In Armageddon (Touchstone), this month’s insolently bombastic will-an-asteroid-collide-with-Earth thriller, American military honchos scramble to find someone to save our precious planet, and the best they can come up with is a driller. A deep-core oil driller named Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis). His mission? To lead his trusty crew into space, land on the offending rock, and drill 800 feet into the surface, so that he can implant a nuclear weapon and blow the mother into two pieces, which will then shoot past the earth. Watching Armageddon, I got the distinct feeling that the director, Michael Bay, wanted to drill the audience. Bay makes films like a man with a live tiger shark caught in his underwear. The camera never stops moving, and the images are edited with such nervous stroboscopic intensity that they seem to be knocking into each other like bumper cars. (I’ve seen trailers that were more elegantly directed.) Bay, whose previous action-hit cataclysms were Bad Boys and The Rock, doesn’t stage scenes, exactly—he stages moments. You never quite know where you are within a given setting, but then, at Armageddon, a bogus rah-rah spectacle, all that’s supposed to matter is that you’re in the moment. If you’re not swept away by the rush, that’s your problem, bud.

In the ’80s, the production team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer pioneered the cocaine school of adrenalized thriller decadence. Armageddon is the latest Bruckheimer production, but it would be honoring Michael Bay to describe the film’s degraded style of jackhammer visual chaos as “narcotic.” It’s closer to an anxiety attack. Early on, after Harry learns that his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), has been sleeping with his studly young right-hand man, A.J. (Ben Affleck), he grabs a shotgun and chases A.J. around an oil rig, firing at him like some cartoon hillbilly. This is something no sane human being would do; it’s not even something a Bruce Willis character would do (at least, not in those wistful neoclassical days when he starred in relatively coherent movies like Die Hard). This is something a character does when his only real purpose is to provide immediate aggression and movement within an already frenzied frame.

In a sense, it’s impossible to criticize a movie like Armageddon, since the picture’s very shortcomings are the essence of its “drama.” Training for their mission, the men in Willis’ misfit-renegade team are presented as a slob parody of The Right Stuff, and so it hardly matters that the characters are third-generation Xeroxes of cliches from a year or two ago. That’s the whole point; audiences laugh in knowing recognition of the simplemindedness they’re being asked to swallow.

Look, there’s Steve Buscemi, doing a milder (though still funny) version of his horny wack job from Con Air. There’s the bald, pumped-up, basso-profundo black guy (i.e., the Ving Rhames character) and the fat, goony, passive-aggressive white guy (i.e., the Wayne Knight character). And there’s Willis, in his latest AstroTurf hairpiece, doing his thousandth performance as Bruce Willis. Will someone please give this man a real role? As the film’s token sweethearts, Affleck and Tyler have the distinction of enacting the year’s most acutely (or do I just mean cutely?) embarrassing love scenes. Making goo-goo eyes over animal crackers, they’re like the world’s two most glamorous puppies. The one performer who keeps his dignity and, in fact, holds the movie together is Billy Bob Thornton, cast as a NASA official who bonds with Willis long distance. Terse, haunted, deadpan, Thornton is as low-key authoritative as the rest of the picture is overbearing.

After the glumly inert, TV-movieish theatrics of Deep Impact, which made the end of life as we know it seem oddly soothing (at least, compared with the prospect of having to spend another 15 minutes contemplating Tea Leoni’s news-anchor career woes), Armageddon puts its kick-ass jollies front and center. The movie opens with the destruction of Manhattan by meteor shower, and, midway through, Paris gets wiped out as well. Naturally, no one blinks an eye. (The NASA officials seem convinced that the crisis has remained top secret even after New York City is smashed to rubble.) The asteroid itself is an impressive creation, all fairy-tale obsidian spikes and crevices. But once Harry and his crew land, the film gets weighed down by its own ponderous logistics. Will they mend the broken drill? Will A.J. make it to the site in his intergalactic Range Rover? In Armageddon, the world never feels truly at risk, but the movie has an apocalyptic thrust all the same. It would love to dance on the grave of cinema as we know it. C

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