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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Armageddon

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the films in my movie library.  Today, we take a look at the film that made Michael Bay a star, Armageddon.  This entry is dated in my notes at February 2, 2013.

As I've mentioned to friends in the past, I don't think I can jump on the "Michael Bay sux" bandwagon as hard as most, mainly because I own the Criterion edition of Armageddon.

For those just joining us, Criterion is the Cadillac of DVD special editions.  They pretty much invented the concept with special edition Laserdiscs in the 1980s.  When DVD caught fire as a home video format in the late 90s/early 00s, they re-shifted their focus to art house films:  foreign films, indie films, and films of historical significance that they feel need preservation.  However, in the late 90s, before movie studios realized they could make their own DVD special editions in-house, Criterion still got to make a few special editions for gigantic blockbusters...films that still had historical significance to pop culture.

Armageddon is one such film they deemed of historical significance to pop culture.  And it's not even the movie.  It's a director's cut, with an extra 10 minutes compared to the theatrical version.  When I first started coveting a DVD player and getting into this home theatre format, the Criterion edition of Armageddon came out and was getting high marks across the board for its in-depth bonus features.  I knew I must have it some day.  But, those Criterion editions were hard to come by in the stores...and pricy online.  The lowest I ever saw it for was $80 at Amazon.com.  I think I've blogged that $50 is about as much as I'll go for a DVD.  So, about 7 years ago or so, when I saw that HMV finally had a section dedicated to Criterion in their store, and the Armageddon Criterion was there for $50, I knew I had to get it. 

Of course, Armageddon is a notable film in the filmography of Mr. Michael Bay.  It was his third film (the first two being Bad Boys and The Rock), and at this point, all of his director flourishes were now firmly established.  Quick cuts, short shots, soundtrack full of popular rock songs, everything is here.  To finally see such pure, unfiltered Bay was a shock to movie-going landscape of 1998, and many critics called it out for, well, the flourishes I mentioned.  But now, it's very much a part of the summer blockbuster landscape.

As the opening credits rolled, I went through the shock I always go through when I watch the opening credits.  I thought to myself, "Holy crap, I forgot Owen Wilson is in this!"  In fact, reflecting on the time when the film came out, the cast is mostly full of the indie film darlings of the 1990s.  At this point in his career, I'm pretty sure Wilson was still best known as "the guy in those Wes Anderson films."  There's Billy Bob Thornton, who had recently become famous as the writer, director, and star of Sling Blade.  Steve Buscemi, despite having grown quite famous, was still probably most well-known as "the weird guy in the Tarantino movies."  And Ben Affleck.  I read in an interview with Affleck that, during the filming of Armageddon, the only person who recognized him was "a nose-ring wearing record store clerk who had seen Chasing Amy."

And the liberal breaking of the laws of physics.  According to urban legend, NASA shows the film to their new recruits, and their task is to spot as many scientific inaccuracies as they can in the film.  The current record is 168.  Armageddon, in case you don't remember, was filmed with the full co-operation of NASA, and filmed on location at many of their facilities.  It was the first movie to film an actual space shuttle launch!  And if you ever stayed through to the end of the end credits, you'll see it ends with a huge disclaimer that, even though it was filmed with NASA's co-operation, that should not be seen as an endorsement. 

The plot.  New York is busted up real good by a meteor shower.  Upon taking a look at the sky, NASA figures that an asteroid "as big as Texas" is heading towards Earth, and in 18 days, it'll wipe out all life as we know it.  NASA brainstorms, and they figure the best way to save the Earth is to send a team of astronauts to the asteroid, land on it, drill to its centre and plant a nuclear bomb, and blow it up from the inside.

Which brings us to Harry Stamper, as played by Bruce Willis.  Considered to be the greatest deep core driller in the world, and currently working on an off shore oil platform in the South Pacific.  Harry's at odds right now, because he just discovered that his daughter Grace is dating his hot-headed protege A.J.  The government men show up and whisk Harry off to Houston and NASA's headquarters, where the situation is laid out.  Harry is to train the astronauts how to run a drill so they can drill into the asteroid.  After Harry declares that oil drilling is an "art" and can't be taught, Harry and NASA decide to send Harry and his team up to the asteroid. 

Yeah, oil drilling is an art that can't be taught.  Tell that to the millions of migrant workers moving to Alberta to work the oil sands

Apparently, during filming, Ben Affleck did as Michael Bay, "Wouldn't it be easier to train astronauts to drill rather than to train oil drillers to be astronauts?"  Bay's answer:  "Shut the fuck up!"

So, Harry's team is brought together, in a pretty cool montage set to Aerosmith's cover of "Come Together," and they're thrown into another montage of astronaut training.  Man, this movie loves its montages.  During training, Harry and A.J. butt heads some more, and Harry continues to show disdain that A.J. and Grace are a couple.  Our rig pigs get a night off, and while A.J. and Grace go do the infamous scene of having animal crackers frolic on Grace's body, the others got to a very Michael Bay-esque strip club.

I've got to admit, I've always been a sucker for the animal crackers scene.  Hopefully, some day, I'll have a girlfriend who'll let me play with baked goods on her belly button, and not think it's ridiculous. 

I should also mention that during the montage, the oil drillers give their list of demands for going on this mission.  It's a cute little bit, and back in my college radio days, it's a movie monologue I gave a lot of airplay to, right up there with the "independent contractors on the Death Star" bit from Clerks and the President's speech from "Independence Day."

After this night out, our heroes are launched into space to go stop the asteroid.  The first stop is at the Russian space station to refuel, and we meet a loopy cosmonaut.  Of course, because this is a Michael Bay movie and it's been about 10 minute since something exploded, the old, aging Russian space station has a malfunction in its fuel pumps and explodes.  And the loopy cosmonaut joins the crew.

They come up to the asteroid, but all of the debris and smaller meteors takes out one of the space shuttles, and everyone thinks A.J. and his crew are dead, leaving it all up to Harry and his crew to complete the mission.  They overshoot their landing zone, and land on a plate of solid iron.  Needless to say, drilling goes slow.  This causes NASA to panic, and they institute Plan B, which is set off the nuke on the surface of the asteroid.  This leads to a tense stand-off between the oil drillers and the astronauts, but Harry wins the day and convinces the astronauts to chill out and let him do his job. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the asteroid, A.J. the loopy cosmonaut, and Michael Clarke Duncan are the only survivors, so they set out to find their buddies.  While driving their rover over the asteroid's landscape, they come across a huge canyon, and they decide to jump it, leading to one of the film's best lines:

A.J.>> Have you ever heard of Evil Knievel? 

Loopy cosmonaut>>  I have never seen Star Wars.

This would also be a good time to note that I realized tonight that one of the writers was J.J. Abrams, who'll be directing the upcoming new Star Wars film. 

Back with Harry, things are not going well, as the alien landscape of the asteroid makes drilling tough going.  They've got alien rocks to drill through, they get pelted with meteors, and Steve Buscemi starts going nuts, cuz you know, Steve Buscemi.  Buscemi mans the rover's machine gun and starts shooting up the place, to which movie going audiences the world over asked the question, "Why do these rovera have machine guns?"  Actually, there's a deleted scene on the Criterion edition's bonus features that explains it.  Well, it's not much of an explanation.  While they're outfitting the rovers with drilling rigs, they notice the machine guns, to which someone remarks that the Department of Defense wanted to use the situation to test some new toys.  

So while drilling, they hit a gas pocket, and the rover and the rig are blown off into space.  All seems lost, but then A.J. drives over the hill with the other rover and they get back to drilling.  While drilling, Harry and A.J. start to butt heads again, but Harry finally lets up and lets A.J. go with his gut.  A.J.'s gut proves right, they hit their target depth, and they plant the bomb.

But...disaster strikes.  The bomb's timer has been damaged, so someone has to stay behind to manually detonate the bomb.  A..J. draws the short straw, but at the last minute, Harry takes his place, finally giving his blessing to A.J. and Grace.  The shuttle heads for home, Harry sets off the bomb just in the nick of time, the Earth is saved, and we're treated to one last trippy montage as Harry's life flashes before his eyes. 

They return to Earth, cue the Aerosmith song, and in a nice little touch, grainy home movie footage of Grace and A.J.'s wedding plays out under the end credits. 

And that's Armageddon.  Yeah, it's loud, it's stupid, but it truly is a great popcorn film.  If you turn off your brain, and you're looking for 2 air-conditioned hours in the middle of summer, it's the perfect film. 

I've been doing the math in my head, and I think this is the last movie I saw in the old West Mall 5 theatre.  Famous Players used to have a theatre in Edmonton called West Mall 5.  It was there when the mall first opened.  Saw many a great movie there in my childhood.  But, in 1999, it was shut down and replaced with the shiny new Silver City, now known as the ScotiaBank Theatre.  I'm pretty sure, in those waning days of the summer of 1998, before heading back to college, this was the last movie I saw there. 

I thought I had more to say and more smarter things to say, but it's getting late and I'm tired.

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