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The Chrysler Building about to eat it... In a summer that has seen its fair share of spectacular failures (Godzilla), medium-sized disappointments (The X-Files), and an overall revenue that is down from last year (which most people thought sucked too), you can bet that cigar-smoking Hollywood Players with swimming pools shaped like Oscars are not lying back in their chaise lounges with a serene smile. They are hunched over the trade magazines wondering where all the money went. More specifically, they are keeping a keen eye on this week's Studio-Saving Blockbuster, the thriller "Armageddon," hoping that us hoi polloi line up to experience this thing in droves.
Well, if you don't want the responsibility just yet, I'll be your hoi polloi for now. "Armageddon" is a very capable thriller, worthy of every drop of freon powering your theater's air conditioner. You should keep the studio magnates happy by heading on over to your local multiplex and assuaging their fragile egos.
Bruce Willis stars as Harry Stamper, The World's Finest Earth Driller (I didn't even know they were handing out awards for that kind of thing) who is at constant odds with his daughter (Liv Tyler) and her boyfriend, the affable Ben Affleck. When NASA learns that a "global killer" asteroid is heading straight for Earth, government official Billy Bob Thornton hires Stamper and his crew of blue-collar misfits to go up into a New, Improved Space Shuttle to drill down into the asteroid, lay a nuke, and then be like a busboy and get the fork outta there.
True, the thing reeks of demographical audience testing; with the success of Titanic (which convinced Hollywood that females decide what movies get seen, and all females like romance, right?) and the breakout hit of Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler enjoy a good bit of tender screen time, tough to pull off when an asteroid is hurtling toward the Pacific Ocean. Like all good summer thrillers, the heartstring-tugging Family Issues are the most groan-worthy—thank God that Liv Tyler is so beautiful, and Ben Affleck so studly, or else it would be an unbearable mess altogether.
But forget about that stuff, and watch everything else blow up. The tiny asteroids that begin the film are its biggest stars; they slice through the original Space Shuttle like a soldering iron through warm butter. New York, again, gets an ass-whoopin'—and the Chrysler building, already destroyed last month in Godzilla gets decapitated all over again. And in what might be the film's best moment (ironic or not), an asteroid takes out Paris in a way that will have Francophobes cheering in the aisles. This deep impact is the summer's most awesome explosion by a country mile.
Apacolysm is a tougher sell these days—when we grew up in the '80s with Reagan (and all of those Russian Presidents that kept dying), the threat of global destruction was much more palpable. Nowadays, whether through jadedness or exhaustion, it's hard to work up empathy for The End of The World; it just doesn't seem likely anymore, even as the millennium approaches. Deep Impact tried hard to give off the sadness and paranoia of a global-altering event, and partially succeeded; "Armageddon" wisely lets you come to your own conclusions. Sure, there are the shots of frightened children in Midwestern towns looking up to the sky in horror, but the character known as "The Heartland of America" is thankfully left in the background.
There is a certain stream-of-consciousness to "Armageddon" that is hard to place. The interpersonal stuff does drag the movie down, but in a way, it's almost worth it: we almost start to care about the fates of Stamper's roughneck team. Steve Buscemi, a freakishly welcome addition to any summer's blockbuster (see Con Air) is terrific as the surreal Lotharian genius geologer, and Owen Wilson (rent his seminal indie film "Bottle Rocket" to better yourself) gets off a few of the film's best quips. And of course Billy Bob Thornton, playing the role usually reserved for Robert Duvall or Ed Harris, is totally solid as the NASA correspondent who thwarts the evil government protocol to give Our Heroes enough time to try and save the planet. Funny, engaging, stupid, and eye-blaringly agog in special effects, "Armageddon" may yet save this summer for Hollywood. Check out the matinee, and then go for a nice, long swim on an Earth that seems very protected indeed.
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