Rocks in the head

Charles Taylor reviews this summer's other meteor movie, 'Armageddon'.

Published July 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

You know you're in for it when, at the beginning of "Armageddon," you hear Charlton Heston, over a God's-eye view of the cosmos, intone, "This is the Earth when dinosaurs roamed the planet." With Heston still around, that could mean it's this morning. Nothing that follows quite matches the old gun nut's stentorian tones in sheer pomposity, but you can't blame director Michael Bay for not trying.

Bay, whom Newsweek hails this week as the next James Cameron (in a sane world, that would be like hailing someone as Frankenstein's next monster), had big hits with his first two pictures, "Bad Boys" and "The Rock," and was handed an enormous sum (reportedly $150 million) to make "Armageddon" -- apparently before he learned how to put together a single coherent sequence. Bay is one of those young hotshots for whom suspense means shaking the camera, whipping it around in a frenzy of pointless movement or cutting fast from one indistinguishable shot to another. During most of the action sequences in "Armageddon," I had no idea what I was looking at, or where any of the characters stood in relation to each other or to the debris periodically hurled at them over the course of the movie's 144 -- count 'em -- minutes. Bay loves to place the camera in the path of meteors or pieces of spaceships or airborne cars. Did one of these projectiles conk him on his noggin? Is that why "Armageddon" is so utterly and thoroughly incompetent?

For those of you who haven't seen a billboard, city bus, TV or newspaper for the last month, "Armageddon" is this summer's other movie ("Deep Impact" was the first) in which a mother of a meteor heads straight for Earth. In this one, a NASA bigwig (Billy Bob Thornton, who remains dry enough not to disgrace himself) recruits the world's foremost oil driller (Bruce Willis) to save the planet. Willis, he figures, has the technical expertise to drill a hole in the meteor and then detonate a nuke that will turn the rock into space dust. Willis, unimpressed with NASA's flyboys, recruits his own crew of trusted roughnecks for the mission. Among them is the cocky young driller (Ben Affleck, in a role that does him no favors) in love with Willis' daughter (Liv Tyler, as lovely to behold as always, and without an ounce of the authority she needs to pull off the scenes where she has to stand up to Willis and Thornton).

I've no doubt that Newsweek is right when it suggests that Bay is the future of the big-budget action movie. Since when have blockbuster entertainments been expected to make any sense? Among the things that perplexed me in "Armageddon": Why would an experienced driller like Willis fire a rifle in the vicinity of oil pipes? And why would any government in its right mind entrust the fate of the world to the technical expertise of NASA? (Challenger? Hubble telescope? Is anyone out there?)

The movie opens with a meteor shower that turns Manhattan into World War II Dresden, and apparently no one in America becomes suspicious that something is going on. Thornton defends his decision to keep the public in the dark by saying that word of the impending collision would cause "a total breakdown in social services, mass religious hysteria." Try scaring anyone who lived through the Reagan administration with that.

Bay directs by the amnesia method: If something isn't right in front of him, he forgets about it. Willis secures a night of leave for his crew before their mission. A group of them get arrested during a bar brawl -- protesting to the cops all the while that they're on a mission of vital national security -- and we never see them bailed out. They simply turn up on the launch pad the next day.

There isn't much actors can do when they're stuck with dialogue that runs to "Not a soul on Earth can hide from it"; "C'mon, God, just a little help"; and my favorite exchange, "Maybe you shouldn't be here" -- "I don't have anywhere else to go." (When, boarding the space ship, the crew is told, "You're already heroes," the wag next to me piped up, "If you fuck up, no one will think about it for very long.") Intentional laughs (and relief) come from Peter Stormare as a Russian cosmonaut who's picked up along the way (don't ask) and Steve Buscemi who, as he did in "Con Air," proves an ever-reliable class clown. Stuck with a series of scenes no actor could be good in, Willis does about as well an any actor could be expected to. The lousy thing about watching him is knowing, afterward, you're still going to have to explain that Willis is a real actor.

Give Bay this, he's a considerate hack. Not wanting us to get bored, he throws in every complication he can. When he's not ripping off "The Right Stuff" (repeatedly) or if there's too long a pause between destructo set pieces, he tosses in the decimation of a city or country. Look! There goes Southeast Asia (we see families eating dinner in the seconds before the meteor hits). Boom! Now it's Paris' turn. (What kind of sick cretin destroys Paris -- Paris, for Christ's sake -- for our amusement? When "The War of the Worlds" did something similar in the '50s, those sights were presented as horrific.) Periodically, Armageddon turns into an IBM commercial -- you know the kind, where people stand on city streets looking dreamily at the sky -- or a Saturday Evening Post cover. In one shot a kid even runs along Main Street past a tattered "Elect JFK" poster that has somehow survived 38 years.

No matter the scope of the effects, movies this elephantine, by definition, stunt any imaginativeness. The goal is to recoup the huge investment. In "Armageddon" that aesthetic conservatism translates into political conservatism. The heroes are hard-working joes who have to stand up to the incompetence and treachery of the big government goons they're working for. And their price for doing the job? Not having to pay taxes for the rest of their lives. It's comforting, though, to realize that "Armageddon" is going to make millions for Touchstone's parent company, Disney, which will then be in good financial shape to continue the policies that have made it the target of the religious right (providing benefits for the partners of their gay employees and so on). So this Fourth of July weekend, do your patriotic duty. Go see "Armageddon," and piss off a fundamentalist.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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