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Chip Off the Old Rock

Michael Bay is the director of Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996) and the new asteroid-attack movie Armageddon, which should be called The Very Big Rock. He has, I'm afraid, perfected a new form: His movies are trailers for themselves. Every scene is all climax and no foreplay. When the film is all over you can't remember if you've been watching a movie or just a jumbo-sized coming attraction. In Bay's hands they're the same thing.

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Armageddon is a particularly flagrant example of the state-of-the-(non)-art. With previous Bay films, all produced by Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson, there at least came a moment -- usually about an hour into the film -- when things settled down a bit. That is to say, we could actually observe two people calmly talking to each other for a couple of minutes without having the camera turn whirligigs about them to the beat of an eardrum-splitting rock score. But in Armageddon Bay has attained his noxious nirvana: There isn't a scene that exists on any level except as a hard sell. If this movie-as-trailer thing really catches on, it will mark the death of storytelling, as well as the death of grace, subtlety, coherence, character development, and beauty. It's Armageddon all right.

The best thing you can say about Armageddon is that it's better than Deep Impact, this year's other big-rocks-from-outer-space disaster movie. At least Bay's film doesn't try to palm itself off as some kind of civics lesson. Deep Impact made the impending end of the world look like a bad traffic jam; we were supposed to take comfort in the filmmakers' notion that, in times of crisis, human beings come together. (Gee, even Titanic didn't fall for that one.) Armageddon is cheerfully antisocial -- its best (and only) virtue. But the trouble with all the kick-ass tomfoolery is that it undercuts the awe in the enterprise. If you're going to make a movie about the end of the planet, it would be helpful to demonstrate even a smidgen of feeling for the world that's about to be destroyed.

As in Deep Impact, we are faced here with a giant Earth-bound asteroid that must be diverted by astronauts who venture out to the rock to implant nukes in its core. The nukers in this case are a roughneck team of oil drillers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis). Recruited by NASA and its executive director (Billy Bob Thornton), Stamper and his cohorts -- played by, among others, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, and Ben Affleck -- undergo a week of astronaut training before blasting off. Wisecracking all the way, they treat the asteroid -- it's the size of Texas -- as if it were just another oil rig. It's The Dirty Dozen in space, along with a healthy dollop of Simpson-Bruckheimer's Top Gun; and Bay, along with his screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams, milks the comparisons.

A note on the screenwriters. The press kit offers up this hosanna. "In creating one of the most exciting action-adventure scripts in Hollywood history, Bruckheimer, the master of the genre, assembled a cadre of talented writers including Shane Salerno, Tony Gilroy, J.J. Abrams, Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg, and Academy Award-winner Robert Towne, who worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, over an intensive eight-week period, writing, polishing, and perfecting the material." In other words, the old Hollywood studio system of assembly-line hackwork is back with a vengeance. I trust everybody was well paid for all that "polishing and perfecting."

The film could have used a bit more perfection. Characters are introduced with a flourish in the beginning -- such as a geezer astronomer or a NASA egghead -- only to drop unceremoniously from sight. Every so often Bay serves up a destructo scene -- asteroid chunks hitting New York City or Paris -- just in case anybody in the audience were about to slip into a coma. Billy Bob Thornton, looking here unaccountably like Jordan's King Hussein minus the headgear, gets to spout such "polished" dialogue as that old military chestnut, "Recheck everything and then check it again." Willis, at least, has one good line: Looking at NASA's poor excuse for an asteroid drill, he smirks, "Your cams are all wrong." The way he says it, you know he's talking about a lot more than cams.

Actually, Willis isn't bad, but then again he's often good in the worst movies. He gives his jock nonchalance some emotional levels. But in Armageddon not only does his Harry have to save the world, he also has to contend with his headstrong daughter Grace (Liv Tyler), who is lovingly photographed, as if she were the star of a margarine commercial. Grace and the roughneck A.J. (Affleck) are gaga for each other, but of course her father wants her to marry a proper gentleman instead. Secretly, though, Harry loves A.J. like a son. At least that's what we're supposed to think. There's an unintentionally creepy moment when Harry accidentally spies Grace and A.J. doing some heavy petting, and he looks on them a bit too lingeringly. Eeeuuu, gross.

I could go on, but that would mean reliving more of this movie and, well, life's too short. But mention should be made of the fact that both Deep Impact and Armageddon make a big to-do about how this asteroid-collision stuff is all too real. Bummer. Yes, it's probably true that asteroids wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But I wonder what all those dinos would think now if they saw Armageddon. Mightn't they ask, "You mean we died for this?"

Maybe it is time for another asteroid hit. I can recommend a few targets in Hollywood.

Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams. Starring Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, and Billy Bob Thornton.

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Peter Rainer

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