Here's everything you need to know about whether or not to see Armageddon: Bruce Willis is Harry Stamper, "the world's best deep core driller." When an asteroid the size of Texas is discovered to be hurtling toward Earth, the US government asks Harry to complete a simple task: Land on the asteroid in a space shuttle, dig an 800-foot-deep hole, and set off a nuclear device that will destroy the giant iron-ore rock from within. All this Harry does, and as he's drilling away at the asteroid, he barks, "Dig, dig, dig! Chew this iron bitch up!"
directed by Michael Ray
starring Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, and a big ol' rock
now playing at Meridian, Metro, others
It's a classic Bruce Willis moment, the gruff toughie against the insurmountable odds. He's utterly serious, but you wouldn't be surprised if he turned around and winked at the camera. And the thing is, you don't need me to tell whether it's any good. You know it's no damn good. But that's hardly the point. You also know whether or not you personally like to watch Bruce Willis performing these chores while stuff blows up around him. In fact, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Ray depend on their audiences knowing a lot of things ahead of time. These guys bring a very modern economy to storytelling—one that depends on the cinematic literacy of their viewers. This isn't done in a tongue-in-cheek, Scream 2 kind of way. Nor is it, heaven forbid, metacinematic commentary. It's good old marketplace smarts.
These guys know what sells—but these days that's standard moviemaking. They take the game one step further: Not only are they aware of what their audience wants, they're aware of what their audience already knows. And they don't waste any effort redefining something that's already defined in the public imagination. Bruce Willis, for example: We know he's a burly iconoclast who's at odds with authority figures but inevitably gets the job done. Mercury Rising used Willis in this role as well, but expended a lot of energy showing Willis being good at his job, dealing with his problems with authority. A wasted effort. It wasn't as if the film were creating a new character—it was showing us a character we already knew from Die Hard. Where it took Mercury an hour to establish Willis' character, Armageddon pulls it off in a single shot. ZZ Top throbs in the background. As the camera tightens in on an oil rig, we see Willis hitting golf balls into the ocean in demonic, mad-dog fashion. Who the man? He the man.
By now it should come as no surprise that Bruckheimer and Ray are both celebrated ad men. Each has worked extensively on Madison Avenue, Ray following that apprenticeship with a stint as an MTV video director. Their ability to read the sophistication of their audience is the key to their success as makers of film and of hype. They're the masters of what to leave out. They make the audience feel savvy and inside.
This sketching in of characters and situations is repeated throughout the film. These aren't real people—they're outlines we unwittingly fill in with our expectations. Willis, of course, refuses to drill the asteroid unless he can take his misfit crew of roughnecks with him. They're like individuals, and for this film that's good enough. Steve Buscemi is Rockhound, a horny genius. We never see any proof of his genius, but he informs us he is one and says he has two degrees from MIT. Plus, he's Steve Buscemi, scion of indie cinema, which is, like, for smart people, right? Michael Clark Duncan is Bear, a big black guy who's not allowed any character at all, except his timid cringing at every slightly scary moment. The pandering filmmakers are saying: See, it's funny, because according to stereotype, he shouldn't be afraid of anything, being big and black and all, but he's actually scared himself! Billy Bob Thornton as NASA Executive Director Dan Truman makes a virtue of the film's shameless economy, using just a tinge of his accent and a new straight-shooter gaze to sketch in an appealing and powerful man.
Bruckheimer and Ray possess a deep cynicism, which is more of a compliment than you might think. As the asteroid approaches Earth, the film shows montages of the people of the world responding to the crisis. A gorgeous shot shows a crowd of Indians in front of the Taj Mahal. American children run through a farmyard to a shady verandah. Parisians argue at a sidewalk cafe. It all looks great. And it's here that the filmmakers tip their hand. This isn't a movie; it's a Nike commercial. And it works, whether you like it or not. If we must have films with hype running through them like a shiny golden vein, they should be made by people like this: people who know their game. In the end, this sophistication endows Armageddon with the quintessence of the blockbuster film: a quick thrill, a knowing laugh, and then a tired redundancy where the plot and characters might be. But so what? Big rocks blow up, we see the Bruce we know and love, Liv Tyler is as china-pretty as ever, and the asteroid gets its clock cleaned. Kicks are had.