"Armageddon" is 25 years old: Scientists agree this problematic blockbuster aged like warm milk

"Armageddon" isn't just scientifically inaccurate — experts also say that it is downright hostile to intellectuals

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 4, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ben Affleck, and Owen Wilson walking in NASA uniforms in a scene from the film 'Armageddon', 1998. (Touchstone/Getty Images)
Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ben Affleck, and Owen Wilson walking in NASA uniforms in a scene from the film 'Armageddon', 1998. (Touchstone/Getty Images)

The famous blockbuster movie "Armageddon" introduces the audience to its hero, Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), by showing him bully a group of climate change protesters, assaulting them with golf balls, swinging away in his massive oil rig while they demonstrate against fossil fuels from a tiny boat below.

"I asked Michael [Bay] why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers, and he told me to shut the f**k up."

This scene is often overlooked in discussions of "Armageddon," which was the second-highest grossing film of 1998 (surpassed only by "Titanic") and later got accepted into the prestigious Criterion Collection. That last distinction means "Armageddon" is treated by film experts as worthy of preservation and restoration for ongoing scholarly study. The sci-fi epic sports an all-star cast including Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson and Billy Bob Thornton, as well as an iconic Aerosmith song ("I Don't Want to Miss a Thing").

Like most films directed by Michael Bay, "Armageddon" has a simple plot with massive stakes: An asteroid the size of Texas is discovered heading on a collision course with Earth, threatening to wipe out all life on this planet, and only a ragtag team of oil drillers trained by NASA can save the day. Their plan is to dig into the center of the asteroid, plant a nuclear bomb and detonate it so the celestial object will break into harmless pieces that fly right by our planet. As the oil drillers train and then execute this plan with actual astronauts, half-a-dozen or so dramatic and comic subplots crash against each other.

However, it's the introduction to Stamper that stands out as the movie's embodiment. Set against a toe-tapping rock song (ZZ Top's "La Grange"), Stamper is thrilled watching the Greenpeace protesters duck and dodge his projectiles — one person shouts they've been hit — as he chortles that he generously donates to their cause. Stamper's attacks on the protesters only end when he receives bad news about one of his employees, A.J. (Ben Affleck), and plot developments allow him to redirect his violent impulses against a different victim.

All of this could be waved off as misguided comedy except for one thing: That scene's disdain for scientists, as well as those who view scientific literacy as important, is mirrored by the movie's overt disdain for science itself.

"[The scene] is vicious, mean-spirited and speaks to the ignorance and apathy of whoever wrote" it... Adding that it was also "pathetic"...

"[The scene] is vicious, mean-spirited and speaks to the ignorance and apathy of whoever wrote it," says Dr. Michael E. Mann, a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "The New Climate War." Adding that it was also "pathetic" in his email to Salon, Mann expressed hope that "the writer of that scene, in his embarrassment, now prefers to hide behind that anonymity." ("Armageddon"'s screenplay and story were co-authored by — among others — future "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" director J. J. Abrams and famous screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno.)

When "Armageddon" was released, observers also seemed to detect a deeper anti-intellectualism running through the movie, such as the scientists who in 1998 noted this in regional newspapers like the Tampa Bay Times and the Berkshire Eagle. Per Columbia University physics professor Stuart Samuel from the former: "From a scientist's point of view, (Armageddon) is a complete fallacy. I went in there thinking that it was going to be at least semi-realistic. In fact, there's very little in the movie that is scientifically accurate."

"Armageddon"'s animus toward scientists and science runs so deep that, on an intuitive level, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the mistakes are somehow connected to that anti-intellectual prejudice rather than merely being mundane errors. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, this is why many of the scientists contacted by Salon about this article expressed such a deep aversion to the movie that they refused to even rewatch it.

For instance, Dr. Clark R. Chapman — a planetary scientist for the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit which protects Earth from comets, asteroids and other near-Earth Objects (NEOs) — would only refer Salon to the observation he made about the film in an article about "Deep Impact." That sci-fi epic was another 1998 movie about a comet hitting Earth. "Deep Impact" had been released only two months before "Armageddon" but was overshadowed by it at the box office.

"'Armageddon' is set in today's world but presents a much less believable story [than "Deep Impact"] and a totally unrealistic picture of the oncoming celestial body," Chapman had observed at the time. Chapman's only additional observation to Salon was that "I don't really want to watch 'Armageddon' again" a sentiment echoed by David J. Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Describing "Armageddon" as "laugh-out-loud silly for scientists," he concluded that it was "not worth dwelling on the so-called scientific content."

Emory University Physics Professor Sidney Perkowitz, who famously helped create Hollywood's pro-accuracy Science & Entertainment Exchange after being appalled by the errors in the 2003 movie "The Core," simply stated that "both scientifically and cinematically, I consider 'Armageddon' far inferior to 'Deep Impact.' Its plot and acting don't compare well to ['Deep Impact'] and the science is less accurate."

Yet even a famously inaccurate sci-fi film like "The Core" was at least made by people whose errors seemed innocent rather than malicious; one scientist who criticized "The Core"'s bad science before it was released (he had seen an advance copy of the script) described meeting director Jon Amiel and getting the poignant impression that he had sincerely wanted to make a smart movie.

By contrast, "Armageddon" has an explicit, seemingly deliberate hostility to science baked into its very conception. As Affleck later recalled in a DVD commentary about the movie, "I asked Michael [Bay] why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers, and he told me to shut the f**k up."

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

"Armageddon" plays right into "all sorts of what we might today call alt-right fantasies."

Perhaps this mentality explains the answer given by Dr. Joshua Colwell — a planetary scientist and physics professor at the University of Central Florida and "comet adviser" for "Deep Impact" — when Salon asked him about the scientific pros and cons in "Armageddon."

"There are literally no pros," Colwell replied by email, before rattling off an extensive list of "cons." To start, the surface of the asteroid looked nothing like an actual asteroid. Additionally, even in 1998 an asteroid as large as Texas would not have been discovered only days before colliding with Earth; "literally every object that size in the solar system out to beyond the orbit of Pluto has been discovered," meaning we would have had years of advance warning. Likewise "the idea that a change in orbit would cause something to get here from the asteroid belt in 18 days is also completely unphysical. These things orbit the Sun, so their travel time is like their orbital period, which is to say, at least a year."

Colwell also took "Armageddon" to task for its illogical take on spinning to produce gravity onboard the Mir space station. Not only would that not work, but in fact would be counterproductive even if it hypothetically was effective.

"There is no benefit to having gravity in a space station!" Colwell exclaimed. "It is much easier to move around and get stuff done when you are weightless, especially when you are in a space station specifically designed for that. The only reason to do that is if you are a lazy filmmaker who doesn't want to deal with trying to make actors appear weightless."

This also explains why Bay had the actors walk around a low-gravity environment like an asteroid as if they were still on Earth, then half-heartedly accounting for that by having "miniature gas thrusters in their spacesuits pointing upwards to push them into the ground." Yet that "explanation" only adds to the ridiculousness, with Colwell questioning whether anyone could "think of something more stupid to do with your spacesuit than to load it up with a gas propulsion system whose sole purpose is to make you heavier and which, of course, will just knock you on your ass if you happen to bend over a little bit so the thruster isn't pointing straight up anymore."

Similarly, the rovers that they use to drive around the asteroid are inherently absurd.

"Here's a thought: make the asteroid a realistic size and fly over the surface instead of driving, because the gravity is next to nothing," Colwell suggested. Then again, because the filmmakers chose to make their asteroid as large as Texas, even arriving at an ideal drilling spot with great punctuality would have done no good for the film's protagonists.

"Their bomb would make a tiny dent in the asteroid because they made the asteroid so ridiculously large," Colwell pointed out, noting that the one which killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago was "not even 10 miles across" (Texas is 268,597 mi²). Colwell wondered why the "Armageddon" asteroid could not have simply been as big as the famous one that killed the dinosaurs. "One could conceivably blow up something that large. There is no reason whatsoever to make the movie asteroid that large. They're putting nuclear bombs into an object that's hundreds of miles across, and it's supposed to matter that it drills into the surface a little bit?"

To illustrate his point, Colwell added: "Imagine setting off a nuclear bomb on the surface of Texas or in a hole a few hundred or even a few thousand feet deep. Either way, there will be a big hole where the bomb is, and the rest of Texas will be just fine."

Colwell wrapped up his explanations by admitting that there are many more errors in "Armageddon" but he did not wish to "subject" himself to another rewatch of the movie. Upon enduring that experience myself for this article, I spotted how the Earth's continents do not look as they did in the Cretaceous Period during the opening scene, which purportedly reenacts the asteroid hitting our planet 65 million years ago; how we see fire burning on the asteroid, even though that would be impossible without an atmosphere to contain the oxygen; how on the Mir space station, liquid oxygen is used for fuel instead of liquid hydrogen; and how the asteroid was so close to Earth when Stamper blows it up that it still would have ended all life regardless of his success. (NASA — which shows this movie to highlight its bad science, even though some of its scenes were shot in NASA facilities — has made this same point.)

Some of the movie's errors can be forgiven as dramatic license, such as the asteroid pieces always landing near famous landmarks or the sheer fact that we lived to see an extinction-level asteroid at all. (The odds of either happening in our lifetimes are astoundingly low.) Yet there are too many occasions where scientists and intellectuals are humiliated, and where reactionary values like racism and sexism are reinforced (usually through "comic relief"), for the wealth of scientific inaccuracies to be dismissed as merely incidental.

"Imagine setting off a nuclear bomb on the surface of Texas or in a hole a few hundred or even a few thousand feet deep. Either way, there will be a big hole where the bomb is, and the rest of Texas will be just fine."

Indeed this is a movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a wealthy Republican. As such, it is chilling when all of the "heroes" demand that they never have to pay taxes again in return for saving the world or when the asteroids are at first mistaken for Saddam Hussein bombing America. "Armageddon" was released five years before Republican president George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq under the lie that they had weapons of mass destruction.

This swaggering reactionary tone in the humor is too aggressive to be casually dismissed as simply juvenile or crass. In a sense, the film's attitude toward science places "Armageddon" at an ideological antipodes with "Deep Impact": The latter movie starred Morgan Freeman as a Barack Obama-esque president (who at this time was still an obscure Illinois state senator) who foreshadowed the intellectual Obama's real-life election by 10 years. By contrast, "Armageddon" has a deep disdain for intellectuals and intellectualism, reflecting the basic attitudes that later shaped America's reaction to real-life global crises like climate change and the ongoing COVID pandemic.

It can all be seen in that first scene with Stamper. Victoria Scrimer, Ph.D. a lecturer at the University of Maryland's School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies broke it down.

"Ultimately, the filmmaker is aiming to make the Greenpeace 'hippies' look small, silly, and clueless — they are the butt of the joke in this scene, obviously, though it's not at all clear that the film recognizes its own irony when Harry and the drill team eventually find themselves in the same position as the Greenpeace activists, tiny specks taking action to protect the planet from immanent destruction by indifferent forces," Scrimer explained in an email with Salon. She later added "the film simply seems to repeatedly shout: 'Stop worrying about extractive industry because asteroids could happen and then wouldn't you feel foolish for being worried about the wrong thing.'"

Scrimer added that the movie seemingly "doesn't want to remind audiences of human complicity in our own demise" in the real-world thanks to self-created problems like climate change and ocean pollution. Instead "Armageddon" sends the message that men who behave like walking stereotypes of toxic masculinity are the real heroes, while everyone else is a punchline. Science nerds with their science facts, in particular, are singled out as uptight losers who need to be shoved aside by manlier men.

"Harry Stamper is the blue-collar dream," Scrimer said. "He is the vindication of the American working class man who stands in defiance of the notion that all successful wealthy people need to work in offices, follow the rules and have fancy degrees." Ultimately "this movie in which the US government and all the smarty-pants scientists at NASA are finally forced, under threat of total global annihilation, to recognize and beg for the help of the hard-working independent self-made American tradesman" is about wish-fulfillment for a certain demographic.

"Armageddon" plays right into "all sorts of what we might today call alt-right fantasies."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa