

*Why do the drillers go onto the Russian space station to help fuel up the shuttles for the landing? As has been said before, they're not trained astronauts, and it was specifically described that they're not going to do more than get off the shuttle, drill, and get back on. The smart thing to do would be leave them aboard the shuttles while the actual astronauts handle that kind of work. If they referenced a personnel shortage due to budget cuts and so many existing astronauts being killed in the meteor storm that destroyed the Space Shuttle early in the film, that might make sense. But they didn't.

*Why isn't Grace removed from mission control, given the two epic freak-outs she has? In one of them she has to be physically pulled away from somebody and in another one she actually gets violent with a NASA tech. Having her available to talk to Harry and A.J. makes sense from a morale perspective, but it would've been better if they just set her up with a two-way TV somewhere else. And given what happens at the end of the film, it would be very significant if she's sent elsewhere and then they bring her back.

*Given what just happened, the scene where the crew jumps down the emergency inflatable slides should have been a heck of a lot more somber. They're not at White Water, people!

The Verdict

A surprisingly well-done and entertaining movie, but with some dumb bits. 8.5 out of 10.0.

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