Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. The Criterion Collection includes hundreds of the greatest, most important movie masterpieces of all time — and then they also have a movie where Ben Affleck tucks an animal cracker into Liv Tyler’s panties.
Yes, Armageddon — the movie where a bunch of rowdy oil rig workers are shot into space to blow up an asteroid because apparently astronauts are too dumb to learn how to operate a drill — is volume No. 40 in the Criterion Collection. It was released in 1999, just a year after Bay’s summer blockbuster exploded (literally) in theaters. It was a decision that still feels mind-boggling. How could they treat Armageddon with the same loving reverence that they gave Federico Fellini’s Amarcord? Why would they spend time setting up interviews and documentaries and commentaries to fill out their traditional treasure trove of extras?
I had always assumed that Criterion churned out its super-special edition of Armageddon to make the cash needed to fund the release of the other foreign, arthouse and independent films on their wishlist. This would explain why their DVD release was only available for a reasonably short time, and why the company has never re-released it, like they have so many of their other entries. Criterion ignored my interview request, but a guest essay published on their website offers a more surprising explanation: “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.”
Or so claims professor and founding chair of the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University, Jeanine Basinger. She’s written seven books about filmmaking and is a trustee of both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute, so she should know what she’s talking about — and she surely knows more than me. She continues: “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.
It’s hard to reconcile this assessment with an actual watch of the movie, especially the “never boring” and “tell a good story” claims. Although the film’s premise is simple — professional drillers are sent to space to blow up an asteroid before it hits Earth — Armageddon stretches it through a punishing two and a half hours. It takes an hour-30 for the drillers to even reach the asteroid, and then a grueling 50 minutes before it’s destroyed. Bay fills that time by having various parts of the drill apparatus break four separate times, and not one but two separate scenes where the doubtful U.S. government decides to remote detonate the nuclear warhead the drillers are carrying, forcing multiple groups of characters to try to defuse it. (Bay also takes a moment to show a smaller rogue asteroid graphically annihilating the entirety of Paris.)
Again, given her bona fides, Basinger 100 percent knows more about film than I ever will. But that said, her ode to Armageddon’s brilliance still feels like it was written mostly out of defense — or at least, a chance to savage the many, many, many critics whose reviews called the movie a big, dumb, loud mess. When she writes, “Armageddon is not for the faint-hearted, the slow-witted or the dim-eyed,” she’s straight-up saying the vast majority of critics who disliked the film are, in reality, all idiots who are too stupid to understand Armageddon’s brilliance (which is weirdly in line with the movie’s fierce anti-intellectualism). It feels like she has a personal stake in the movie’s reputation — or at least in its director, whom Basinger actually taught in film studies at Wesleyan University.
By no means is Basinger entirely wrong here. In terms of pure visuals, camera movement and spectacle, Bay is absolutely a visionary. His films relentlessly push forward — again, those 50 minutes on the asteroid are completely action-packed, even if some of that action is repetitive — and absolutely no one can stage or sustain mass destruction on film like Michael Bay. Armageddon has other qualities, too: Bruce Willis’ careful performance as chief driller Henry Stamper anchors the entire film and gives it its emotional arc, which is admittedly slim. Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan and the rest of the cast don’t get much character development, but their camaraderie makes them likable enough to invest in.
Also, Armageddon is by no means the only action flick in the Criterion Collection. John Woo’s bullet-filled masterpieces Hard Boiled and The Killer made the cut, as did Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi pulp Robocop. Criterion recently put out collections of Bruce Lee’s kung-fu flicks and 15 classic Godzilla films, some of which are brain-meltingly bad. Armageddon isn’t even the only Bay movie on the label: The Rock got the treatment a few years later. So it’s not like Criterion has solely released DVDs and Blu-rays of the greatest cinema in history and then popped out a single cheesy summer blockbuster.
However! Armageddon and The Rock differ from these films in many, many striking ways. Fans and critics were awed by Woo’s operatic use of action, which was so stunning that Hollywood’s been aping his style ever since. Bruce Lee and Godzilla hold important, special places both in film and pop-culture history, so it’s easily argued that their work deserves to be chronicled. Meanwhile, Verhoeven’s Robocop is as much a sly satire of America and its action films as it is a popcorn flick, secretly making it an art film. Bay’s two movies don’t have any of that going for them: They’re just two loud, dumb action flicks, like Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Speed and countless others.
But Armageddon is special, because it’s not just a loud, dumb, action flick: It is the loudest, the dumbest and the action-iest flick ever made. Regardless of all the movie’s faults, Bay knew exactly the type of film he wanted to make, and he executed it perfectly: a perfect overabundance of explosions; a perfect lack of character development; a perfectly simple storyline that never gets in the way of those countless, perfectly over-excessive action scenes. It’s not just an icon of this immensely popular genre of mainstream blockbusters, it’s the platonic ideal. In this sense, I guess, Armageddon is genuinely an important movie — one that holds an important place in cinema history — and one that deserves its place in the Criterion Collection.
I’m still going to assume they let The Rock in just to make some bank, though.