It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe sang that. Myself, I have managed to stave off thinking about oblivion altogether -- that is, until all those demise-of-the-month reminders from Hollywood began showing up.
Fiery gobs oozed all over "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak." Mean aliens surfaced in "Independence Day" and "Mars Attacks." "Deep Impact" mostly followed a group of pity-partiers as they sat around and waited for a comet the size of the Big Apple. Yawn.
In "Armageddon," the threat to the planet is an asteroid the size of Texas. Perhaps in a symbolic nod to the competition, New York City gets firebombed during an early sequence that is as noisy, tightly edited, frenetic and downright grandiose as anything producer Jerry Bruckheimer previously orchestrated for "Con Air," "The Rock," "Crimson Tide" or "Top Gun."
The camera races close to the ground as fireballs blow up people, taxicabs and a toy Godzilla before toppling the spire of the Empire State Building. Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay unwrap astonishing special effects, massive destruction and untold casualties in less than 20 minutes.
Next, we meet Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the action hero and deep-core oil driller; his pouting, dewy-eyed daughter (Liv Tyler), and her goofball boyfriend, A. J. .Frost (Ben Affleck), a member of a rag-tag earth-to-space drilling team that also includes Will Patton and indie-film favorite Steve Buscemi. The brawny Stamper and his pals may be roughnecks, but they're rock & roll, too: The filmmakers blast this point home by cranking up ZZ Top or Aerosmith whenever the crusty but likable fellows are on screen.
Naturally the drillers are tapped to nuke the asteroid before it connects with Earth. The idea, of course, is to cram in as much bang for the buck as possible, and hope that the jumble adds up to something larger than the sum of the movie's hodgepodge parts. Thus, there's a training sequence that alludes to every other plot about men preparing for sports or war. Stamper's men, caught up in various bits of comic action, survive the training, but fail to gain the respect of the space-agency boys. "You and your men are the biggest mistakes in the history of NASA," one naysayer snipes. The one man who is unwavering in his support of the walking security risks is the agency's director, warmly rendered by Billy Bob Thornton.
Shot up into the atmosphere, the wannabe saviors encounter onboard scares, danger at a Russian space station, several near-misses once they land on the asteroid, and even romance. "Armageddon" -- slick, overblown and formulaic to its core -- nevertheless amounts to this season's closest screen equivalent to an apocalyptic thrill ride.
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