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.