In 1996, Independence Day upset Hollywood’s action-movie equilibrium.
Moody, Crichton-inspired blockbusters were suddenly out, and bigger explosions were suddenly very much in. It was the ‘90s after all, and a booming economy and the end of the Cold War meant Americans had never felt more sure of their place in the world.
There were angry elements of culture in the ‘90s, to be sure. A growing anti-government movement found patriotism in opposing the feds, and environmental movements were expanding as well. But in 1998, everybody was able to put their problems aside for two and a half hours to watch Michael Bay’s Armageddon — the movie that every critic hated and that people could not stop seeing.
Now that Armageddon is streaming on HBO Max, here’s why it’s finally time to revisit a big, dumb classic.
Armageddon very quickly sets up a classic movie scenario perhaps best exemplified by Caddyshack — slobs vs. snobs — and sets it up on the grandest stage imaginable. The fight is essentially the same, whether it’s about trying to get into a country club or stopping an asteroid the size of Texas: will the blue-collar guys be able to show up the hot-shot white collar nerds?
The nerd here is Billy Bob Thornton, with the rest of his nerd gang employed by NASA. It’s hard to think of another space movie as demeaning to NASA as Armageddon. Outside of Thornton, the agency is filled with incompetent pencil pushers and docile Boy Scouts. The tight-wad dorks of NASA need to learn a little something from Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the world’s best oil driller.
Bay introduces the audience to Harry as he’s shooting golf balls at Greenpeace protesters, a counter-protest the activist group would later describe as “realistic.” From there, the audience is treated to what The Ringer called the “most entertaining right-wing movie of all time.” The main crew in Armageddon tries to avoid the government at all costs and only signs on to save the world after being promised they’ll never pay taxes again.
One advantage of making a disaster movie is that you don’t have to spend any time explaining your villain (a giant rock), so you can add time filling out your characters. While the movie worships Harry, it offers him one fatal flaw: he may be blue-collar, but he doesn’t want his daughter to marry someone like him. This doesn’t really make any sense, considering that he owns an oil company.
Armageddon is a love story, you see, between Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) and Harry’s ward A.J (Ben Affleck). Tyler, only a couple of years removed from cult art-house movies, later told The Guardian that, while she initially rejected the role, the “biggest reason I changed my mind was because I was scared of it. I wanted to try it for that very reason.”
Tyler and Affleck are able to wring genuine PG-13 chemistry out of their scenes together, including a moment in which he plays with animal crackers up and down her body. Bay, known for his commercial work before transitioning into feature filmmaking, uses the animal cracker scene to stage a music video inside his movie, as Steven Tyler starts singing about how he doesn’t want to close his eyes.
Is Armageddon stupid? Absolutely. The movie gained a short second life online when Ben Affleck’s commentary was released, mocking the movie’s worship of Harry, from the odd designation that he is the “world’s best” driller to NASA’s nonsensical plan to train drillers to become astronauts:
I asked Michael why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers and he told me to shut the fuck up. So that was the end of that talk. [Does Michael Bay voice] “You know, Ben, just shut up, OK? You know, this is a real plan.” I was like, “You mean it’s a real plan at NASA to train oil drillers?” and he was like, “Just shut your mouth!”
During an oral history of Michael Bay movies for GQ, Thornton noted that other actors displayed a similar skepticism toward the plot. “I was sitting at the table read-through with Owen [Wilson] and [Steve] Buscemi, and we were all sitting there kind of nervously. And Steve looks at me and goes, "What the fuck are we doing here?"
They were making a pretty fun movie, as it turns out. As Will Smith, who starred in Bad Boys for Bay, notes in that same oral history, Bay can “take things that you'd think of as corny, and make it supergalactic iconic.” Armageddon is every bit as corny as its critics contend, and in many ways it is not good. Chief among the reasons for its dubious quality a confusing third act, which Bay later told a reporter he wished he’d had more time to edit.
That was later interpreted as Bay apologizing for the movie, which he clarified by saying that Armageddon “is still one of the most shown movies on cable TV. And yes, I’m proud of the movie.” Even if Armageddon isn’t a masterpiece in a lot of ways, it’s still a fine way to kill a few hours. That might not sound like a compliment, but it is.
Armaggedon is now streaming on HBO Max.