The space shuttle Atlantis is suddenly destroyed and soon after New York City is struck by an explosive meteor shower. NASA discover these are no isolated incidents - there is an asteroid the size of Texas headed towards planet Earth, and they have only a short time before impact to avert disaster. A team of oil workers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) is quickly trained to become astronauts so that they can drill into the asteroid and set off nuclear bomb in its core, thereby splitting it in half and saving the world. But that's easier said than done...
Scripted by Jonathan Hensley and J.J. Abrams, with much assistance, Armageddon was the blockbuster you loved to hate even before it was released. It wasn't the sole "Earth almost destroyed by asteroid" movie of 1998, either: the tedious Deep Impact was out the same summer, and to many Armageddon was the epitome of big budget Hollywood's lack of ideas and paucity of inspiration. Today, "You would be better off watching Armageddon" is a popular and patronising film fan insult, recognised in over one hundred countries.
Any film that introduces its hero by showing him hitting golf balls at a Greenpeace protest ship is setting out a conservative agenda. But the film's concern isn't with the environment, although asteroids are natural phenomena too, but with the championing of the much-maligned modern male. Never mind those namby-pamby scientists, what you need to save the world are real men, good, honest, blue collar workers like Harry's team who restore the faith of their wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters.
Harry is in conflict with his daughter over her choice of boyfriend, because he's one of his workers, played by Ben Affleck (believing Ben Affleck works on an oil rig is the least of the stretches of credulity here). As Grace, the daughter, Liv Tyler gets little to do except represent all that's worth saving, but all that lovingly portrayed hardware should tip you off that this is a boy's movie through and through.
That's not all that's lovingly portrayed: in keeping with most nineties blockbusters, things blow up real good. This means that, after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, another destruction of a space shuttle in real life, and general large scale violence sadly more apparent than ever in the world, Armageddon has dated pretty quickly. Presenting demolition of landmarks and explosive calamity as spectacle and entertainment now feels uncomfortable to watch (look out for the World Trade Centre in flames during the opening).
Well, OK, maybe a current Hollywood blockbuster wouldn't feel too bad at seeing Paris destroyed as casually as it is in this film. One thing out of Armageddon that is blatant is that it's not the world delivering itself from annihilation, but a fantasy of the United States of America saving everyone else. There are a few montages of people of many nations looking anxiously to the skies, but it's the U.S.A. they're all depending on. The one non-American character is a comic relief cosmonaut (Peter Stormare) from the ramshackle Russian space station who the Americans rescue from an explosion (yup, another one).
Ah, you may quibble about relying on the Americans to take care of you all the time, but the solid cast should allay your doubts. As in many Jerry Bruckheimer productions, the film shrewdly casts a mixture of up and coming talent, cult and indie actors to back up the square-jawed Willis, and it's not too painful to see them bring their sketchily drawn characters to life. The effects are excellent, even if they take on a cartoonish appearance once we reach space in the second half. As a multi-million dollar exercise in pre-Millennial angst, Armageddon worked best on that cartoon level anyway, love it or hate it. Music by Trevor Rabin.