Through the 1970s and 80s, the summer blockbuster had been the product of Universal and 20th Century Fox thanks to Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), alongside many others that tried, flopped, bombed or weren’t as successful as projected. Disney held a corner of the summer market, but the Renaissance era fall and winter successes – The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) – catapulted Disney back into the centre of summer. Summer movies might now seem defined by the effects driven superhero action of Marvel Studios. But for the emerging directors of the 1990s and 2000s, Michael Eisner’s Disney had been a place for the distinctive visions of Wes Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Bay. Touchstone Pictures was a fiction: a way to shake off the assumption that Disney inherently signposts animation, joy, colour and fantasy or represents a merchandising empire of theme parks, comic books, storybooks, films, toys and clothes for kids and families. Touchstone forged its identity with comedies, like Good Morning, Vietnam and Three Men and a Baby (1987) and the combined animation and musical techniques of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Alongside Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith at Miramax, Disney committed itself to independent cinema and R ratings in production and distribution. Disney hid beneath a label, but a familiar DVD template and a shiny lenticular castle marked its provenance. From Buena Vista’s origins as Walt Disney seeked to establish itself outside of the distribution infrastructure of RKO, one can just about trace a line from Welles and Hitchcock to Michael Bay: and into the Criterion Collection.
Touchstone faded away into North American distribution for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks projects, with the Buena Vista name resurrected once more for the international distribution of Glass (2019), yet another Disney superhero film. But before the Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm acquisitions, Disney’s mid-00s blockbusters, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and National Treasure (2004), had been led by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, projects begun at Touchstone that moved over to the Disney label. In the Walt Disney Studios era, Bruckheimer’s name has faded behind critical and commercial bombs; Michael Bay has risen to mass critical revulsion thanks to his Transformers (2007-present) series of films at Paramount, alongside a distribution slate of films like Iron Man (2008), Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (2008) – films that had formed out of a toyline franchise built out of a Marvel comic series and Marvel Productions animated series and film.
As Bay notes in the audio commentary, he developed Armageddon as a “favour” when none of Disney’s scripts interested him. The confusion of the Transformers (2007-present) franchise has marked Bay’s career with its numerous references to balls, dicks, and masturbation, lengthy runtimes, incoherent plots, deaths and resurrections, conspiracy theories, product placement and skyscraper destruction. Though Wes Anderson might be the most recognised visual stylist of the Touchstone era, both Bay and Shyamalan, simultaneously met with critical disdain, have more going for them than might be credited. As both Tony Zhou and Lindsay Ellis argue in their video essays, Bay has a recognisable style, with Zhou noting Bay’s dynamic use of telephoto lenses and parallax in scenes of motion, and, in her film theory series The Whole Plate, with Ellis arguing that Bay fits with Andrew Sarris’ concept of auteur theory. Film historian Jeanine Basinger, a college tutor of Bay’s, argues that Bay has always been “ahead of his time”. On the commentary, Bay expresses that critics missed the point, arguing Armageddon is meant to be a summer blockbuster that isn’t taken seriously. Pearl Harbor (2001) might be wildly historically inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter: it’s a romantic action spectacle. Bay’s push for filming set pieces with IMAX cameras since Revenge of the Fallen (2009) only heightens this degree of spectacle.
Armageddon is a product of the 1990s: notably, Aerosmith dominate the soundtrack with I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing; Greenpeace activists protest an oil refinery drilling at sea, but its brand of pre-9/11 action heroism is perhaps more significant. HyperNormalisation (2016) argues that Armageddon and films of its ilk allowed a foreshadowed performance of American anxieties of destruction, during a period in which, per Lawrence Wright’s astounding The Looming Tower (2006), al-Qaeda were a known quantity hidden behind the FBI and departmental bureaucracy. In the years since, 9/11 has become an unavoidable visual reference for gritty and grounded action and superhero cinema. Armageddon is concerned with the apocalyptic: a presence, vaguely known but outside our control, that the American working class must come together to combat with casualties and sacrifices. The heroes of Armageddon must be squared against not only real world astronauts on the ISS, but the first responders to 9/11 and the soldiers of the War on Terror, especially considering the Transformers franchise received material support and script approval from the Department of Defence. Bay’s cinema is not apolitical. If we extend our understanding of heroism, within this paradigm reflects not only instilling ‘good’ over ‘evil’, but American nationalism and patriotism, conduct and perception overseas, imperialism, and the individual and their culpability within a larger group. Across Top Gun (1986) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Bruckheimer’s films often deal with the Armed Forces, individual sacrifices, unity and complex military operations. Although NASA functions under wide autonomy, it still nominally exists in tandem with federally sanctioned branches.
These 9/11 parallels are most closely seen as we witness the meteor shower against New York City. On the commentary, we learn New York was chosen as it is a “great visual city”. Bay uses economy of storytelling: as newspapers and TV reports cover impending threat, Bay focuses upon a man pushing his bicycle and walking his bulldog. The bulldog becomes a movie monster, fighting against a street vendor’s plastic inflatable Godzillas, the same year Columbia brought Godzilla back to American audiences, with Bay arguing that Emmerich’s film hurt their performance. Shooting scenes over four days and using an LA intersection, alongside model work, Digital Domain and visual effects veteran Robert Legato only a year after the impressive effects of Titanic (1997), New York becomes a spectacle of flame, exploding cars and broken windows. For the 1990s, Bay offers a visual effects antecedent to the heroism and destruction of the disaster cinema of the 1970s. Models of the Chrysler Building are destroyed; Grand Central Terminal is engulfed in flame; the towers of the World Trade Center are scathed, smoke billowing out of the top of 2 WTC. Survivors run; living bodies fall to the ground. But Bay places our empathy not in countless dead men, women and children, but in the devastation of falling architecture and the survival of the bulldog by its leash. The bodies of men wearing “I ❤ NY” t-shirts are eviscerated. In Europe, Bay murders Haussmann in a sequence added late to production: in a few shots, Paris, is used to symbolise Europe as an easily identifiable city. From aerial and in close-up, the gargouilles de Notre-Dame de Paris are reduced to smithereens; the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile no longer exists; blocks and blocks and blocks are devastated for kilometres around. Bay casually destroys lives and history with no exploration of human reality or its aftermath; after a few shots, we move onto the next scene. In a soundstage facsimile of Shanghai’s ports, Bay places a focus on Asia, before quickly forgetting about it. There’s a brazenness that has become commonplace: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) would destroy the tour Eiffel; Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016) destroyed Washington DC and London; 2012 (2009) predicted an impossible Mayan end of the world scenario. The effects are impressive, but Bay’s trademark hyperkinetic editing that often works perfectly never allows us to appreciate the impact. How do Amtrak, businesses, tourism industries and the French government cope with staggering death tolls and a lost culture?
In the establishing shot, depicting the supposed extinction of the dinosaurs through an asteroid collision in CGI, Charlton Heston’s voiceover narration stresses:
It happened before. It will happen again. It’s just a question of when.
Two years later, the fusion of live action nature plates and CGI elements of Dinosaur (2000) provided a strange quasi-prequel. During the development process, an opening sequence that approached extinction was excised for its similarity to Armageddon. But a similar uneven tone abounds: fire rains down from the sky, with the trauma and destruction and the mortality of a species barely explored as viewers are led to root for a couple’s romantic survival in the face of death. Dinosaur, like Armageddon, is as much interested in an external, natural threat and the resilience of a species that can only last so long. Mortality and the collapse of civilisations become cyclical. The previous decade lingered with a Cold War nuclear threat with a human face, but Armageddon shifts the threat into the unknown, an alien threat governed not by civilisation and governance, but the laws of the universe – inevitable and indefensible. Unlike alien invasion, terrorism and natural disasters within our atmosphere, Armageddon deals with an unknowable force beyond. In the final act, Bay depicts global religious unity together in prayer and worship against an ‘act of God’ – but it remains throwaway.
The concept of Armageddon – that guys outside of NASA can do a better job than federally funded NASA – isn’t unfamiliar. It’s the mission objective of capitalistic private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, working alongside NASA to provide space travel a future in the absence of federal funding. It’s also the plot of an episode of The Simpsons (1989-present): in Deep Space Homer (1994), NASA’s desperately bids for federal funding and relevancy against low Nielsen ratings, training “average-nauts” Homer and Barney to fly into space alongside Buzz Aldrin as a publicity stunt. Homer reflects an everyday American: overweight, alcoholic, without a background in science or flight, with his incompetence smuggling a bag of potato chips on board and displacing an ant colony threatening a fatal flight. In Armageddon, our astronauts are oil drillers, an aspect Ben Affleck roasts to death on the audio commentary. Bay is building upon decades of science fiction. Notably, Heston’s opening narration carries a spiritual science fiction link to Planet of the Apes (1968): his astronaut, Taylor, is rugged, bearded and masculine, traversing the landscape as one of the last men on Earth. But as depicted in Bowling for Columbine (2002), Heston is a conservative monster, supportive of the NRA and gun rights, offering a rather more toxic portrait of white masculinity.
Armageddon adopts a rebellious attitude towards NASA, updating the organisation’s antiquated Americana and “simple guys” for “sexy” modern technology, as he describes in the commentary. Over the intercom, Harry S. Stamper (Bruce Willis) inverts “we have a problem” a la Apollo 13 (1995), throwing it back at NASA as “Houston, you have a problem!” For Bay, NASA must modernise and change and embrace the little guy, rather than rely upon its establishment of scientists. But Bay adopts these attitudes while working alongside NASA as an essential collaborator, shooting upon the gantry in one take with NASA permission, and tethering 12 cameras to a shuttle launch (and a subsequent night launch). Bay exploits NASA iconography: against a mural of JFK, we witness children playing with cardboard space shuttles and costumes; archival video of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon plays through a television monitor. The film’s production design, reinventing bulky grey spacesuits (a $1 million production investment) beyond anything officially tested, still allows the NASA logo to appear on spacesuits and mugs. NASA’s loss is as much a story in Armageddon as anywhere else out heroes stand against the girders and memorial plaque commemorating Apollo 1. As the film progresses, the patch reading the words “For All Mankind” becomes an important memento. Bay finds a way to incorporate Soviet involvement, anachronistically introducing a cosmonaut on a fellow space station as though lost from Solaris (1972), adorned with the shirt and red star of the CCCP.
Each astronaut embodies different personalities, utilising a model adapted from The Dirty Dozen (1967): in montage, NASA executive Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) recruits each character in montage set to Come Together, two decades before Justice League (2017) emulated the same idea. Bear (Michael Clarke Duncan), is pursued on motorcycle by a parade of cop cars and helicopters; Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) flirts at a New Orleans bar; Oscar (Owen Wilson) races by horse against FBI helicopters and the falling sunset near El Paso; Chick (Will Patton) throws dice in Vegas; we witness the irony of a tattooist defending himself from his mom’s illegal accusations as the FBI appear. Criminal records are washed away in an instant. Real world astronauts might be connected by shared backgrounds and the rarity of flight into space, acting as educators and biographers in the decades afterwards, but Armageddon stretches its nepotism: Harry (Bruce Willis) recruits his oil rig colleague A.J. (Ben Affleck) in a situation as plausible as Sue Storm going into space with her brother and future husband in Fantastic Four (1961-present). Harry and A.J.’s interpersonal relationship is not just about survival in space, but A.J.’s burgeoning connection with his daughter Grace (Liv Tyler). Our astronauts know about space from movies, with pop culture references to Star Wars peppered throughout just as Bay builds Armageddon upon drawing direct visual parallels to The Right Stuff (1983).
Their medical physical becomes a playful joke, between Rubik’s cubes and Rorschach tests, asserted within a fight for the strength of masculinity: Bear strips naked in hospital; nurses are flirted with; searching the anal cavity becomes seethed in fear; needles are unbearable. The film’s version of masculinity interplays with the film’s depiction of women: Rockhound is a hypersexual womaniser, decoding the authenticity of a married woman’s diamond ring, and fighting in drunken stupor outside a strip club, insisting he is actually an astronaut. Bay might imbue Armageddon with a magical quality, wanting to capture the idea that amateurs are largely the ones who discover interstellar objects as he explains in the commentary. Bay frames the discoverer of the asteroid as a caretaker in an observatory, Karl, but Bay demeans and undervalues women in his punch line, as Karl suggests NASA name the asteroid after his “vicious, life sucking bitch” of a wife, Dottie. In space, Bear rides atop a bomb in a throwaway gag, in explicit reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), yet remains more interested in whether his fellow astronauts have seen the film, unaware of the film’s obvious phallic symbolism and his position within a broader system of masculinity and the implications of complete obliteration through nuclear war. (Perhaps most distressingly, the T-slur is used multiple times, but within an entirely different context outside of its derogatory usage.)
On the surface, the crew of Armageddon might have an appearance of diversity through the presence of black astronaut Bear, but these dynamics never truly interplay; Bear’s race remains overshadowed by the dominance of whiteness. Each character clashes in their masculinity to assert dominance. Liv Tyler, with her own familial connection to Aerosmith, does a good enough role, but Grace’s presence remains marginalised: she isn’t an astronaut, but a romantic partner to ground home and progress the narrative towards matrimony. In the sunset beside their product placement BMW, Grace embraces closely with A.J., as he touches down upon her lingerie. The self-sacrifice of Harry as each character draws straws to decide upon the last man is foregrounded upon this relationship. In a deleted scene, we witness Harry’s generational history as he says goodbye to his father in Pasadena, also an oil driller. Harry, as a father-in-law, becomes the film’s adoptive father figure: in the face of death, A.J. expresses his expressive, emotional love beyond their comradeship. Harry’s last words offer his approval and blessing for marriage. Even in death, Bay projects a heterosexual trajectory of life: in expressionistic montage, his entire life flashes before him, between childhood and falling in love. In the closing credits, Bay concludes the film not in remembrance of death, but by utilising 8mm and super 16 home movie montage of the wedding of A.J. and Grace, taking us through their ceremony in church. Grace’s marginalisation follows a trend throughout the male gaze of Bay’s films, sexualising Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), Sam Witwicky’s teenage love interest in the Transformers series, only to replace her with an English model after Fox referred to Bay as a “Nazi”. As Ellis stresses, part of Bay’s misogynistic tendencies also becomes present in homophobia, with an explicit rejection of the possibility of homosexuality in Bad Boys II (2003) playing to an assumed heterosexual male audience. Bruckheimer’s Top Gun (1986) is open to a queer reading in its presentation of masculinity and the male body, but it cannot escape its foregrounding within a heterosexual relationship.
The strength of the film’s sequences beyond the Earth lies in their portrayal of each character’s relationship with each other, conflicts and sense of suspense, and particularly in the deployment of visual effects. As Basinger describes, Bay is a “master of movement, light, color, and shape”. The thorough deconstruction within the supplemental material on the Criterion release becomes most interesting within these sections, with numerous effects and matte paintings utilised to depict an alien landscape, from the glow of the horizon and effects utilised to provide texture and life to green and blue coloured gases, reflections and a shockwave. As a prehistory to the visual effects of the 2010s, Dream Quest Images’ use of textures, renders, animatics, motion control and compositing is fascinating, used in conjunction (as Dinosaur would be) with maquettes, models, live action plates and particulate explosions. As Roger Ebert writes in his memorably derisive 1 star review of the film, Armageddon is a “150-minute trailer” and highlight reel assaulting “the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained.” But the film’s adrenaline editing is genuinely impressive, adopting a Terrence Malick approach of constant filming but without the elegant, floating, spiritual transcendence of his sequences: Armageddon went through multiple editors, often editing rushes on location, shifting scenes around across different approaches; Kodak gifted the crew with a gift basket of champagne after they ran past a million feet of film. In the digital era, reshoots and constant filming and editing, especially with regard to Rogue One (2016) and Solo (2018) at Disney, seem to be par for the course. Bay achieves a fight against the clock that is equally against the human species, from the threat of selecting a blue or red wire of a nuclear weapon seconds before detonation, and fights breaking out at the terminal between a wrench and a gun. At its best, Armageddon achieves a story of comradeship and heroism in the face of extreme obstacles. The film’s sense of camaraderie may never be its most memorable element, but it is the most essential. Despite Bay’s problematic perspectives on race and gender, and his constant upholding of masculinity, Armageddon remains an enjoyable space adventure. The ‘genre’ of astronaut cinema has so many better examples, but Armageddon, as an artefact of the 1990s, at least deserves a place within there.