New Blu-ray release of ARMAGEDDON recalls a time when a Michael Bay film was no cause for dread
Difficult as it might be to imagine, the prospect of a new Michael Bay film wasn’t always cause for dread. After a string of successful music videos, Bay hit box office pay-dirt with the buddy-cop action comedy BAD BOYS in 1995, immediately establishing a signature style of kinetic action visuals on a bed of questionably tasteful racial and sexual humor. While the stars were largely responsible for its success, the energy and strict adherence to formula was 100% Bay. He exhibited a far more refined touch in his next – and best film – THE ROCK, which displayed strong sense for casting and a better grip on action sequence pacing. The film was yet another smash, which guaranteed Bay even more control (and a coveted Producer credit) on his third film, ARMAGEDDON, a hugely expensive sci-fiextravaganza that pushed the limits of 1998-era digital effects.
After Manhattan Island is devastated – and the orbiting space shuttle Atlantis destroyed – by a particularly violent meteor shower, a group of NASA’s top scientists led by Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) discovers that the initial strike was just a preamble to the real threat, a giant meteor the size of Texas that’s due to reach Earth in 18 days. With the meteor too immense to be destroyed by missile, it’s decided that a powerful nuclear device buried near the core would be enough to break the rock up before it impacts. To accomplish the necessary drilling, NASA approaches Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his crew of hard-nosed oil rig drillers with the job of a lifetime. The enormity of the task forces Harry to re-hire A J Frost (Ben Affleck) after chasing him away at gunpoint from daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) in an attempt to save her from a blue-collar life. Stamper and his team are trained alongside the crews for the shuttles Independence and Freedom, led by Col. Sharp (William Fichtner), whose military training is put to the test by the less-than-disciplined drillers, particularly the mellower than mellow Oscar Choice and the uber wormy ‘Rockhound’ (Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi, respectively, making for cinema’s most unlikely geologists). The shuttles finally launch, barely surviving a dock with a Russian space station to gather fuel, where they pick up cosmonaut Lev Andropov (Peter Stormare, reunited with Fargo costar Buscemi). After a dangerous slingshot maneuver around the moon severely reduces the team’s numbers, they must still attempt an unprecedented landing (on a surface without 2 tandem meters of flat space) and then drill through thousands of feet of hard iron for the detonation to be effective. When venting gas destroys the remote detonation system, it’s short straw time for Harry, A J and the remaining crew.
Michael Bay has been making it very difficult to remember that he used to know how to put together a satisfying summer blockbuster. What might have seemed bombastic – or just loud – a decade ago seems almost quaint in the wake of two Transformers films, and Bay’s over-reliance on Americana iconography hadn’t quite worn out its welcome yet (this oversight was taken care of with Pearl Harbor, where we lost count of the number of scenes of Middle-American families huddled around antique radios. Now, were not going to sit here and tell you that ARMAGEDDON is without problems – far from it. The film seriously drags once the crew lands on the offending comet, with Bay creating increasingly incredulous suspense sequences for no better reason than to wring an extra ‘beat’ out of an already exhausted story (and why NASA would think to install Gatling guns on its expedition vehicles would make for a deleted scene that we want to see!)
But you have to give credit where it’s due, and Bay (along with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) shows an almost wizardly casting sense; in addition to giving Billy Bob Thornton his first truly high-profile role in a Hollywood Studio film, ARMAGEDDON features genuine ‘catch a rising star’ turns from Owen Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Steve Buscemi and Michael Clarke Duncan. Almost more impressive is Bay’s knack for filling many small roles with the likes of Will Patton, William Fichtner and Peter Stormare – all welcome faces who take hackneyed characters and make them entertaining and watchable. Plus, look fast for Udo Kier (as a harried NASA psychologist) and Grace Zabriskie (a nagging wife who unwittingly names the meteor).
As for the leads, Willis and Affleck do just fine. Willis can do this sort of thing in his sleep, but to his credit, rarely does. He can take a potentially cringe-inducing scene like his final communication with daughter Liv Tyler, and find a genuinely affecting emotional beat to build on. Affleck, in an early role, doesn’t have the effortless gravitas that his costar does, but exhibits a nice, unaffected humor when given the chance (“I have no idea what I’m doing! See that button (hits button) I have no idea what that does!”) But it’s Thornton that you’ll be remembering, lending the same sort of authority as the executive director of NASA that Ed Harris did in Apollo 13 – and in far less forgiving surroundings!
Unfortunately, the success of ARMAGEDDON seemed to kill one part of Bay while simultaneously awakening another. His follow-up film, Pearl Harbor, made money, to the extent that it was shoved down the collective throat of audiences in the months prior to 9/11, but good luck finding anyone who actually liked it. Bay’s casting instincts were off, and the few genuinely affecting moments are lost in an orgy of self-indulgent visuals and carelessly slight characterizations. After a brief detour on THE ISLAND (a film that featured a slow narrative build-up in its first act), things have only gotten worse since then, with the two overblown TRANSFORMERS films.
Unfortunately, Disney has let ARMAGEDDON down with a so-so Blu-Ray release that didn’t have to be. Criterion had previously released a deluxe 2-disc DVD, and though that set sports a non-anamorphic transfer (not, unfortunately, odd for a 1999 DVD release), this long out-of-print edition is still desirable for its extras, commentary, and extended cut of the feature (amounting to about 3min) – none of which are in evidence on the new Blu-Ray. It’s possible that Criterion owns the rights to all of the above, but given Disney’s business practices, it’s a bit much to believe that they would hand over the rights to all that value-added material without at least tying a string to it.
In any case, what matters is the image quality, and it’s quite good. Like Tombstone, Disney’s other high profile Blu-Ray release streeting on Tuesday, April 27th, ARMAGEDDON appears to have been struck using the same master for the older DVD releases. That’s good news the film, which always looked good on home video – even VHS – and not so good for a heavily filtered and artifact-plagued Tombstone. Unlike Bay’s heavily digitized Transformers films, ARMAGEDDON feels amazingly film-like, enough so that we were amazed to see some textural film grain pop-up now and then (particularly in darker scenes).
Equally good is the DTS-HD master audio that retains aural nuance and readable dialog levels without sacrificing the show-off sequences, like the initial meteor shower over Manhattan (featuring several disturbingly realistic shots of the WTC towers being hit) or the beautifully handled dual shuttle launch sequence.
Back in 1998, nobody was going to argue ARMAGEDDON’s place in the annals of great cinema, but more than a decade on, when summer blockbusters like G I Joe thrash about in an unconvincing digital world that leaves even engaging actors like Dennis Quaid adrift without a paddle, who’d have thunk that we’d be holding up a Michael Bay picture as a paradigm of taste and restraint?