Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Twinsies: Deep Impact v. Armageddon

by Alex Lawson
Scarcely a month goes by without Hollywood’s dwindling originality coming more clearly into focus. The industry’s penchant for regurgitating known properties is pretty entrenched at this point, and you can certainly understand why: familiarity is comforting to consumers in any industry, and when the money at stake climbs as high as it does in the studio talking picture racket, the urge to retreat to established commodities becomes too strong to ignore.

This tendency most often comes in the form of launching already-popular IP into endless sequels, prequels, reboots, requels, preboots, newboots, poopchutes, etc. But it also takes root at an even earlier stage in the creative process, when studios get wise to the generic thrust of some hot new property the competition has coming down the pike and decide to spring into action, or when similar scripts get scooped up at the same time and kick off a race to the box office. It is just that type of phenomenon that brings us here today.

Welcome to Twinsies, my new (first) semi-regular column that will unpack dueling films with familiar plots released in close proximity. I’ll try to toss in a bit of cursory research on how the movies came to be, but I’m primarily interested in examining each of them on their merits: the different ways they spin the same broad yarn, their common and uncommon themes and the paths they take to achieve their respective goals.
It seems fitting to begin with what is probably the most oft-cited example of this trope: Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, a pair of space-collision doomsday flicks released within two months of each other in 1998. Deep Impact came first, in May, and Bay has spoken openly about the pressure he felt from the studio to catch up to the competition and deliver his movie in time for the July 4 holiday (this is back when the summer release schedule had some semblance of structure and order).

Off the top, both Deep Impact and Armageddon are bad movies. They each fail on very basic creative and aesthetic levels, but the mechanics of their respective failures are illuminating.

If Karl Marx was correct and history does recycle itself, then Deep Impact is the tragedy and Armageddon unquestionably the farce. For the most instructive glimpse into that dynamic, we need look no further than the actual instruments of cosmic death in each film. The fact that the comet in Deep Impact is roughly the size of Manhattan while the asteroid in Armageddon is the size of TEXAS conveys so much about these movies and their relationship to one another. Armageddon is Deep Impact, but with every bit of its being amplified to with an inch of its life and poised to give everyone a wedgie.

For all of the similarities in their strokes, you could easily make the argument that these two movies aren’t even inhabiting the same genre. At the time of its release, Deep Impact was about as close as we got to viewing the apocalypse basically as a modest chamber play (it’s since been usurped in that regard by Melancholia, but just go with me here), and it’s rather stunning to watch what we know to be such a grand spectacle play out with such pointed restraint. For its first 10 minutes or so, though, the movie has this intriguing, shadowy political conspiracy thriller vibe working, which serves as fun little entry point to the procedural that we all know is coming. There only two brief stretches in the movie that I would be comfortable labeling “action sequences” and even those aren’t presented with any distinctive visual style. Deep Impact’s sober approach is so methodical and measured that it flirts with dull far more often than a movie of this ilk ought to. And that is basically the armchair legacy of Deep Impact when framed against its contemporary. Of the two, it’s the “boring” one. That reputation is well-earned, but basically anything would be boring when facing the other side of this particular ledger.
With Armageddon, you have Michael Bay truly beginning to feel himself as he traverses the stepping stones from ambitious action fare mercenary to Societal Destruction Auteur Brought to You by Axe Body Spray. After a while, I stopped trying to count setpieces in Armageddon and instead tried to identify even the tiniest stretches of screen time that didn’t feature some sort of winking shtick, be it an elaborately staged action scene (perfectly appropriate!) or the pelting of a Greenpeace boat with golf balls set to ZZ Top via crane shot (uh...less so!) I swear if you really listen, you can hear Bay grunting off camera as he scopes out his biceps in a mirror leaned up against the craft services table.

Although Bay has (deservedly) become an industry punching bag, there’s usually a consensus that while he traffics in garbage, he exerts a certain devilish mastery over that garbage. It surprised me, then, to see that Armageddon is so much sloppier than it was in my memory. As you might expect, the visual effects in both movies have not aged terribly well, but the faltering is much more apparent in Armageddon simply because it employs those effects with greater frequency. The opening meteor shower, while laughably brutal (not enough to pelt a major metropolis with meteors, let’s make sure an ornery street vendor gets one right in the beak!), is a damn thrilling sequence, but the rest of the movie is so scattershot that it seems almost reverse-engineered from the broad idea of laying waste to New York City on film once again.

The differences between the two movies gets even more pronounced when examining the characters they use to tell the story. When telling the story that lies at the core of Deep Impact and Armageddon, it seems to me that there are two clear paths for characterization: You can choose to lionize the heroes that must ultimately stop the comet/asteroid, or you can humanize a handful of victims and demonstrate how they cope with their impending doom.
To its credit, Deep Impact tries to do both. It puts Téa Leoni out front as a rookie journalist who stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when news of the comet comes to light, flanked by Elijah Wood as a young science geek who earns a measure of international acclaim. Our team of heroes is led by Robert Duvall as veteran astronaut Spurgeon Tanner(!), tasked with charting a course to the comet and blowing it out of the sky ahead of impact. The simple and fatal flaw of Deep Impact is that basically every one of these characters does not even approach a level of engagement necessary to make a movie like this work, even with an incredibly impressive cast in tow. For a movie that’s so modest, it has some awfully wince-inducing swings and misses, spearheaded by basically everything that happens between Leoni and her father, an arc that is asked to do far too much heavy lifting.

It’s a real shame, because there appears to have been a much easier path for Deep Impact as it tried to walk hero/victim tightrope in characterization: Morgan Freeman. He’s on hand as President Tom Beck, and he is the best thing in the movie, hands down. Every time he is on the screen, the movie feels alive and purposeful and momentous. There’s a version of this movie that has Freeman as the main character, learning of the comet, grappling with when and how to tell the public, orchestrating an elaborate plan to save the planet while also preparing for a likely doomsday scenario. Perhaps his scarceness is part of his charm, but the effectiveness of the Freeman scenes is just so stark when juxtaposed with literally everything else in the movie.
The other thing going for Deep impact on a character level is the grim fate it ultimately chooses for all of Duvall’s heroes. It’s harrowing stuff, but again I can’t help wonder how much more effective it would have been if we had even some vague notion of who these people are or why are they are in the movie other than sheer necessity. There’s a half-hearted attempt early on to sort of pit most of the younger astronaut team against the past-his-prime Duval, but again the drama flounders amid the movie’s other business and never really finds footing.

On the other side, like many pictures in the Bay oeuvre, Armageddon has this palpable disdain for humanity lingering at the margins. That’s troubling enough in a vacuum, but the effect is compounded when the salvation of the human race lies at the heart of the movie. But at bottom, this isn’t a story about saving anybody, it’s a story about heroes. Those aren’t the same thing and Armageddon is here to make damn sure you know the difference. By essentially forsaking any “normal” characters in favor The World’s Best Deep Core Driller and his band of goofy grunts, Armageddon is able to narrow the emotional focus of the picture and keep us somewhat invested in the plight of the characters.

And the ensemble is, without question, Armageddon’s biggest win. While the characters are hardly groundbreaking, the cast is talented enough and the structure of the film simple enough that we at least have a good hold of who they are and what their deal is, which is more than can be said for the picture on the other side of our ledger today. Hell we even remember some of their names! Owen Wilson is doing his proto-goofball thing well before it got old as Oscar, while Steve Buscemi and the late Michael Clarke Duncan steal every scene they’re in as Rockhound and Bear, respectively. But I have always had a soft spot for Will Patton as Chick, who is the closest thing the movie has to an actual human being with real flaws and a real reason to try and make up for them.
But for as fun as its characters are, Armageddon can’t get out from under the weight of its own viciousness. Bay was ahead of the curve with regard to the troubling trend of blockbusters taking such unapologetic glee in their own destruction. This manifests itself not only in the action beats but in the way the movie chooses to grapple with the romantic entanglement at the core of the movie, yet another instance of the stark divide between these two movies.

Slavoj Zizek once famously said that the asteroid in Armageddon is little more than an external expression of Bruce Willis’ unbridled determination to keep Ben Affleck from fucking Liv Tyler. He relents from that quest only when death is a near certainty, and Ben Affleck has proven himself by showing up to save the day in dramatic fashion. This is all very retrograde bullshit, as they’ve done little to resolve the core conflict between them. But I think Zizek is wrong in making a similar comparison to Téa Leoni’s damaged relationship with her father in Deep Impact, as the true parallel there is Elijah Wood’s quest to reunite himself with his young fiancee LeeLee Sobieski, even if it means relinquishing his best shot at surviving the imminent disaster. While Armageddon hinges on a stubbornness to prevent the nuclear family from taking root, Deep Impact embraces the institution warmly and without irony.
And that’s maybe the simplest way to distill the two pictures. On one end we have a well-intentioned but ultimately dull and lifeless tale of humanity in the face of extinction, and on the other a more thrilling heroic voyage that is doomed by ugliness and cynicism.


  1. I hope this column keeps trucking along! If this case happens, I want to see you tackle Rookie of the Year (1993) and Little Big League (1994) where they both center around a young boy who winds up joining a major MLB team after something strange happens. Toodles!

    1. Contrary to Adam Riske's opinion of Rookie Of the Year I go with Little Big League every time. If only for the kids great talk of why Batman doesn't do fast food.

    2. I completely forgot those two when I was making my list of possible pairings for this column. Thanks for the tip, Leo!

    3. Don't mention it!

  2. Armageddon is a seminal movie for me, it was the first time I realized I was too smart to enjoy a movie, the first time my intelligence was insulted. I was 10. I think the tipping point was when Billy Bob said the asteroid was the size of Texas and they had to drill to the middle 800 feet down. Now, I've never been to Texas, but I'm 81% sure it's more than 1600 feet across. I was 10.

  3. Good article Alex. I enjoyed your insights even though I have no plans to ever see either movie. I look forward to hopefully solving the mystery of why Hollywood thought the world needed two Drilling to the Core of the Earth movies.

  4. That´s a fine article counting most of the flaws that made both movies such disappointments for me back in 1998.

    For Armageddon the disappointment was not surprising, given that I also didn´t liked Bay´s Bad Boys and The Rock that much.

    Deep Impact was an even bigger disappointment looking more promising to me because of the people involved.
    I really liked Mimi Leder´s first movie "Peacemaker", it was produced by Spielberg, had a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin (Jacobs ladder, Brainstorm, Ghost), a score by James Horner and a (back then) better cast filled with classic names like Schell, Redgrave, Duvall, Freeman and Cromwell plus a bunch of interesting younger actors.

    While Armageddon was a dumb idiotic mess, Deep Impact was a boring mess.

    1. I loved The Peacemaker. I think it wasn't well liked on this site, but it pushed all the right buttons for me.

    2. Yep, to me it still is a very entertaining and suspenseful political thriller with an interesting story, good pacing, a great cast and a cool Hans Zimmer score. What more can I ask for? ;-)