'Armageddon': THR's 1998 Review

Armageddon - Photofest still-H 2019
A dazzling, warp-speed extravaganza.

On July 1, 1998, Buena Vista's star-studded sci-fi actioner Armageddon opened in theaters, going on to gross $553 million globally over the summer. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

An asteroid the size of Texas is heading toward Earth in Armageddon, and when it hits next week, a box office explosion will erupt way beyond Texas dimensions.

The summer's first you-gotta-see-it blockbuster is a dazzling, warp-speed extravaganza featuring Bruce Willis in one of his most appealing portrayals of a John Wayne-/John McClane-style hero. If you recall Fourth of July weekend two years ago, think Independence Day numbers for Buena Vista's rip-charging, special effects disaster movie.

Just because you're big does not mean you're not brainy, and this smart, polished entertainment crushes the notion that fx/disaster films run only on low-octane dialogue, lowest-common-denominator narrative and the lowliest instincts of tie-in marketeers.

If you haven't read Revelations recently, a synopsis from one of Armageddon's characters says it straight. It's "basically the worst parts of the Bible." This summarizes the horrible wrath that will fall from heaven onto Earth.

In this canny scenario, the end-of-Earth calamities are all rolled up into the massive asteroid streaking toward Earth at 22,000 mph, due to hit in 18 days since first sighted by NASA. What to do before panic in the streets starts? Only one choice, according to NASA head Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton): Send a crew to drop a nuclear device into the asteroid's core and blow it to smithereens, knocking it out of its Earthbound trajectory.

In pitch-ese, Armageddon is "The Dirty Dozen in Outer Space." A wildcat offshore oil driller, Harry Stamper (Willis), is chosen for the offworld drilling assignment.

A rowdy roughneck who never met a core he couldn't split, Harry is stupefied when the high command whisks him to Houston. In many ways, Harry's a common man, with middle-age problems and a grown-up little girl (Liv Tyler) who has never responded well to structure or authority. Of the six billion people on the planet, he thinks, "Why me?"

Harry's a cowboy, and the squeaky-clean suits, engineers and astronauts at NASA aren't his idea of a can-do group. He wants his own team for what he considers to be, essentially, a kamikaze mission.

You'd have to scout the end zone seats at a Raider game to find a screwier, more anti-social group than the tough-guy rowdies Harry selects from his driller colleagues to accompany him on the mission. Of course, they all have their special expertise and, shall we say, quirks. In short, when Steve Buscemi plays one of the more grounded crew members, you know you're dealing with a dream team of pirates and oddballs.

Including the people who penned Revelations, the writing team has slicked together a perfect concoction of refined and crude story including scientific fact, personal drama, romance, humor and a gusher of off-the-wall additives that torque this formula brand to its max. Scripts, not size, matter: Highest praise to credited screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams as well as the team of uncredited contributors (Paul Attanasio and Robert Towne among them) for the expert scripting.

In this tightly packed big impacter, director Michael Bay kicks in all the afterburners with turbo-thrust, quick-cut momentum. Incredibly, while Armageddon blazes at warp speed, its cadence is masterfully modulated: Assaultive action scenes, jaw-dropping outer space shots and small, personal moments orbit in narrative harmony under Bay's confident hand.

As the stoic everyman who must save the world, Willis is well-chosen. His edgy performance, splendidly etching Harry's gung-ho instincts and personal insecurities, is wonderfully credible and, above all, heroic.

As the roughneck in love with Harry's frisky daughter, Ben Affleck flexes resolute muscle with his heady performance. Tyler's spirited, appealing performance as Harry's daughter resonates with chip-off-the-old-block strength and tenacity. Thornton rolls together all his best rough-and-wily stuff into his portrayal of the beleaguered NASA head; he's very sympathetic as a man who can conquer a government bureaucracy.

Sixty days' leave with combat pay to the colorful supporting crew members, including Buscemi as a genius-level nutcase and Michael Clarke Duncan as a muscle-bound wacko. William Fichtner is strong as a steely astronaut, while Peter Stormare is amusing and believable as a stir-crazy Russian cosmonaut. Praise to casting director Bonnie Timmerman for this creative assemblage.

Technical contributions are across-the-board outstanding, especially the sharp, luminous cinematography of John Schwartzman. His compositions are often stirring and awe-inspiring, aided and lifted by the editors' (Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, Glen Santilebury) perfect punctuations. Trevor Rabin's rambunctious score is another boost, while Michael White's production design is precise and prescient.

The special visual effects, including seamless computer imagery and digitalization, are masterful. Oscar nominations surely will be in order for the terrific effects team headed by visual effects supervisors Pat McClung and Richard Hoover. This blast would not be complete without mention of the sound team's explosively excellent work, making us feel we're right in the thick of things. — Duane Byrge, originally published on June 25, 1998