by Alex Lawson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.