Destroying the world often comes in handy for film-makers. As a sure fire way of getting bums-on-seats in the cineplexes, the destruction (or imminent destruction) of our home-world is up there with the best car chase films and shoot-em ups.
Films such as When Worlds Collide proved especially popular back in the 50’s and 60’s, during the build up of the Cold War, along with numerous films of apocalyptic devastation. Earthquake, War of the Worlds, heck, even Plan Nine From Outer Space all talked about world shaping events. These were the kind of films audiences wanted to see, something that was out of the realms of possibility and utterly nonsensical that they could enjoy, and forget about later on. Most of these films were big budget affairs, using the major film stars of the time in sprawling, epic story-lines bordering on the masochistic. Mostly, the effects were state of the art models, with the use of computers still a long way off even in the late 80’s.
With the advent of digital special effects, however, films like this have become cheaper to make, and more realistic on screen, which ultimately results in even more bum’s-on-seats. In the mid nineties, films such as Independence Day reinvented the end-of-the-world genre and gave it a more modern pop-culture twist. Then, during the summer of 1998, two films came out that, for some reasons, were almost entirely identical. Deep Impact, the second film to be released by Dreamworks Pictures, and directed by Mimi Leder, was a serious take on the “asteroid about to hit Earth” cliché, with a very heavy handed “what would you do?” feel in almost every frame. A few months later, Armageddon, the Michael Bay directed shout-fest, emerged onto the market with an identical plot contrivance, and managed to be even more profitable than Deep Impact could have hoped for. While most audiences pondered Hollywood’s ability to produce two almost identical films within the same calendar year (and almost even within the same calendar month!), they were also excited to be able to take in two slightly different takes on the end of the world.
In both films, scientists discover that an asteroid is heading for earth, and it’s not the kind the size of a basketball. These asteroids are huge, about the size of a small country. Enough weight to obliterate life on our world. After plenty of frowning, sighing and puzzling about, the Government (usually the U.S.A. one) comes up with a rescue plan that involves sending a team of people up to the asteroid in a rocket, land on said asteroid and drill into it. After drilling a hole into it, you drop a nuclear weapon down the middle and run away fast. Meanwhile, down on Earth, various smaller bits of asteroid strike the planet, putting into context the potential damage to be done should the large rock make landfall.
With both films using this template to tell a story, one could reasonably ask what the difference between them is. Simply put, Deep Impact is more emotional, whilst Armageddon is more action-oriented. So which is better? For me, Armageddon is perhaps the more re-watchable film, a brain-emptying logic defying artefact that just astounds with its stupidity each time you watch. Deep Impact, while perhaps being slightly more cerebral, is less about the asteroid strike and more about the build-up before it. Humanity’s disparate and desperate efforts to survive are explored in Deep Impact, and what it would be like to make some really, really hard decisions.
First, let us study Deep Impact. After all, it was released first.
Mimi Leder’s first effort for Dreamworks resulted in The Peacemaker, the George Clooney/Nicole Kidman actioner featuring missing nuclear weapons. Instead of the end of New York, in Deep Impact it’s the end of the world. Leder’s grasp of action is perhaps a little lacking, although she did tackle the big scales in The Peacemaker, a far better film than most critics would agree upon. But her sense of awe and enormity is superb, perfectly capturing the staggering sense of disbelief that humanity would feel should this type of thing ever actually happen. The cast are well chosen, with little stunt casting (unlike Armageddon) and the people involved feel real, in the most unreal scenario imaginable. From the moment of discovery of the asteroid, to the moment when part of it strikes the Earth, and the cataclysm that follows, are all profoundly moving in the context of the film, and the cast plays it utterly straight.
Tea Leoni is the investigative reporter who uncovers the conspiracy by the White House to keep the imminent destruction of Earth under wraps until the last possible moment. She’s slightly annoying as the nosy journo, and her attitude and go-get’em behaviour is a little to realistic for the audience to generate any real sympathy for. That said, she does it well. Frodo… er, I mean Elijah Wood takes on the role of the discoverer of the meteorite, representing the youth of today, and the hope for mankind through his selfless actions. His girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski, who had previously tempted Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut) is rather reticent to take off with him and save herself, preferring to stay with her doomed family. The President, Morgan Freeman, is resoundingly solid in his efforts to minimise panic, ensuring prices are fixed, there is no looting or hoarding. The President has the undesirable duty of ensuring that humanity survives, although minimal mention is made of anybody outside the US. The fact that Deep Impact excludes the rest of humanity for the bulk of it’s runtime ends up ensuring anybody outside America feels slighted is a little far-sighted, considering that Spielberg was a producer here. Normally he’s considerate to things like that.
Maxmillian Schell is Leoni’s father, who happens to be dating a girl a third his age (much to his daughters chagrin) and her mother is fast becoming a raging alcoholic. This, plus the pressure of a rise in rank as new presenter on MSNBC, ensures Leoni is stressed for the majority of the film. Unfortunately for Tea Leoni, I have never found her to be a great actress, and this film was meant to be her starring role after minor success in Bad Boys. She’s irritatingly unsure of herself, her demeanor and ability before the cameras means she’s suitable only for one type of role: the unsure woman who appears slightly confused. This was brought to bear in the exception that proves the rule; her role in Spanglish was an example of her talent put to great use. Nevertheless, Leoni is supposed to be the lead in this film, and it tells of her inability to shoulder the responsibility.
Wood, while ensuring we all keep staring at those enormous blue eyes of his, lacks the real emotive quality in this film to create audience empathy, although he does try hard. Curmudgeonly astronaut Robert Duvall goes along for the ride on the rocket to space, to plant the bomb in the asteroid. Of course, science gets a bit wobbly along the way during the outer space bits, and these logical leaps are understandable. Duvall plays it all with a straight face as well, even though he’s supposed to be the comedy relief in these scenes, as the young “hero” astronauts don’t really respect him. Of course, by the end of the film, their tune is changed. Duvall is about the classiest actor on the screen, and he tries valiantly to increase the sincerity of all involved, but it’s a fruitless effort overall.
The special effects are state of the art for 1998, which means that compared to current technical achievements, they no longer stand up. The water flooding effects are below par, and reminiscent of stuff seen in The Day After Tomorrow. Generally, the tension created as the Earth is partially obliterated is quite decent, however these below par effects now mitigate any sense of awe and wonder.
With all it’s faults, Deep Impact is still a fairly good film, and tries hard to provoke some sort of discussion as to what would actually happen should these types of events occur.
Armageddon, however, took a different tack. In the place of emotion and a sense of drama, Armageddon is an overblown, histrionic action film, barrelling through it’s 150 minute runtime with scant regard for logic or reason. Of course, this is typical of Michael Bay’s earlier work, something he tries hard to minimise in more recent fare such as The Island and Transformers. Bruce Willis is the square jawed leader of a pack of deep sea oil drillers who are called upon by their government to save the earth by dropping a bomb into an oncoming asteroid. Only they have the skills required to drill deep enough into the asteroid to ensure success, however, the unruly gang of reprobates are obviously in dire need of psychotherapy.
With a cast of quasi-stars (including Michael Clarke Duncan in his first major screen role, Steve Buscemi and the William Fichtner) and some real A-listers (like Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, as well as a before-he-was-famous Owen Wilson) Armageddon is an exercise in patience and attention span. The script reads like a cliché: each of the cast get their own “cool” lines to say, and plenty of random action to involve themselves in (except Tyler, as the token chick, who simply gets to cry and look upset) and when the action shifts into outer space, an hour into the film, you get the sense that this is a film that doesn’t know when to quit.
Now, at this point, I must let you know that Armageddon was, for a long long time, my all-time favourite film. Not for any sense of greatness, it’s just that Armageddon is such a fun viewing experience, you cannot help but smile at the sheer stupidity of it all. NASA gets treated like a bunch of school-type nerds by our heroes, and it has to be said that the space agency gets a bad rap here for a complete lapse in logic, as well as some of the most cringe-worthy moments on screen: the scene where the lads sit about trying to come up with a plan to “deflect the asteroid with a module that deploys aluminium sheeting to catch the solar winds” in particular is alternately hilarious/abysmal, depending on your outlook.
But where Deep Impact was more stately in its style, Armageddon is like throwing footage into a blender and hoping it turns out okay. The editing is rambunctious, perhaps due to the fact about half the editing population of Hollywood worked on this film, which equates to a rather uneven and discombobulating affair overall. The opening destruction sequence is awesome, New York being pulverised into oblivion by the smaller debris raining through the sky. During the course of the film, Paris gets annihilated as well, in one of the movie’s best sequences. All throughout this, the American flag gets a fair waving, and the slo-motion bravado never ceases.
Of course, with the man behind Bad Boys and The Rock at the helm, you’d hardly expect anything else. Michael Bay is the gold standard of slick, cinematic directors who throw caution to the wind and simply enjoy entertaining people. At no point do they try and confront an audience with something shocking, they simply rely on their talent to bring a level of excitement to the screen to give the audience a few hours of escapist fare. Many deride Bay as simply a cipher for masochistic imagery bordering on sexist cinema-porn (shots for the sake of doing so, with virtually no redeeming cinematic value whatsoever) however this is perhaps being a little too overreaching for the man. Bay is a cameraman and storyteller first, and a political activist second. None of his films carry a hidden message that isn’t already on the movie poster or in the trailer. He manages to capture a sense of urgency and histrionic overacting within his camera-work that would put Brett Ratner to shame. Unlike the sturdy hand of Mimi Leder, who would go on to direct Pay It Forward and pretty much ruin her chances of directing anything a-list again. Leder’s sure hand manages to reflect the drama and sense of purpose within her film, while Bat resorts to flashy moves and angles to get his point across. Bay has more style, while Leder has more sensibility.
The thing about Armageddon is that at no point does it ever pretend to be anything except what you see on screen. There are no hidden subtexts, no alternative views here. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a decent end-of-the-world film. The cast are all expendable to the extreme, with plenty of emotion charged deaths coming at you thick and fast. But it’s all so slick, so tightly controlled, you hardly get a moment to really think about it.
So which film is the more entertaining: the more emotive Deep Impact, or the hysterical antics of Affleck and Willis in Armageddon? Well, truth be told, I find Armageddon more watchable more often, a sign that as a film, it’s more entertaining. The more fulfilling one, however, would have to be Deep Impact, which evolves characters and emotions, unlike it’s more shallow, carbon-copy characterised cousin. Thankfully, though the world did not really end with either of these films, and we can live to fight another day as a species.
Depending on your filmic appreciation, you’d be hard pressed to overlook Deep Impact for a decent night in front of the box, as this is the kind of film that could appeal to the womenfolk who normally abhor action/destruction movies. A level of sensitivity in Deep Impact leaves it open to a wider viewing audience. Armageddon is your typical “boys movie”, filled with raucous humour and action, spliced with a studio requested love story that appeases the three women who do watch this movie, and it’s utterly nonsensical. And utterly enjoyable.