Calibrated for maximum impact, the action movie has become Hollywood's answer to extreme sports. Apparently, it is no longer enough to put the audience on the proverbial roller coaster; extreme movies, such as Michael Bay's The Rock and his latest opus, Armageddon, have to rattle our bones. Now, when we go to these movies, the THX-juiced sound reverberates through us till our insides tremble and the images flicker so rapidly we don't dare look away. Unlike Alex in A Clockwork Orange, we no longer need to be strapped down to experience the full benefits of the Ludovico treatment.
Everything in extreme movies is fast, faster, fastest - the cutting, the camera moves, the exposition. But there's nothing thrilling about the pace. (Remember when A Hard Day's Night seemed like the fastest-cut movie in the world? It was.) It's not even a question of speed for the sake of speed, just a question of keeping our attention; no wonder so many reviewers use the word "riveting." If you slowed a movie like Armageddon down, you might just notice how the story makes no sense - why isn't the rest of the world as involved as the United States in saving the planet? - and you'd notice, really notice, how Bruce Willis' face seems to have set into a permanent puffy sneer. Even when a tear trickles down his face, it rolls into the crease of his disdain. It makes you wonder: Is it us he hates, or himself?
Not that it matters. The audience of hyperventilated kids I saw Armageddon with seemed to love the movie: They cheered Bruce, sneer and all. They cheered the special effects and Willis' younger co-star, Ben Affleck, who was trying to do some acting. They even cheered when the hard-working character actor Steve Buscemi came onscreen and flashed his bad teeth. (Buscemi knows better than to act in movies like this.) The audience was incredibly pumped up, as if it were at a playoff or a stadium concert - so much so that when the lights didn't go down 20 minutes after the film was supposed to start, I briefly wondered if there might be a riot. There wasn't, of course, because the audience at this screening was mainly well-behaved, if rowdy, middle-class kids wearing nearly identical clothes and yelling in unison at all the right moments. It was the sort of audience movie executives dream of.
Armageddon is the second Hollywood movie of the summer about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. The first, the lugubrious and deeply dull Deep Impact, has been a surprising commercial success, perhaps because it takes such a limp attitude toward the impending end of the world. Only in the film's concluding 30 minutes does anyone work up a head of steam over the prospect of total annihilation. Until then, it's just kind of a bummer, which is why it feels like it was made by Clinton Democrats. Armageddon, in contrast, is a no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners movie, the sort of nutso extravaganza John Milius might make if he were not only loony but untalented. No wonder the first voice we hear is that of Charlton Heston.
The best that can be said for Armageddon is that it isn't trying to be about anything; it's as close to pure cinema as Hollywood gets. The movie blows stuff up, then takes only 10 minutes to introduce its characters and explain how everyone will die if the comet isn't destroyed. Then more stuff blows up. Deep Impact takes an hour to put the pieces into place, then waits another hour for Tea Leoni to whimper "Daddy." There is a family in Armageddon too, but they're just movie stars pretending to be people: Harry (Willis), an oil-rig owner, his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), and her boyfriend, A.J. (Affleck). Clearly, the only reason the threesome exists is to make Willis seem human and to distract the pre-teens in the audience from realizing he's older than their fathers.
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The plot - as if it mattered - centers on a NASA official (Billy Bob Thornton) who hires a team of oil-riggers (Willis, Affleck, some others) to drill a hole in the comet. As with Deep Impact, the idea is to nuke the asteroid before it hits Earth. NASA and the oil-riggers are the good guys, everyone else in the government is bad. The story is, without a doubt, ridiculous, but since the special effects are actually quite impressive, that seems a small point. Still, special effects aren't what set Armageddon apart from other extreme movies such as Face/Off (an extreme movie with pedigree) or Con Air (arguably the apotheosis of extreme movies). What's stunning about Armageddon is all the really terrible filmmaking squeezed in between the effects and the explosions. In the end, that's what makes it one of the most fascinating studio movies of the year, and also makes it so demented.
Michael Bay, remarkably, seemed to think he was making a movie. That becomes clear not in the two-minute interludes with Grace and A.J. scattered throughout, but in the images of what's meant to be the rest of humanity. These dewy snapshots - a boy staring up at the sky, a father and child, a family massed before a TV - have the honey glaze of a perfect Kodak moment. (Bay even rips off the Robert Frank photograph of people standing at windows next to an American flag, re-creating the famous image without any of the original's pathos or irony.) No other scene better exemplifies Bay's candied truth than a shot of some American kids sandwiched into one of those we-are-the-world montages of the Earth's inhabitants - which here translates into mainly white rural America and various brown peoples picturesquely arranged in front of backdrops familiar from AT&T commercials. The camera catches the kids, running in slo-mo and flying toy NASA spaceships, just as they turn the corner of a building emblazoned with a miraculously well-preserved poster of a smiling JFK, the words "peace" and "freedom" flanking his beatitude. It's a staggering moment of kitsch, all the more staggering because it makes no sense, either in relation to the movie's quasi-libertarian posturing or its putative narrative. The shot just is.
Most of the time, Armageddon simply makes your head hurt. It's only in tableaux like the one starring JFK, godhead of NASA, that the movie offers any relief from its own pounding resolve, basically because it's the only time the action quiets enough for your thoughts to collect. Which seems to be the point. We're not meant to think about Armageddon; that, as some will inevitably remind us, is why it's called a popcorn movie.
Nearly 30 years ago, in her essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael relieved her readers by telling them it was okay to love bad movies, just as it was okay not to love those sold as art. Art, Kael wrote, is simply that something extra we've always gotten from good movies, not just those with subtitles. Kael was legitimizing Hollywood, letting us know it offered us as much as the films of Europe. She wrote "Trash, Art and the Movies" in 1969, and it was a polemic for both its time and the postmodern moment around the corner. Decades later, though, Kael's bad movies are looking a lot better; they actually look like classics. These days, nobody goes to Hollywood movies expecting anything like art (that's what the new, very terrible Hal Hartley film is for), but neither do we get much in the way of craft, technique, style or coherency. Which begs the question: What's left? Once we went to the movies to escape the world; now, there's no escaping - from the world, or bad movies.