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In recently published plans, NASA suggested that the risk of an asteroid striking the Earth is small but such a hit would be very, very bad. The American space agency has some ideas for dealing with this threat but they don’t include asking a ragtag bunch of oil drillers for help if an asteroid the size of Texas is about to hit the Earth.
That’s the basic plot of Armageddon, the big-budget disaster film, which arrived in cinemas 20 years ago this week. Love it or loathe it, the Michael Bay movie was a commercial success upon release. It took over 200 million dollars at the US box office and ended the year as the second highest grosser of 1998 behind Saving Private Ryan. The film also outperformed the year’s other film about an asteroid strike, the more thoughtful Deep Impact. Its blend of comedy and action will be familiar to anyone who has watched a contemporary blockbuster.
But, it is also a film of that decade. Apocalyptic storytelling was on the rise in the second half of the 1990s as the new millennium approached. The end of the world was topical.
Armageddon opens 65 million years in the past as an asteroid smashes into the surface of the Earth sending flames and smoke across the planet and wiping out the dinosaurs. The narrator (Charlton Heston) says that it’s only a matter of time before this destruction happens again. And so, a countdown begins to the end of the world.
And time is short with only 18 days until the extinction of all life on Earth. In that short period of time, a team of oil drillers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) must learn the basics of space travel while NASA tries to cope with their unconventional and rule-breaking methods. The plan is to drill a hole, blow up the asteroid and save the planet. Meanwhile, Harry must come to terms with the romance between his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) and his employee AJ (a post Good Will Hunting Ben Affleck).
Re-watching it now, Armageddon has lost none of its spectacle. Its opening ten minutes show the end of the dinosaurs, the destruction of a space shuttle and damage to New York (the shot of the smouldering Twin Towers became unnerving post 9/11). The mayhem continues throughout the film as stunts and explosions distract viewers from the one-note characters and woolly plot.
The third feature film directed by Michael Bay, Armageddon has all the hallmarks of his directing style from quick edits to huge setpiece action sequences and stunts. The set design features American flags in as many places as possible including one on board the Russian space station. The asteroid itself is only shown in brief glimpses as a swirling mass of clouds, debris and swirling lights.
Armageddon also boasts an impressive supporting cast including Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare and Jason Isaacs.
However, time has been less kind to other parts of the film. You can count on one hand the number of female characters with speaking parts. While the story does revolve around two industries that are traditionally male-dominated, the few female characters onscreen don’t get much to do. There’s an irritating wife, a stripper and a tough pilot. Grace, the most substantial female character, seems there mostly to worry about her father and boyfriend.
There’s also a question about the themes of the film. Harry is described as an overprotective father who has kept his daughter close. Watching it now, his actions appear to be an attempt to control Grace instead of respecting her independence. Yet, his troubling behaviour is forgiven because he’s willing to save the world.
More worrying to watch now is the subplot involving Chick (Will Patton), Harry’s loyal lieutenant, and his family. For unexplained reasons, there’s a court order restricting Chick’s access to his ex-wife and child. Yet, he later reconciles with them because he has become a hero. There’s an underlying suggestion that one grand act can tip the scales no matter how serious other actions might have been.
There’s also a confidence in the US as the world’s superpower in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Armageddon suggests that the United States can project its strength far into space to protect the planet. The oil drillers may not be squeaky clean but when the crisis strikes, they step up. So too can the world rely on America, the film could almost be suggesting.
Whatever your view of Armageddon, it remains one of the 90s most memorable action films. It may be about the end of the world but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad news.