Early on in "Armageddon" there are clues to what we are in for: the opening narration, which is delivered by Charlton Heston in tones reserved for high school science films; the line "Nothing will survive, not even bacteria my God, what'll we do?"; the incessant thrum of music meant to stir the patriotic hearts of good Americans and the adrenal glands of adolescent boys everywhere.
The scale, the self-importance, the over-produced sentiment -- there can be no doubt that this is a Michael Bay production. More specifically, a Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer production, Bruckheimer being the mastermind, with his late partner Don Simpson, of such thumping paeans to male aggression and bonding as "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder."
As he did with Simpson, Bruckheimer produces massive, and massively insipid, advertisements for youth, muscularity and the American Way, but mostly for Hollywood itself (his last movie was the blockheaded and bloated "Con Air"). And he has found the perfect sidekick in Bay, who got his start in the movie racket by making Budweiser, Nike, Coca-Cola and Reebok commercials.
Together, Bruckheimer and Bay -- whose last collaboration was "The Rock" -- don't make films, they make Ads of Steel, which are about size and guys and the big bad boom.
There are some big booms in "Armageddon." There's a big boom even in the first 10 minutes, when Manhattan gets pelted with meteorites the size of basketballs and Volkswagens and the top of the Chrysler Building punctures a city street like a yard dart. There's a big boom 40 minutes later when a bunch of oil riggers go up into space in order to drill a hole in an Earth-bound asteroid and therein insert a nuclear bomb. There's a big boom a few minutes after that, and of course, "Armageddon" ends on the biggest boom of them all.
That leaves at least two boom-less hours to fill, a problem Bay solves by hitting the screen with everything in his arsenal, which does not include sense, ingenuity or vision.
Billy Bob Thornton's NASA chief furrows his brow; Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler cuddle and coo. Will Patton, as a roughneck, goes to see his ex-wife; Steve Buscemi, as another roughneck, goes to a strip bar. As the roughnecks' boss, Bruce Willis maintains a "Die Hard"-like cool under pressure.
Even these non-events need padding, which Bay supplies by spending a lot of time on the roughnecks' space training (space training being the male equivalent of the makeover scene in a chick flick) and montages of small American towns -- and their counterparts around the world -- awaiting the apocalypse. Honey-hued, teary-eyed, wrapped in American flags in varying degrees of furl and flutter, these scenes bear an uncanny resemblance to Budweiser, Nike, Coca-Cola and Reebok commercials.
Just because "Armageddon" and its ilk bloat their budgets with elaborate special effects and stunt sequences doesn't mean that their producers aren't penny-pinchers at the core. Lately they've taken to raiding the larder of independent film for cheap talent.
Thornton, Affleck, Tyler, Owen Wilson, Buscemi and his sidekick from "Fargo," Peter Stormare, are all gifted actors, but even they can't overcome Bay's constantly moving camera, nonsensical editing and hyperbolic music. They were cast not to inhabit characters but to strike a series of iconic poses, so the ersatz emotion won't be diluted by something as complicated as a performance.
There are things to like in "Armageddon." The New York scenes are good (a "Godzilla" joke is funny, and the sight of a fireball crashing into Grand Central Terminal is breathtaking), and Buscemi and Wilson give humorous, human-scale portrayals within the coloring-book lines that define their characters.
In response to the inevitable question: "Armageddon" makes "Deep Impact" look like a chamber piece; at least Morgan Freeman made shorter speeches. And "Armageddon" sure could have used a plucky female reporter to suss out that whole Manhattan-meteor-shower thing; it isn't until much later, when Southeast Asia is destroyed by a piece of asteroid, that people sit up and take notice that something's amiss.
By the time Bay and Bruckheimer appropriate John F. Kennedy's image in their final small-town-America montage, it's clear their pomposity knows no limits. Don Simpson was no model of restraint -- he died in 1996 as a result of over-eating, over-drinking and over-drugging -- but considering the overblown and incoherent solo efforts of his partner, he's beginning to look like the soul of the outfit.
Starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, // Will Patton
Directed by Michael Bay
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi disaster action, sensuality and brief language)
Running time 150 minutes
Sun score: * 1/2
Pub Date: 7/01/98