Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: because nobody stopped them when the dragged god-damned dinosaurs into the ice age two movies ago, the makers of Ice Age: Collision Course have seen fit to make a movie in which Pleistocene megafauna turn back an asteroid strike. Sadly, they are not doing this to the accompaniment of a Diane Warren song.

In 1998, we really couldn't know what a Michael Bay film was, and certainly we'd never seen anything like what would become his signature aesthetic. So the question I had when revisiting Armageddon for the first time since it was new was, with 18 years and no fewer than four Transformers movies of practice watching Bay movies in the bag, not to mention the inevitable patina of nostalgia, would it seem like a worthier, more historically momentous achievement than the borderline-incoherent grab bag of whirlwind action, hoary jokes, and barrel-scraping cartoon machismo that I remembered? And when that inevitably turned out not to be the case, would it at least be more comprehensible and digestible?


Before I get into anything else, though, a genuine question: by what holy right is this movie two and a half hours long? It's utterly demented. This was not, you understand, the era in which summer popcorn movies regularly blasted past two hours without looking back as though it was their job. That came later, and not least because of Bay's influence. So there's not a clear market reason for the film to end up as the second-longest wide release of summer 1998, after that bright and sassy popcorn movie Saving Private Ryan. Even less so when we consider the content. Here, for all intents and purposes, is the entire plot of Armageddon: when an asteroid The Size of Texas™ is about to hit Earth, thereby wiping out all life, NASA signs up deep sea oil driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) to fly into space, with his plucky rag-tag crew of eccentrics, to dig a hole 800 feet deep into the asteroid's surface. There, a nuclear warhead shall be planted and detonated, thus shattering the asteroid into piece presumably each about the size of New Mexico, and thus of no real concern. The crew must be tested and trained, and even then there is no predicting the series of crises that befall them on the unstable surface of the asteroid itself, which splits the team in half, with the drill team forced to scramble as they try to cut through a layer of solid iron as the clock ticks down to the point of no return, when the asteroid shall be too close to Earth's gravitational pull to still deflect its fragments. Crafting this intricate epic of human endeavor took a WGA puzzle box of writing credits: Robert Roy Pool and John Hensleigh wrote a story which was adapted by Tony Gilroy (!) and Shane Salerno, and this formed the basis for a final screenplay credited to J.J. Abrams (! again) and Hensleigh. Based on the caveman level of sophistication in the final product, I cannot imagine why this was the case.

This is the general sort of movie that got cranked out in the 1950s by the handful, usually with a running time somewhere between 75 and 80 minutes; the one specific "killer asteroid" movie I can name from that period was the somewhat posh When Worlds Collide of 1951, which skipped by in a mere 83 minutes on its way to collecting a special Oscar for its visual effects, which is one more statue than Armageddon could claim off of its four nominations (the 1962 Japanese production Gorath, a clear When Worlds Collide copycat, luxuriates in its indulgent 89-minute running time). And that's really enough - give it a good 105 minutes, because 80-minute features that weren't cartoons had no real marketplace in the 1990s. Hell, two full hours. We'll be generous.

151 minutes? That is, I'm sorry, complete horseshit. Not remotely enough happens in Armageddon to justify that. There are like, literally, four plot points in the movie. This has a lot of ramifications, the chief of which is that the film is a powerfully awful, hateful grind: it takes 68 minutes until Harry and the boys get into space. I can't think of a solitary interesting thing that happens in those 68 minutes. We spend a lot of time learning about the personalities of the team: Charles "Chick" Chappie (Will Patton) has a kid who doesn't know him! "Rockhound" (Steve Buscemi) is addicted to statutory rape! Otis "Bear" Kurleen (Michael Clarke Duncan) is, um, he's a big black guy, with a deep voice, so they call him "Bear"! Oscar Choice (Owen Wilson) is... feathered... hair? But certainly A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck) matters, because he's fucking Harry's daughter Grace (Liv Tyler, back in that indescribably short window when she could be credited above Affleck), who has a courteous hatred for her emotionally unavailable father. That cornucopia of human experience is worth 68 minutes. Hell, if they had to start cutting, maybe we'd have lost the scene where A.J. plays "sexy nature documentary" with Grace's bare abdomen and a box of animal crackers, as Aerosmith's feeble power ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" flickers on and off an the soundtrack! Why, that's the movie's most memorable scene! Albeit for shabby reasons.

Perhaps as an attempt to provide some sense of action-packed life where there is none, Bay introduces us to something horrible: his editing. It took three people to cut Armageddon: Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Glen Scantlebury. It also took all of the caffeine. If you have ever earned a headache for the trouble of attempting to follow along as the Transformers films shimmy from cut to cut like a bumblebee in a hurricane, then you know what existed in limited form in Armageddon. And I say "limited" because it does not in fact harm the action sequences like it does in those movies: the action in Armageddon is absolutely cut quickly, but you can generally sense the rhythm and how the editing reinforces the beats of the action. The "slow" scenes, though, Jesus Christ. The asteroid is discovered by a cranky old man, Karl (John Mahon), who detests his shrieking harpy wife Dottie (Grace Zabriskie), and their interactions - a scene of an old dude on an old-school observatory telescope set up in a barn yelling at his wife at the barn door, you understand, nothing kinetic or tense about it - are stitched together like an experimental film trying to capture the perceptual experience of a bad methamphetamine overdose, all tiny fragments colliding at nearly the speed of light. And this is true, generally, of all the scenes that are more "human"-sized than action-packed, which is most of them in those same opening 68 minutes. We are not quite at the point reached eleven years later in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, where the editing is so fast and so disinterested in continuity or legibility that you begin to wonder if Bay's not trying to invent a brand new filmmaking vocabulary. But it's still pretty fucking fast and pretty fucking nauseating.

So anyway, yes. For the first hour of Armageddon, virtually nothing happens, and it happens at the most unrelenting speed. Movies of this sort are typically defended against critics of my sort by some variation on "so what, it's fun!" Bull and shit. The first hour of Armageddon is not fun in the smallest degree. It is an unspeakable, paradoxical combination of being absolutely boring while being dizzyingly fast. I suppose in this wide world, people have had fun watching it - the film made piles and piles of money in 1998, becoming the year's highest grossing film worldwide. But it's nothing to do with any kind of fun I've ever had in my life.

Eventually, it finally gets into space, the editing slows down and yes, I do start to get it: it's not my flavor of balls-out summertime entertainment, but I can see what's meant to be entertaining. The visual effects were certainly at the forefront of what 1998 models + CGI could achieve, and Willis's precise combination of snarky matinee star personality and put-upon middle-American dad bearing fits the film's sense of blue-collar bravado well enough (this is, in this respect, Bay's attempt at a James Cameron movie). It's still much too long and much too full of stuff, just adding to the running time and serving no purpose - the asteroid drilling starts at minute 96, or 48 minutes prior to the end credits begin, and I cannot think of any way for that to be anything but indecent - but it's at least lively and consequential stuff with frequent recourse to a ticking clock. The whole movie is a ticking clock, in theory: having gone all-in with hyperbole by creating an asteroid The Size of Texas™, Armageddon continues the festivities by placing its discovery just 18 days prior to impact. But you would not know this from the first act; in the space of two scenes, Harry's crew disperses so far that one might be forgiven for assuming that several months have passed. So it's really only during the frenzy of activity on the asteroid and in Mission Control that any actual sense of urgency creeps in.

The movie's a lost cause; all that time exposing us to the characters hasn't made any of them terribly sympathetic, and unlike the same summer's other killer asteroid picture Deep Impact, there's only the most unwilling lip serviced paid to the notion that people might have emotions surrounding the imminent demise of every human being in the world. The stakes are only ever these people on this mission and if they'll succeed, like a noisier, busier Apollo 13 - and that was shameful of me, dropping Apollo 13 into the conversation like that; Apollo 13 has more human truth in a single scene of Kathleen Quinlan dropping her wedding ring in a shower than Armageddon has in all its many scenes of Willis and Tyler futilely trying to craft the illusion that they have any emotional history together whatsoever - and without having presented them as more than a collection of bland Looney Tunes wannabes, there's not much causing us to give a shit if they live or die. I give a shit about Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), back in Mission Control, trying to keep his and everybody else's shit together; Thornton is the solitary member of the cast who seems to be under the impression that he's in a movie, and has to present a character with thoughts and concerns and worries that the audience will tap into (the only other performance within spitting distance of "good" is Peter Stormare's hammy turn as a Russian astronaut addled by months alone in space).

There's good hiding in all this: Bay does have a proper eye, and in the half-second fragments we see the surface of the asteroid, it's pretty damn atmospheric and alien. Also, say whatever one will, he's clearly passionate about banging his toys together and screaming "KABOOM" for all the world to see, and passion is better than its absence. The film also has something that at least resembles a sense of humor: most of the comic relief falls flat (it's mostly all centered around Rockhound, and he's much too repulsive to have the necessary charm of good comic relief), but there are some one-off jokes that have a curious zing, like the tongue-in-cheek "65 million years later" title card after Charlton Heston tells us about how the dinosaurs died, or a dog gleefully tearing into a display of Godzilla toys - an obvious in-joke, but a welcome reminder that the summer of 1998 did in fact produce even worse major films than this one. Still, it's wretchedly paced, acted with no grace or human spark, horribly edited, and it has the scientific literacy of the worst student in 10th grade physics trying to bullshit his way through an oral presentation with a hangover. There are worse Bay films, God help us, but this was the "Abandon All Hope" signpost that suggested just how bad the future looked.