Oct 14, 2020
Movie Duel: Deep Impact vs. Armageddon
People have suggested comparing Deep Impact and Armageddon ever since I started doing Movie Duels. The only reason I haven’t yet is because I was worried about blowing through primo material too early. I’m pretty stoked about it, I have to say. Not only is this pair probably the most widely-recognized historical example of movie twins, but comparing them gives us some insight into why movie twins even exist in the first place.
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Movies, like all art, are a reflection of the culture and the era out of which they arise. When two movies with similar themes are released around the same time, you can be sure there’s something to it. In 1998, for example, people were just crazy about the apocalypse. The Cold War had ended, armed conflicts were at a historic low, the global economy was booming, more countries than ever were democracies, and we were supposedly nearing the end of history. On the cusp of an entirely new millennium, in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity, with the titanic struggles that had defined the human species now largely won, what was civilization to do next? “Die spectacularly” was, perhaps not surprisingly, a popular answer.
The nascent World Wide Web swarmed with millenarian doomsayers. Many people said society was going to crumble after the Y2K crisis put the wrong dates on everyone’s computer files. (Yes, in retrospect, it made exactly that much sense.) Others, however, looked for their demise to come from the sky. The early 1990s had seen confirmation of the hypothesis that a meteor strike had killed the dinosaurs—a fact whose obvious corollary was “this can happen again, you know”. Not that people have ever needed help associating comets with the end of the world, least of all the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who in 1997 killed themselves en masse, convinced that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet meant the end of days was on its way. The incident dominated the news and stoked the American public’s apocalyptic fantasies to a boiling point. It was inevitable that some would slop out and land on a movie screen.
This is one of the two main reasons movie twins are so interesting to me: their mere existence provides an illuminating socio-historical glimpse into the culture of their era. The other reason is simply that I like to see how two movies which are nearly identical on paper can become wholly different in their execution. And that’s why I’m stoked to cover Deep Impact and Armageddon—because they take the same premise and make it about as different as two Hollywood blockbusters can become.
I fancy I don’t need to do much to bring you readers up to speed as to what these two movies are about. In each one, an amateur with a telescope accidentally discovers a celestial object (a comet in Deep Impact; an asteroid in Armageddon), that’s on a collision course with Earth. Deep Impact uses this premise as a launching pad for three discrete stories: one about the comet’s teenage discoverer (Elijah Wood), one about a reporter who stumbles across the story (Tea Leoni), and one about the captain of an astronaut crew tasked with intercepting and neutralizing the comet (Robert Duvall). In Armageddon, the asteroid’s appearance kicks off a race against time to corral and train a roughneck group of oil drillers (led by Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck) who will go into space, land on the asteroid, and drill a hole to drop a nuke into. Astronauts run into trouble, stuff blows up, some die, Earth panics, but eventually they pull through and detonate the thing and save the Earth. Do de do.
Stylistically, Deep Impact is a spiritual extension of the disaster films of the ‘70s—The Towering Inferno, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and the like. As is standard in this type of flick, there’s an all-star cast acting out a decentralized story with several concurrent plotlines. The characters’ backstories, interpersonal dramas, and their behavior under stress propel the film forward in more or less equal measure with breathless action scenes. Director Mimi Leder, known for deliberate TV dramas like ER, capably navigates these generic conventions to produce a subtle tone of pensiveness and brooding that you don’t often see in popcorn blockbusters.
Armageddon, however, writes a film grammar all its own. Michael Bay took all the things he was already good at (frenetic editing, heroic shots, incessant explosions, macho bluster) and added heavy doses of the same large-scale urban destruction (with special emphasis on landmarks) popularized by Independence Day, then beefed it all up with a new toy called CGI. He ratcheted up the sensory assault with seat-rattling THX and explosions that bordered on the pornographic. To think of Michael Bay as an innovator, much less a—gasp—artist, may make you feel like you need a shower, but facts are facts: what Armageddon did had never been done before. It’s in the Criterion Collection for a reason.
Not that Deep Impact didn’t have any thrilling action sequences to speak of. It was a big-budget summer release, after all; it had to earn its keep. But the destruction on display in Deep Impact is less frequent, more soberly shot, and much less gratuitous. The most enduring image most people have of the movie is a gigantic tidal wave mowing down New York City. In stark contrast to any such scene from Armageddon, the camera’s kept steady and at a respectable distance. There’s no dramatic music playing. You’re not meant to feel lizard-brain thrills, only a pit-of-your-stomach foretaste of inevitable doom. It’s thematically appropriate and effective.
That’s what the difference between Deep Impact and Armageddon boils down to. Armageddon revels in its status as a sensationalistic effects fest. Deep Impact is offended at the very notion. Look at us, it says. We’re doing drama. We understand things like pacing and characterization. We’re doing our research and not making any bonehead scientific errors. We’re really interested in exploring what life would be like living in the shadow of a world-ending disaster. We are saying something.
Would that Deep Impact could live up to its ambitions. For all the time they take up, none of its three plots move very far out of the starting gate. Much of the character drama is listless and occasionally veers to the wrong side of tacky. (Did we really need ten minutes of doomed astronauts tearfully saying goodbye to their families?) In particular, Deep Impact shoots itself in the foot by giving the only part with a clearly defined arc to the worst actor of its three protagonists (Tea Leoni reads every line like she’s trying to be polite to someone she can’t stand.)
But it’s really easy to make a film look well-crafted in relation to Armageddon. Everything in Armageddon is so stupid as to constitute a hallucinatory alternate reality. This is a world in which meteors are magnetically drawn to major cities and always aim for landmarks. In which Texas-sized asteroids are discovered 18 days before they strike. In which trips to the moon take hours. In which astronauts carry guns into space. In which (as Ben Affleck pointed out on-set) it’s easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than it is to train astronauts to be oil drillers. Armageddon isn’t just dumb, it’s fractally dumb: every scene is exactly as dumb as the entire movie.
I can hear what some might be saying: “But you’re not meant to think about this movie that much.” Fair enough. I will concede that no part of Armageddon seemed to want me to think more about what I just watched. Moreover, if you’re one of those people who are inclined to hail Michael Bay as a true artist, there’s an argument to be made that he not only doesn’t care how stupid this movie is, but is making it this stupid on purpose. He’s creating a deep-irony fantasy world that sends up the very kind of movie Armageddon ostensibly is, and doing it so subtly that the movie’s target audience has no idea. People have made this argument before.
I personally am inclined to believe that it’s just a question of playing to your strengths. Michael Bay clearly does not have the slightest aptitude for, nor interest in, portraying human beings interacting with each other, except insofar as it sets up more crashing and booming. Armageddon’s characters are, to a person, badly carved wooden blocks who swivel to face each other and recite the plot. The script is a Mad Lib of worn-out stereotypes and clichés: America Is Badass At Everything, Grouchy Dad Hates His Daughter’s Boyfriend, Roughnecks Butt Heads With Government Eggheads And Prevail. There isn’t a single conflict that feels anything other than contrived. And the dialogue. God fucking damn, the dialogue. It couldn’t have been much harder on my ears if the characters screeched at each other like peacocks instead of talking. The fact that somebody got paid to put the line “It’s what we call a global killer” into an actor’s mouth makes me wish an asteroid would destroy civilization.
For better or for worse, though, this was just the blueprint of the modern summer blockbuster. Its success was overpowering, like that of McDonald’s, and for the same reason: it overwhelms your senses to the point that subsumes all individual stimuli into a fuzzy, high feeling that’s intensely addictive. Aside from establishing the genre of “disaster porn”—The Core, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and San Andreas are but a few examples of films that followed the same template—its influence has crept into every market Hollywood banks on. It’s difficult to imagine what, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would look like if Michael Bay hadn’t made valuable movie currency out of CGI skyscrapers bursting windows and shedding debris as they tumble down to their foundations. The Bay school of action setpieces—a fast-cut ADD frenzy of color, movement, explosions, and flying debris—is the gold standard for the modern tentpole film. Deep Impact’s nuanced approach to the blockbuster is dead, and one could argue that Armageddon is the very movie that killed it.
Which one needs to exist?
I’m going out on a limb and saying “both”. Not because Armageddon is good in the slightest, but because film historians would be at a loss to explain the past twenty years of film history without it. Simply put, Armageddon was the kind of film that had never been made before, and Deep Impact was the kind of film that would never be made again.