Earth's darkest day will be man's finest hour.
Or in this case, man's finest two and a half hours. Welcome back to the summer of 1998. It was a year in which 18 movies grossed over $100 million dollars domestically (38 internationally). And at the top of this list (#1 world wide gross) we find Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay's penultimate collaboration, 'Armageddon' (the #2 movie domestically, behind 'Saving Private Ryan' and one spot above 'There's Something About Mary'). This film defines popcorn fun, but rewatching it also reminded me how much I miss Jerry Bruckheimer being a driving force behind Michael Bay's films. There's a moment in the first 'Transformers' where a chubby video camera wielding teen tapes the destruction of the robots that fall to earth like asteroids and proclaims this is "way cooler than 'Armageddon.'"
I'm sorry, my little rotund friend, but it's just not. I may be splitting hairs of course, labeling a movie about a Texas-sized asteroid threatening to kill all life on Earth (even bacteria!), so NASA decides to enlist the world's "best deep core drillers" to save the day, as vastly superior to giant, fighting robots, but I happen to be a very lucky person: I'm right about everything. 'Armageddon' might feature an abundance of implausible nonsense, but within the construct of story and this particular filmic universe, it obeys its own rules. It also has a few real characters, it geographically makes sense, and no one uses an alien cube fragment to revive a dead Transformer so that dead-Transformer can tell our heroes how to revive Optimus Prime (another dead Transformer).
No review of any 1998 death-from-space movie is complete without mention of its cinematic sibling. In this case, that's 'Deep Impact,' a movie that fails for two reasons: 1) comets are much lamer than asteroids (duh), and 2) the movie's too earnest and took itself too seriously. Bay's trademark gags and buffoonery are on prominent display (note the early scene where a dog attacks a street vendor selling 'Godzilla' dolls, another 1998 disaster movie) and flows over into the characters. Bruce Willis, the man who has proven he truly does die hardest, leads a rogue band of misfits that includes Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Paton, and the outrageous Peter Stormare as a Russian cosmonaut. They're funny. Unique. Endearing in a frat boy way. And sometimes painfully melodramatic.
But the number one reason I prefer 'Armageddon' to Bay's more recent work is that it actually contains a number of sustained, tension-filled setpieces. a.k.a. action sequences where characters you love have specific, terribly impossible to attain, dangerous goals. Insert thrills here.
In addition to said spectacular action, Trevor Rabin's musical score is one of my all-time favorites. It's heroic, chilling, and a great mix of traditional theme-filled Hollywood orchestra and modern synthesizers (see Hans Zimmer, another frequent Bruckheimer/Bay collaborator). As far as the special effects go, this is still a very strong presentation overall (I forgot how good the model work is on the asteroid), but it's starting to show it's age. The 'Armageddon' main 3D logo as well as some of the meteors/smoke/explosions appear flat and more plastic. But effects have progressed greatly in the past decade, this is to be expected.
The bottom line is that this movie isn't for everyone -- and perhaps it brings out the teenage boy in me because I first saw it as a teenage boy -- but for my money, 'Armageddon' remains the best of its breed. Michael Bay is an amazing technical and visual craftsman. I hope he soon reteams with Bruckheimer, as together, they made four exciting, funny, tense, action juggernauts (and one clunker about 'Pearl Harbor').
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50 GB dual layer disc is coded for Regions A , B, and C.
High expectations surround this 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio 2.35:1). It's a title that appeared on early Disney "look at how awesome Blu-ray is" trailers, but took four years to find a release. And I hate waiting. Thankfully, the good news is plentiful. It doesn't necessarily look like a brand new movie (the age of the material and the film stock used is naturally grainier in darker scenes than Bay's more recent films), but the only real stinker shots are the occasional soft or stock footage (specifically, Air Force One looks terrible). The rest is an abundance of vibrant, colorful, rich in detail, moving images. Contrast-philes may hate the crushed blacks Bay uses against bright back-lighting, but there's plenty of detail to be found in shadow (in both dark interiors, and nights). I was particularly amazed at the Christmas lights reflected in the darkened hood of the BMW roadster in the infamous 'animal crackers scene.' Flesh tones are mostly natural (to their environment), but I did note a few moments where they tinted yellow-green (mostly on Steve Buscemi). Bay's swooping camera catches the fantastic intricacies of his mission control, actual NASA locations, exotic foreign locations, and the asteroid's surface. This video's a real winner, and would have achieved perfection, save for the few flaws listed above, and the dated nature of a few of the special effects.
For a twelve year old mix, this default English DTS-MA 5.1 is still awesome. This disc is definitely going to be included in my short list of demo presentations because it's not just loud (oh, but it is), it's immersive and engaging in its accuracy. One could literally watch this film with no picture and have almost as good a time. Deep base. Screaming highs. The score continuously pumps from every speaker, and in a perfect harmony with sound effects to create something stronger than the individual pieces. Dialogue is perfect, and is mixed well enough so that you don't have to reach for the remote during quieter moments. In fact, this movie practically begs viewers to keep turning everything up, up, up. The only reason this isn't a full on 5-star review is that more recent movies seem to have a touch more fidelity (check out the Paramount logo of 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen').
Disney offers French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. In the subtitle landscape, the disc includes English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
While the 1999 Criterion Collection double-disc release of 'Armageddon' was overflowing with hours of extras including two commentaries, an exclusive director's cut, deleted scenes, gag reel, TV spots, and other documentaries, all that audiences will find aboard this Blu-ray are non-anamorphic (480i) versions of the Teaser Trailer, Theatrical Trailer and Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss A Thing" music video. But trust me, you want to miss these (zing!). They are all unwatchable next to the glory of the film's presentation.
As popcorn adrenaline thrills, I love 'Armageddon'. It's a fun, fun film experience – a veritable blitzkrieg of stunning imagery – a must for anyone who never tires of explosions, space shuttles, and fast cars. This Blu-ray is immensely superior to all previous 'Armageddon' home video release, which featured letterboxed, non-anamorphic presentations; in fact, they look so bad today, this doesn't even feel like a double dip. Yes, this Blu doesn't have the documentaries of the Criterion release, but who cares, those will always be in standard definition anyway. This is a fantastic catalogue title release, and well worth getting (especially for Michael Bay fans). My only wish, after revisiting this movie for the first time in years, is that Bay will return to making movies as coherent as this one, which honestly isn't asking very much.