The 1998 asteroid disaster film Armageddon is often mocked, but rarely taken seriously despite its cultural relevance and impact. While in many ways being the ultimate schlockbuster, the movie is laden with powerful political and psychological themes. In this episode I offer an anarchistic analysis of Armageddon, interpreting it as both a military and NASA propaganda movie and a violent psychosexual fantasy. We round off by answering the serious question – is Armageddon worse than Don’t Look Up?
This article was originally published by Spy Culture.
As I believe I have mentioned before, I am not a fan of Michael Bay or his movies. I find both the man and his films to be infantile and violence-obsessed, so no surprise he has proven a big success in American popular culture, which seems to equate how entertaining something is with how much violence it contains.
Armageddon is something of an outlier in this respect, because not that many people die on screen, there isn’t any protracted gunplay, there isn’t that much military hardware. There is an obligatory ‘guns are fun’ scene when Bruce Willis catches Ben Affleck in bed with his daughter and chases him round the oil rig firing a shotgun at him, but not a lot beyond that.
The only mass casualty event in the entire film is when one of the meteors that accompany the main asteroid strikes in South East Asia, killing tens of thousands. Some might say this is weirdly predictive, pointing to either the 2013 tsunami that primarily struck Japan, leading to the Fukushima meltdown, or the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. However, they were both caused by earthquakes, not meteors, and that whole region of the world gets a lot of tectonic activity, some of which causes giant waves. Another reason why so many ancient texts and religions describe these kinds of events.
Naturally, in the Michael Bay cinematic universe, Chinese people are solely there to die in large numbers for the purposes of entertainment, or to help subsidise and provide revenue for his abysmal Transformers films. His entire approach to the world is soaked in white supremacy, a childish obsession with the US military, and sees women as vehicles for sexuality and emotion. Ironically, in the Transformers films, actual vehicles have better fleshed-out characters than any of the women.
Now, while I find the endless complaints about ‘how men write female characters’ tedious and hypocritical, there is something disturbing about Michael Bay in this respect. I don’t think he’s actually capable of relating to women as human beings – the women in his films are always there to look sexy and cry at appropriate moments because the story and characterisation cannot make the audience feel anything on their own. This is also why he makes use of swelling, emotive music so prominently – it’s to make you feel something. Woman cries, string section kicks in, it’s very basic stuff.
But it seems to work on a lot of people, because his movies have mostly been commercially successful, in some cases very successful. Even Pearl Harbor, which almost everyone hated, turned some kind of profit. Some observers have pointed to how he essentially used Top Gun as a template – his films typically combine high action with some sort of romance plot. But if we go back to The Rock (his best film) there is no romance plot, and he lifted the entire emotional setup from Con Air, not Top Gun.
We have to pick this apart a little. Obviously, there’s the Bruckheimer connection – he produced Top Gun and he was the one who gave Bay his chance in the 1990s, on Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon. But it’s only Armageddon that follows the Top Gun formula – there is little, if any, meaningful romance in Bad Boys, it’s essentially a story about how black men are violent and this is funny, but only if they’re cops.
So, what happened? The answer is Titanic, the second 1990s film to set a new box office record (the first being Jurassic Park). Lots of people looked at Titanic and realised that it was the ‘romance plot’ that got women into theaters in gigantic numbers, and hence turned a historical disaster film into one of the biggest movies of all time.
I say ‘romance plot’ because what actually happens is that an aristocratic woman seduces and vampirically absorbs the energy of a working class man, before then killing him after he saves her life. That this chimed deeply with so many women and teenage girls is perhaps even more disturbing than Michael Bay auditioning a 15 year old Megan Fox.
Back to Armageddon, Bay has said in interviews that the original pitch was ‘the Dirty Dozen in space’, that the movie would centre around the relationship between Bruce Willis – an oil driller hired to save the world from an asteroid – and Billy Bob Thornton – the head of NASA who hires Bruce Willis to save the world. They then assemble a ragtag group of eccentric characters and form a team who saves the world.
But after seeing Titanic, Bay and Bruckheimer realised that they needed some kind of romance plot to give the movie a female character. Hence, they wrote in the stuff between Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck, which led to Aerosmith recording that irritating song that appears whenever they clunkily edit in the scenes for that part of the story.
As I say, it may be dumb and obvious but it is successful – from my experience, women responded more positively to Armageddon than men did. I’ve never heard a man say it was one of his favourite movies, but I’ve heard several women say that. I guess a lot of women like the idea of their father dying in a nuclear explosion in space because they get to fuck Ben Affleck?
I know, I’m being blunt for the purposes of mockery but this is what many films are – violent psychosexual fantasies wrapped up in government propaganda. They really do incite and inspire the worst in the people watching them, whether male, female or anything else. Adopting a wholly race-based or gender-based critique of Hollywood cinema, or even one rooted in that as a primary concern, misses the key point – that these films tap into instincts, emotions, psychological associations and archetypes that go back a long time, and they do so in service of abusive states.
The Plot of Armageddon
The film opens with a CGI recreation of the comet that killed off the dinosaurs and a voice over by Charlton Heston about the destruction and how it will happen again. I have to say, one thing Michael Bay’s films do well is the opening – often a montage with voice over which establishes the tone. It’s when you get the characters and story involved that he starts to have problems.
Cut to New York, which experiences a meteor shower including strikes on the World Trade Center, and parts of skyscrapers toppling to the ground and causing massive dust clouds. Some observers have called this predictive of the 9/11 attacks, which it is. Of all the pre-9/11 pop culture that has been highlighted as somehow preminiscent I think Armageddon is one of the more important ones – not just for the New York sequence, but because of the patriotic fervour that makes up most of the reaction to this sequence over the rest of the film. The existential threat that is overcome by the might and audacity of the US government.
Shortly afterwards, an amateur astronomer spots the massive asteroid bearing down on earth, and we get some misogynistic humour.
As all this is emerging, we’re introduced to NASA administrator Billy Bob Thornton and trigger-happy oil driller Bruce Willis, along with several others including Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler, and other members of Willis’ drilling crew. Among them is Steve Buscemi – apparently the inclusion of genuinely good actors in this otherwise schlocky movie came from a conversation between Bruckheimer and Buscemi’s agent. But from Bay’s perspective, he cast Buscemi because in Bay’s mind he looks like a creep.
Then the military show up and take Bruce Willis off to NASA, where Billy Bob explains the situation. Why Bruce Willis? Well, the plan is to send astronauts up to the asteroid – which is about two weeks from crashing into earth and wiping everything out – and have them drill holes and plant nukes inside it. So they found the best oil driller in the world so he could teach the astronauts how to drill holes. There’s a lot of talk of mis-assembled drilling equipment and the dangers of blowing trannies, though I don’t think they realised the double meaning of that phrase.
The crucial plot point is that Willis convinces Billy Bob that it’s easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts in 10 days than it is to train astronauts, who’ve already had eight months practice, to drill holes. In an asteroid, the like of which no one has ever drilled into before, rendering past drilling experience largely irrelevant.
So, they assemble the team of roughnecks, give them a crash course in being an astronaut, and send them off to save the world. In the meantime, there’s a weird romance scene where Ben Affleck pushes animal crackers into Liv Tyler’s underwear. It seems a little childish to me, and made me reflect on Michael Bay’s habit of shooting women from low angles, from the perspective of a small child.
The team do have a few amusing requests in exchange for going off to save the world, in what is my favourite scene in this movie. Just like in The Rock, there’s a reference to the truth about the JFK assassination.
Exactly why Bay would incorporate this isn’t clear, but there are things like smattered around in a lot of 1990s content – the title of the series The Lone Gunmen is a reference to how there was more than one shooter involved in killing Kennedy. I can only assume this is partly a result of Oliver Stone’s JFK, which put the whole subject back into the news and into popular consciousness.
Back to the plot, the shuttles take off – for some reason in tandem, side by side, which is a very risky way to do a dual launch. Why not launch them from separate sites? In any case, this is footage from real launches at NASA facilities in Florida, who provided all sorts of assistance on this movie, and come out of it the main heroes in terms of government agencies. However, the main NASA facility where all the planning and meetings take place was not filmed at a real NASA location, because Michael Bay thought the exterior of the building wasn’t impressive enough. He also said he found NASA not very glamorous, a bit dull, and he didn’t like the smell.
The shuttles do a slingshot around the moon, one crash lands on the asteroid but somehow several of the crew survive. The other one makes a forced landing, and they drill some holes. The plan is to drill down, then sodomize the asteroid with nuclear weapons, so when they explode the asteroid will somehow be neatly split into two halves which will then separate and miss the earth.
By this point, the film has established that firing the entire US arsenal of nukes at the asteroid won’t deflect it onto a different path because it’s too big – the size of Texas, apparently, though exactly what that means in three dimensions is difficult to say. So how do a couple of nukes inside it do anything except fracture the asteroid, at best? They wouldn’t force it to separate and make the two halves miss the earth, because we’ve established that it isn’t enough of an energy source. In all likelihood, they’d simply fracture the asteroid, it’d continue along the same path and we’d get a slightly broken up massive asteroid crashing into the earth.
But apparently, because the self-styled smartest guy in the world at NASA used an analogy about holding firecrackers in your hand, everyone just goes along with this.
More importantly, this is one of those ‘nukes as heroes’ films that began emerging in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War. Just as with the CIA, people were questioning the purpose and necessity of giant nuclear arsenals given the changes in the geopolitical landscape. Then, Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact and other movies came out, where nukes are shown to be necessary, or even vital to our survival. The only films where nuclear weapons are shown to be dangerous are stories like True Lies and The Sum of All Fears where they fall into the hands of terrorists.
You might point to Crimson Tide and Broken Arrow as variations on this, both of which were rejected by the DOD, but nukes attained a much bigger on-screen and positive presence in the decade after the Cold War than they ever had before. The 1950s to the 1980s saw quite a few nuke-themed disaster films, whether themed around nuclear war or nukes causing giant grasshoppers to attack cities, or causing a crack in the world or whatever.
In Armageddon, the climax of the film sees Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck reconcile their conflict over property rights vis a vis Liv Tyler, and having lost that particular fight, Bruce decides to suicide bomb himself with one of the nukes, martyring himself in the name of the one true God and the US military. He takes out the asteroid and saves the world. Then Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler get married. The end.
How the DOD rewrote Armageddon
We would not be looking at Armageddon if it wasn’t for the Pentagon’s support to (and rewriting of) the film. I went through the file on Armageddon from the Suid archive, kindly provided by Roger Stahl, as well as a copy of the screenplay dated from right in the middle of the script negotiations.
While the heroes of the film are employees of an oil corporation and nuclear weapons, those nukes had to come from somewhere so isn’t it useful the DOD were on hand to loan some to NASA? And Michael Bay says he doesn’t make right wing movies.
In April 1997 the production manager wrote to the DOD enclosing draft scripts and asking for military support. He commented:
The heroes of our story are the U.S. military, NASA technicians, and oil industry civilians… Already, we have the complete support of NASA and strong interest from the oil industry… Our experience with you and the U.S. Army on the film IN THE ARMY NOW was extremely positive. I am looking forward to working with you on yet another exciting pro-military project.
It wasn’t until September – several months later – that approval was granted. So what happened in the meantime? What changes did the military make to Armageddon.
The Air Force took the lead on the project, since most of the requests involved aircraft being scrambled, and a lot of helicopters. A summary written by the project officer says:
Our association with the movie began in early April, 1997 with a request by Touchstone asking permission to tour various Air Force facilities as potential filming locations. Our review of the initial script resulted in several story meetings that led to the inclusion of a much greater Air Force presence in the film than was initially scripted. When the production company agreed to our story recommendations, we went forward and obtained DoD approval to support.
Some of the comments and script notes are quite funny. One set from Phil Strub in August says:
I got a big kick out of the “distinctive AIR FORCE TATTOO.” What the hell is a distinctive Air Force tattoo?
There were also a lot of issues with how General Kimsey – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the major military presence in the film – was depicted. Strub’s notes on the initial dialogue between Billy Bob Thornton’s character and the General says:
Kimsey sounds like an impulsive simpleton. Why can’t he adopt a slightly more moderate tone while still disagreeing with Truman?
This is about firing nuclear weapons to try to destroy the asteroid, and is the first moderation of how nukes are depicted. The notion that senior military officers would be trigger-happy when it comes to nukes comes up repeatedly in movies from the 50s through to the 90s, each time facing opposition from the DOD or other parts of the government.
There was also a ‘stupid line about the sister-in-law’ which Strub suggested be swapped around so Truman says it, rather than the General, as he felt ‘it makes Kimsey clownish’. But apparently it was no problem to make the head of NASA look clownish. In any case, the line doesn’t appear in the film.
Strub also wanted the character of Watts – one of the shuttle pilots – to be military, so that was changed. They also had an issue with the other pilot – who was an ex-military NASA character – losing his shit during the scene where the Russian space station is blowing up. He is shouting at the others to get back on the shuttle and screams ‘this is an order!’. This line was initially switched to Watts, but then she became a military character too so they just got rid of it entirely.
A big scene that proved problematic is where the drillers are on the surface of the asteroid and not making much progress, and communications with ground control are intermittent. This leads the president to order General Kimsey to simply remote detonate the nuke on the surface of the asteroid, so he turns the key and sets off the 4 minute timer.
Billy Bob Thornton then gets a NASA tech to hack into the communications feed and stop the timer, leading to a showdown between him and the General. By the time the military manage to get the uplink working again, Colonel Sharp (the pilot) has disabled the bomb to give Bruce Willis more time to dig the hole. So Kimsey simply lies to the President about what happened.
Strub didn’t like this, and made a number of suggestions for modifying this scene. While it actually remained largely intact, they removed the final conversation between Kimsey and the president where the General lies, the confrontation between Truman and Kimsey is reduced to a couple of lines. Up on the asteroid, Bruce Willis basically forces Sharp to disable the bomb, throttling him with a massive pair of pliers and giving an emotional speech.
Other notes included making sure the Canadians were referenced in dialogue about NORAD, changing which military branch various characters were in, and a line when Bruce Willis first gets to NASA and Billy Bob apologises. In the draft, Willis responds:
No. No more apologies. We’ve had 18 solid hours of apologies. Apologies on three helicopters, one aircraft carrier, and two military jets.
The Air Force didn’t like the reference to an aircraft carrier and military jets, so that was deleted. In the scene where they’re refuelling at the Russian space station and it blows up, they wanted Sharp to show more difficulty when he makes the decision to lock out two of the crew and leave without them.
Going back even earlier, the Air Force had quite a lot of input on the General’s character – they suggested he be an Air Force general, and also said:
He should be depicted as much more intelligent, less impulsive, more mature and more compassionate. (Think of General Colin Powell or General John Shalilcashvili). As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is America‘s senior military leader and would be a much more adult leader than the character currently depicted.
One of their suggestions was to have Bruce Willis be former Air Force, to explain his ‘immense amount of inherent knowledge about explosions, including nuclear detonations.’ It seems they toned down this aspect rather than making him ex-military. They also objected to the sequence where the military first find out about the incoming asteroid, saying, ‘In this series of scenes, it appears that the Russians knew about the situation before America did, and that they have already developed a plan to deal with it.’ This impression was deleted entirely.
In the original draft of the scene where Sharp initially decides to take off and leave the nuke counting down on the surface, but then changes his mind and disables the bomb, the Air Force said:
It appears that Sharp has now taken over Gen. Temple’s defeatist and threatening attitude, and then he freaks out. This is out of character for someone as tough, businesslike and professional as Sharp is. Please tone him down, a lot.
On another scene with the General, they commented:
He bursts out of his office, is met by his secretary, goes back into his office and gets on the secure phone? Unrealistic. More realistic is that he’s met by his military aide (a one-star admiral or general), and goes to the chairman’s briefing room in the NMCC. However, we can bend on the actual meeting place and leave it in his office. By the way, he couldn’t be on the secure phone and be pacing around the room as he talks. To go secure communications and also use the speaker in his office might appear pretty ridiculous.
They’re not wrong – I’ve lost track of the number of CIA-supported TV shows where two characters talk highly classified stuff while walking down a corridor or through a lobby full of people.
Another big issue is how the military were depicted in the original script as a kind of Gestapo, rounding up the roughnecks and effectively kidnapping them. One set of military notes on the script said:
In the scenes in which the crew is assembled for the mission, the Air Force Security Forces and Air Force helicopters appear in civilian settings with the roughnecks going about their private business with the implication that they detain these people and spirit them off to mission headquarters. These actions are a violation of Federal law and are exactly the type of activity that the Air Force has declined to support in films in the past. Beyond the illegality and inaccuracy of seeing Security Forces arresting civilians, the scenes create a creepy “Big Brother” image that the Air Force should not be associated with. Couple this image with the unappealing Kimsey/Sharp characters and the audience will have mixed, if not negative, feelings about the service. If the characters have to be rounded up, let the FBI do it.
You see how they repeatedly tried to shove off awkward scenes and actions and dialogue they didn’t like onto other government agencies? Curiously, perhaps the biggest issue (in terms of real world concerns) was never actually dealt with. From early on in the negotiations over Armageddon, the Air Force had problems with the US unilaterally deciding to nuke the asteroid, contrary to treaties prohibiting the use of nukes in space.
The engine of this plot is that the United States has decided unilaterally to save the world by blowing up a nuclear weapon in space. Again, the Air Force has refused to support this scenario before because of its disregard of treaties which ban nuclear weapons in space. The difficulty and multilateral dimension of the nuclear decision has to be addressed in dialogue or the Air Force will appear to be endorsing treaty violations if it supports this film.
However, these treaties are never referenced and there’s little, if any, dialogue explaining how the US has simply made this decision themselves, for the entire planet. It only really comes up in the Air Force notes, the DOD were only concerned with the political dynamics of the remote detonation scene.
So, did the DOD override the Air Force on this, in the name of making a more patriotic, nationalistic chest-thumper of a movie? Or were enough other changes made that they simply decided to drop the issue, especially given that this was the (allegedly) unipolar world of the late 1990s? After all, if America wanted to nuke space in the 1990s, who would have stopped them? Yeltsin? Blair? Silvio Berlusconi?
There are pages and pages of script notes on this film so I won’t go through every one but in essence they removed everything whereby the military acted as an extra-constitutional police force, brushed up most of the military characters, removed any suggestion of them lying or being impulsive or stupid, changed a few characters to give them military backgrounds, and polished up the scene where the general tries to remote detonate the nuke on the surface of the asteroid.
Given that this film had 9 different writers, only five of which were credited (including Jeffrey ‘JJ’ Abrams and Tony Gilroy), it’s hard to say who put these more challenging or subversive elements into the Armageddon script. Nonetheless, they were all stripped out or fundamentally changed, and we’re left with a tale of the oil industry, NASA and the US military’s nuclear arsenal joining forces to save everyone on the planet.
Curiously, while both NASA and the DOD are thanked in the credits, NASA insisted that they include a disclaimer saying that their support and assistance, ‘does not reflect an endorsement of the contents or the treatment of the characters therein’. Sometimes the DOD asks for a similar ‘social distancing’ type of credit, but not on Armageddon.
Is Armageddon Worse than Don’t Look Up?
The obvious comparison is between Armageddon and Deep Impact, which came out a month before. According to one origin story, Armageddon actually came from a script discussion session on Deep Impact, a writer just took a bunch of notes and then went to Disney and set up a competing film.
Deep Impact is a slightly more mature movie, and is more scientifically accurate (if that matters in a story about nuking asteroids) but made less money. It also stars Morgan Freeman as the president, and given that a few years ago he declared war on Russia, I do fear playing the president so many times has gone to his head.
But what about Don’t Look Up, another military-supported film about a killer asteroid? Politically, Armageddon is the most right wing of these three, while Don’t Look Up is the most liberal. Armageddon turned a solid profit, Deep Impact made some money, Don’t Look Up was undoubtedly a flop. Indeed, I’m pleased to see the recent news about Netflix’s share price falling after they started losing subscribers for the first time in ages. I predicted that the Netflix bubble would burst due to competing services and their habit of piling up debt to finance content in the hope of endless future growth, and we’re starting to see it happen. Don’t Look Up might actually be responsible for killing Netflix, and it would serve them right.
Personally, I hate all of these films in terms of their politics. All three were somewhat rewritten to remove any notion of the US military acting as a security state, when that’s exactly what they do when faced with any crisis – real or imaginary. Two of them promote nuclear weapons as a solution to planetary threats, while in Don’t Look Up the plot implies that they should have just nuked the comet and might have survived if they did.
Thus, all three movies are militaristic, pro-nuke, pro-state narratives. There really isn’t much to choose between them. At least Armageddon wears its politics on its sleeve – it’s a story about an oil company and the US military saving the world, with some help from some other parts of the US government. It’s a tedious, macho story told by a toddler, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
Whereas Deep Impact tried to be the liberal version of the same story, with the black president and a female central character and a female director. But it’s still about nuclear weapons saving the world – fitting, given everything the US liberal establishment actually stands for.
Don’t Look Up was just a hideous, condescending mess of a film whose sole aim was to score smug points rather than do anything to address a real world problem, while blaming other people for failing to do anything to address a real world problem. Fitting, given what Hollywood liberals actually believe in, i.e. nothing other than their own status, wealth and public image.
Thus, all three films are great articulations of the true politics underlying the different pockets of the US establishment that they represent, whether or not they intended to be. And since those politics are an abomination, we have to judge them according to their entertainment value, and the clear winner is Armageddon. Deep Impact is a better film, but it’s less fun to watch and has a less interesting cast. Don’t Look Up just isn’t an entertaining movie, with the exception of Ron Perlman, who is only in it for about 60 seconds.
In the final analysis I cannot actually recommend Armageddon – it is simply the best of a bad trio. I haven’t seen Ice Age: Collision Course and have no plans to do so, therefore I have to go back to a classic – When Worlds Collide, from 1951, if you’re looking for a genuinely good and interesting asteroid movie.