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ARMAGEDDON (CRITERION)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi
Director:  Michael Bay
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  153 Minutes
Release Date:  April 20, 1999

Film: **

Armageddon was the biggest money maker of 1998, and boy, does it have summer blockbuster written all over it. Does it succeed? Well, it could have been one of the most thrilling movies ever if it wasn't so dumb. Likewise, it could have been one of the dumbest movies ever if it wasn't so thrilling.

Movie goers who want more bang for their buck can't go wrong here. Everything in this picture is loud, fast, over the top, and designed to rattle you to the point where you stop thinking, which is a somewhat necessary commodity here.

How does this film compare to the other killer asteroid flick of the summer, Deep Impact? Well, for starters, while you waited the entire movie for one big special effect in DI, Armageddon starts the goods right after the opening credits. Meteors rain down on Manhattan, causing much spectacular destruction with the best possible visual and sound effects. Then, as the scene ends, we focus on a crater, with half a man's body sticking out, and a fellow screaming, "Somebody call 911!" This opening sequence firmly establishes the kind of film we're in for. On the other hand, this movie is lacking a lot of the heart of DI, in that it almost overlooks save for a few token shots people on the earth, who are facing probable extinction. Perhaps the ideal asteroid flick would fall somewhere between the two.

Bruce Willis and his team of oil drillers are then recruited by NASA to save the earth. Turns out, an asteroid the size of Texas is heading for us, and the only way to stop it is to drill a deep hole in it and drop in a nuke. We are show by computer graphic that this explosion would then cut the rock neatly in half, and both halves would conveniently miss the earth. I guess nobody considered the possibility that it would result in anything but a clean break. One even brags on TV that this was the Armageddon the Bible warned about, but we humans were intelligent enough to prevent it. I don't want to touch that, myself.

So our heroes train in 12 days to be astronauts. The training sequence is just one comic bit after another. These men seem pretty flip considering that life on earth depends on them. They are warned of how treacherous the surface of the rock will be. "OK, scariest environment imaginable," one chimes in. "That's all you have to say."

Finally, the boys get shot into space on two shuttles and towing all the best drilling equipment. First, they have to stop at Mir (and what's a space movie without a Mir joke, I ask you?) and in one of the more ridiculous sequences, blows the station up. Yikes.

But from that point, the movie stays pretty much at full speed, throwing one topper after another with almost dizzying effect, until you're ready to scream "enough!" and plead for mercy. But the film doesn't lose its comic edge. We're treated to Steve Buscemi going a little nuts (what else do you bring Buscemi into your picture for?) while the shuttle captain looks on with the most serious look on his face and says, "Looks like space dementia!" Buscemi even offers one of the film's most absurd lines when approaching the asteroid: "This is like Dr. Seuss' worst nightmare." WHAAAT??

One thing to keep in mind when watching this film...well, it's hard to avoid, actually, is the matter of time. Time is always running out, yet at the most crucial moments, there seems to be spare time for infighting and emotional moments between the crew members. Notice the sequence where they try to diffuse the nuke. The old "blue wire or red wire" trick, as the timer is running down. Hello, isn't this our bomb? Why would we have to guess which wire to cut?

Still, the cast is enthusiastic, given the material. Willis is fine, Affleck is especially good, and Tyler looks pretty and weepy as always. And the movie does deliver on its promise of thrills and action, and even manages an occasional moment of true emotional breakthrough. If you can turn off your brain and enjoy the equivalent of a battering ram on the senses, you might just have a summer blockbuster type good time with this movie.

Video ****

It's not anamorphically enhanced, but it is in every other way a superior transfer, both for video and audio. The lighting and color schemes are plentiful and far ranging in this film, and this DVD captures it all beautifully, with sharp, crisp images and well a well contained palate.

Audio ****

The soundtrack is an absolute feast for your sound system--your ears may be ringing by the time it's all through! This 5.1 track is loud, loud, LOUD...in fact, unlike most discs, it's actually the quieter moments, not the louder ones, that define the dynamic range!  There's plenty of use of both front and rear stages, with strong balance and excellent, smooth crossovers.  And your subwoofer is in for quite a workout.  All in all, this Criterion version is equal to, if not better than, the earlier Touchstone release.

Features: ****

Can you imagine so many features that they had to spread them out over two discs? There are enough extras on this DVD to keep you busy for days. And all of them excellent. Disc One, which features the movie, also includes two commentaries: one by the technical people, and one very entertaining one featuring Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, Bruce Willis, and Ben Affleck, who will have you rolling with his asides (particularly his take on Billy Bob Thornton's famous character in Sling Blade). Disc Two contains everything else, including short films on the special effects, production notes, a bevy of trailers and TV spots including the Super Bowl ad, storyboards, the Aerosmith video with an introduction by the band, and a most terrific gag reel compiled by Michael Bay showing how much fun the actors had making this movie. One of the beast features packages ever.

Summary:

Armageddon is a film that should be taken for what it's meant to be: an overcharged, underintelligent, big budgeted special effects action thriller overdosing on adrenaline. And if you want to own it, this Criterion version, though more expensive, is the way to go. I've never given a 4 star overall rating to a 2 star movie, but this DVD's quality and features package sends this disc's marks soaring like...well, an asteroid. This is the one you'll want to grab to show off your theatre to your friends, because it represents the way DVD should be.