• Armageddon

    By Jeanine Basinger

    Despite what you may have heard, Armageddon is a work of art by a cutting-edge artist who is a master of movement, light, color, and shape—and also of chaos, razzle-dazzle, and explosion. (It was no surprise to me to learn that as a thirteen-year-old, director Michael Bay blew up his toy train set with firecrackers so he could photograph the result with his mom’s 8mm camera.) If he weren’t working in Hollywood, Bay would be the darling bad boy of the intelligentsia. As it is, he sometimes falls under suspicion for having been nominated for multiple MTV Awards, and for having won every accolade available to directors of commercials, including the Clio and the prestigious Director’s Guild of America “Commercial Director of the Year” title. Armageddon is only his third movie, but it came under fire from some critics who had praised his second, The Rock, and for its same characteristics: fast cutting, impressive special effects, and a minimum of exposition.

    The first time I saw Michael Bay, he was a polite eighteen-year-old who stopped by my office at Wesleyan University to tell me he wanted to major in Film Studies. He also asked me if I would like to see his still photographs. As a teacher, I believe there is only one answer to that question: “Of course.” (It’s my job.) Over the years, I’ve seen a great deal of material from freshmen—short stories, novels, plays, ceramics, paintings, sculptures, prints, fashion designs, videos, computer art, movies in 8mm and 16mm, even recipe collections—but I have yet to see anything like Bay’s high school photos. They were astonishing—revealing an amazing eye for composition, an instinct for capturing movement, and an inherent understanding of implied narrative. Later, I saw this same ability in film classes. In history/theory, he listened intently, but said little, speaking mostly to ask keen questions or to deal with what he felt was nonsense from his peers. But in film production classes, he was the Road Runner, taking off on his own, needing little guidance. His senior film, Benjamin’s Birthday, won Wesleyan’s Frank Capra Prize for Best Film, and it was definitely what we now know as a “Michael Bay Film.” It was funny. It was fast. And it featured a very ritzy yellow Porsche. It told its story clearly, but in a highly nonverbal manner. Bay was ahead of his age group, but he was also ahead of his time. He still is.

    It is true that Armageddon, a perfect example of Bay’s work, illustrates his “take-no-prisoners” form of storytelling, in which he trusts an audience to figure things out. (One of its strengths is its minimum of dreadful exposition that over-explains the inevitable pseudoscience.) Yes, it gives audiences a lot to absorb. Yes, it cuts quickly from place to place, person to person, event to event. But it is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense.

    Armageddon is not for the faint-hearted, the slow-witted, or the dim-eyed. (Those who claim that it was hard to tell where characters were in relation to each other in the space should take another look.) Consider how the film explains what Harry Stamper’s (Bruce Willis) vacationing crew is doing when he sends out the word he needs them. In little more than one minute of screen time, five key characters are identified, established in a specific environment, shown relating to others, given distinct personalities, and defined in ways that indicate how they will behave on the later mission. (If that’s not screenwriting, what is?)

    At its core, Armageddon is a genre picture, and like all genre pictures that arrive late in the cycle, it has been subjected to misinterpretation. Although it qualifies as a science fiction/disaster movie, I see it as an epic form of the old Warner Brothers movies about working-class men who have to step up and rescue a situation through their courage, true grit, and knowledge of machines—productions such as Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and Alfred E. Green’s Flowing Gold (1940). The “science fiction” or “disaster movie” elements of Armageddon fit into the epic form—a form that exists to make movie stories we already know grander, larger, and more “real” in historic setting. (A failed epic settles for the definition put forth in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film In a Lonely Place: “. . . a picture that’s real long and has lots and lots going on.”) Armageddon is grand, large, and set at NASA, but, the story of Stamper, his daughter, and his hard-living, oil-drilling buddies is the kind of movie that has previously been smaller and tighter. This film makes these ordinary men noble, lifting their efforts up into an epic event. Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet.

    Jeanine Basinger is Corwin-fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and author of eight books on the cinema. Her latest, Silent Stars, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999.

89 comments

  • By Monkeyblake
    November 16, 2011
    02:28 PM

    To read the posts here you would think that Armageddon's inclusion in Criterion Collection was the end of the world. You are not a true film-lover (in my view) if you don't LOVE a few movies you might be embarrassed by at a cineaste feast. God bless Criterion's unabashed love of Michael Bay and Ozu and everyone else in their catalog. Armageddon is NOT the end of the world, more like a whimper. Hah!
    Reply
  • By guest
    January 15, 2012
    10:41 AM

    I have watched Armageddon again just today, and after all these years I have to say there are still only very few movies which can stir up your deepest emotions like this one does. I am nowhere a simpleton when it comes to movies, having appreciated surreal works of art such as Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain"
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    • By Dave
      November 07, 2012
      07:46 PM

      I agree. The end never fails to choke me up a bit. I'm a nuclear reactor operator, I know the science is crappy. I know the scenery on the asteroid was stupid beyond belief. But in the end, this was actually a movie about a flawed hero who saves his family, and as a side effect, the world. "Harry'll do it. I know it. He doesn't know how to fail."
    • By Adam
      December 05, 2012
      05:39 PM

      I agree too! I think there's a problem with modern cinema-goers these days where they assume that because something is scientifically inaccurate (for example) that it's somehow a bad movie. I don't go into a movie like this expecting to come out of it with knowledge of how an asteroid looks. I go in because I know it's a fantasy of sorts, just like all movies are. I like to see people use imagination. And from a technical standpoint, this really is a brilliant film, but that's not really what it's about. It's just an emotional, suspenseful story that shouldn't be judged on its realism or by how many explosions there are in it. Something tells me that when someone says "Michael Bay movies are stupid, there's nothing but explosions" that they must not have everything together themselves. There's nothing dumber than someone walking out of a movie that literally had characters, dramatic and action sequences (most of which did not have any explosions) and saying that they thought that everything in it was "just explosions." Was Harry Stamper an explosion? Hmmm. Seems strange to me. But whatever. I love this movie. I love all Michael Bay movies. I'm seeing Transformers 4 when it comes out.
  • By Jamie Stein
    January 18, 2012
    05:02 PM

    Jeanine Basinger is absolutely right - if this movie had been in made 40's and had been directed by someone like John Ford and starred someone like Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne as the tough leader of a motley crew of a bunch of rednecks tasked with saving the world, it would be hailed as a classic today. "Armageddon," unlike so many modern-day event films, has as a true emotional point-of-view. It is also about character. It is also well structured, and incredibly well shot. Is it the best movie of all time? Hardly. Is it a great example of a modern take on the old-fashioned adventure/spectacle film? Absolutely. I have to say it is more skillful and cinematic than a lot of other acclaimed modern entries in the series (ahem, "Chasing Amy," to just name one).
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    • By Daniel W.
      July 26, 2014
      07:50 PM

      I hated Chasing Amy. That was a pile of crap.
  • By Greedycakebaker
    January 19, 2012
    11:13 AM

    Inclusion in the Criterion Collection does not transform a bad movie into meaningful art. As one of the above comments points out, it's just a dvd company. They restore and release many masterworks of film art that might not otherwise be available. They also put out a handful of mediocre-at-best 'popcorn flicks' (Broadcast News?!). "Armageddon" is Hollywood assembly-line crap. Most major directors, including Bay, have some talent and at least do SOMETHING well. This article is just an advertisement for this release that greatly exaggerates Bay's strengths (or at least their importance).
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    • By TheDirector
      July 26, 2014
      09:58 PM

      Emulating Daniel W. right above me - Broadcast News is a phenomenal film, you child.
  • By Alec
    March 24, 2012
    09:45 AM

    In all honesty, i love the fact that this film is in the criterion collection. for some reason, the company that actually released it first ( if i have that right) was too lazy to give a good hearted features filled release and criterion did it instead. so as a movie enthusiast, i really have to thank them for that. they didnt even go all out on a blu ray release for this movie (thankfully they did for The Rock. don't really understand how that happened). what i'm trying to say is that Criterion really knows how to manufacture top notch releases when the original company doesnt. i dont care whether according to you guys a movie doesnt deserve to be in the collection. i'm very proud of the work they do and they obviously put more time and effort than most others. and what i have to say next is perhaps going to infuriate others but i would love it should Criterion release a Blu Ray version of Armageddon.
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    • By Daniel W.
      July 26, 2014
      07:50 PM

      I personally love a Criterion Blu-ray of Armageddon. It would be miles better than the current DVD.
  • By Micah M.
    June 20, 2012
    01:26 PM

    The whole slew of comments here is proof of Armageddon's importance and this insightful article is proof of another credible choice by Criterion. The very fact that individuals argue against this film fuels Michael Bay's ability. How can a filmmaker be so highly criticized and yet continue to develop some of the biggest blockbuster films? Armageddon is clearly a different choice and that is what Criterion is about: preparing a potpourri of films and directors. Everyone's just upset because Jeanine Basinger, through first-hand experience, proved to us that Michael Bay has something, whether you can tolerate it or not.
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    • By J.J. Fatterson
      November 08, 2012
      12:57 AM

      The whole slew of comments here is proof that the non-stop television commercials works in imprint a man's mind. Armageddon is famous, yes, but just like the cellphone ringtones they advertise just when you are whatching TV at dinner.
  • By Shaun
    August 02, 2012
    07:16 PM

    The huge discussion here has little to do with Bay's "importance" and more to do with the current intellectual polemics concerning the crumbling high culture and the rising pulp-culture. Personally, I'd gladly go down with the ship. This film is OK, but jeez I can't stand this dude's career. Those oddly proud for "getting" this guy - good on ya - I honestly don't like him. Let's live separate lives and call on Thanksgiving.
    Reply
  • By Shaun
    August 02, 2012
    07:24 PM

    Of course I meant "pop-culture", but the Freudian slip works too.
    Reply
  • By Matt
    November 07, 2012
    04:42 PM

    Bay is horrible. That is fact, not opinion.
    Reply
  • By J.J. Fatterson
    November 08, 2012
    12:53 AM

    I agree: Michael Bay is a cutting-edge artist. In painting walls with shit. Thank you Jeanine Basinger to have ruined the Criterion Collection.
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    • By Daniel W.
      July 26, 2014
      07:49 PM

      It's not ruined. Quit using hyperbole. There are plenty of other movies in the collection for you to complain about. This one is just an easy target.
  • By Zak
    November 24, 2012
    03:27 AM

    I will admit that when I was first alerted to this article and the idea of "Armageddon" being in the collection I was highly suspicious. I will say that the author provides some good points, many of which are hard to deny, especially since most of the general public are not filmmakers. First and foremost, is Micheal Bay technically proficient as a director? Absolutely. When you consider the amount of work that goes into setting up many of the stunts, explosions, and general special effects in his movies and then the post production work that he has to do to get them to the refined point that you see them on the big screen. I can say, and almost anyone else in the world can as well, that when you think of flashy special effects and explosions you think of Michael Bay. Some think of that as a bad thing, honestly, I don't think enough credit is given to how he has advanced special effects shooting on the big screen. But what else can I say that has not been said already by the author. That said, it is not the only job of a director to establish CGI shots in post and set up explosions. He is supposed to be handling everyone on set, namely the actors. I think many will agree with me here when I say, Michael Bay films are not exactly known for gripping performances. And that's not to say he has not had a bevy of talent to work with: Will Smith, Michael Clark Duncan, Scarlett Johansson, Ewan McGregor, Ben Aflec, John Turturro, and (I don't care what anyone says) Nic Cage. Many actors, and some Oscar winners (Nic!), spread across many movies, none of these films known for acting, all of them known for fast paced action. Ms. Basinger did not touch on this point at all and I am a little disappointed. I would say that it is less a director's job to focus on "dreadful exposition" (that is more a screenwriters job) and more the director's job to get the maximum performance out of his actors. Try to get them to stretch their bounds, leave their comfort zones, get them to do something that they maybe have not done elsewhere. In closing, do I think Michael Bay is awful? No (I'll leave that designation to Uwe Boll). Not to mention, neither does the rest of America as the man grosses millions upon millions of dollars on his movies. But you know what else isn't awful and grosses millions upon millions of dollars? McDonald's. They put out a product that people like and makes boat loads of money, but you won't see one food critic clammering to give them an award for anything they do. But damn do they make good fries. That's who I believe Michael Bay as a director is. He knows his audience, he has a good eye for what they like, and damned if he doesn't make good french fries (you know what I mean). I guess what this really comes down to then is, why on earth is the Criterion Collection handing out this honor (?) to what essentially amounts to summer popcorn fare. If you really wanted a film in the "take no prisoners" genre and wished to honor (?) Michael Bay with your stamp of approval, why not choose "The Island"? Or better yet, you already gave it out to "The Rock", why not just leave it at that and stop watering down your damned "Collection" already.
    Reply
  • By Clint
    March 18, 2013
    06:36 PM

    Armageddon on Blu-Ray please.
    Reply
  • By Jose Guzman
    April 22, 2013
    03:03 PM

    I agree with the autor. Michael Bay may be ahead of the curve technically... His screenplays are the worst thing about most of his films but, He IS a very good director and I still think that Bad Boys II is one of the best action flicks ever made... The Rock is plain awesome too.
    Reply
  • By David L.
    July 20, 2013
    12:37 PM

    I agree with the points about the movie being discussed but Michael Bay is not a good director, not even of his own genre. Even if you want to excuse the rampant misogyny and racism in his later works, his camera and editing work have gotten more terrible as time goes on.
    Reply
  • By John T
    July 25, 2013
    05:59 PM

    One thing is established: this is a corny-ass movie. But do the Armageddon haters fail to see the aesthetic appeal? The neon colors? The killer camera angles? It's Brazil in outer space with b-movie dialogue. Look, Michael Bay makes terrible, terrible movies. But for one gleaming moment, he turned out a hilarious genre parody, intentional or not, a la Starship Troopers. How do the anti-Armageddon folks feel about other cheeseball criterion genre pieces like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Equinox etc.?
    Reply
  • By JMB
    January 11, 2014
    05:42 PM

    I don't care for this film and would only buy it for a dollar or less. However,I do think it has a place a place in the collection. Here's why: 1 The Criterion Collection acts to represent cinema as a whole, this includes all genres including the popcorn action flick. it my not be very important in the long run compared to every other film ever made, but in its own small group, it can be. 2. it can act as a gateway film. Someone that is not fimilar with the collection but loves films of this sort, mostly Bay films may pick this up and have his or her intrest sparked by the phrase that's on the back of every release, then they find something truly amazing and are hooked.
    Reply
  • By Carlos C.
    June 07, 2014
    12:47 AM

    Michael Bay sucks. There, I said it.
    Reply
  • By Etherdave
    June 09, 2014
    10:06 PM

    Ms. Basinger's treatise, while eloquently revealing why she personally loves this film, absolutely fails to explain why it should be part of this collection. Who paid to have this film released thus? Was it a lot of money? I hope so. I really hope so. In 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot directed 'The Wages Of Fear', a masterful suspense yarn about working-class shmucks and splodable trucks. The shmucks weren't trying to save the world, just themselves. But when you're riding down a treacherous, bumpy road in a vehicle loaded with nitroglycerine, what the hell is the difference? Fortunately I can choose this film, rather than 'Armageddon', from the Criterion Collection. Ye Gods.
    Reply
  • By Jado3Dhead
    July 26, 2014
    03:04 PM

    To give Michael Bay some credit, is that he brings out the entertainment for the young, but his films are nothing more. They should not be classified as art.
    Reply
  • By Daniel W.
    July 26, 2014
    07:46 PM

    Yes there are tons of flaws in this movie and I understand if people hate it, but I really like this one. At the very least, The Rock is Michael Bay's best film and is one of my favorite action pictures. I'm not one of those people who hates him because it is popular to do so. But he has made bad movies. Say what you will about the Transformers movies (and there is a lot to say about them especially Revenge of the Fallen) I personally believe Pearl Harbor is the worst movie he has ever made. His most underappreciated film is The Island. I love The Island. Sure it is kind of an unauthorized remake of Parts: The Clonus Horror but I don't care. Clonus Horror sucked and deserved it's place on MST3K. I guess my point is if something is entertaining, however corny, it is entertaining and Armageddon doesn't apologize for it. I like the movie.
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