This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.
19. Armageddon (dir. Michael Bay, 1998)
“It’s the size of Texas, sir.” With that, Billy Bob Thornton confirmed our worst fears about the end of the earth–in 1998’s blockbuster smash Armageddon–an asteroid was heading our way- with only 18 days left until impact.
Where as nowadays, movies about the apocalypse seem to be coming out every week, with an attitude of almost detached inevitability, Michael Bay’s Armageddon was a movie arguing the end is not guaranteed–all it takes is the can-do spirit of humanity to prevent disaster. And granted, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, right down til the very end. Yet the humans, a ragtag collection of astronauts, oil drillers, and even a Russian cosmonaut, who go on a perilous mission to land on the flying rock and blow it up, never give up. Another door always opens.
Yes, it was the late 90’s (incidentally, we are nearing the 20th anniversary of the film’s release- July 1st, 1998)–before 9/11, with a budget surplus and many years removed from any major war. It seems hard to believe in this day and age that a rah rah patriotic movie could not only take pride in American exceptionalism, but also in global cooperation and belief in the power of science and technology. Throughout the film, America is portrayed as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. We are the leaders, the protectors, the bright shining city on the hill. Some scenes, like the shuttle liftoff, move with the power of a really good propaganda film. Liv Tyler is shown, looking at the sky in awe while an enormous American flag waves behind her, lens flares abounding. It makes you feel like saluting the screen. It’s our leadership that not only makes us great, but makes the world great too. Aside from some good natured humor poking fun at the Russians (and plenty of goofy Asian stereotypes), Michael Bay made a movie for the whole earth to enjoy.
…and what’s not to enjoy? Classic Michael Bay explosions left and right, a still-giving-some-fucks Bruce Willis, a Fargo reunion with Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, Owen Wilson only two movies removed from Bottle Rocket, and much more. In the first ten minutes, there is not only a simulation of the time a comet wiped out the dinosaurs (complete with voiceover by Charleton Heston), but a space station is blown up by a meteor shower along with half of New York City. All before the opening credits are done. But beyond the classic Bay fireworks, perhaps the real thing that makes this movie work so well is the screenplay.
Originally written by Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno and Robert Roy Pool, it was rounded out by another team of tested screenwriters, including a young J.J. Abrams and the veteran Robert Towne. When you see that nine screenwriters worked on a single script, it’s usually a bad sign. Here, it must have worked, because Armageddon is a constantly engaging, funny, downright addictive piece of pop culture magic. It is the high point of Michael Bay’s “popcorn movie” filmmaking ethos- but still making room for that real, heavy shit.
I was surprised too, that it can still get the waterworks going. The final 15 minutes had me crying. Family, sacrifice, perseverance in the threat of total annihilation- the belief that we can and will win the day. In such a toxic political environment, I had forgotten that I still needed to feel some pride in my country, and have some belief in my fellow countrymen. If you need to remember a time when we didn’t think we might be better off with a giant comet ending it all, revisit Armageddon with a big bag of popcorn in hand.