Producer Jerry Bruckheimer knows his core audience is small-town America, so he panders to them. He plays to their simple, fierce patriotism, uneducated view of the non-USA world and diminished, MTV-assaulted attention span. Consequently, he makes big, loud and successful blockbuster movies with stories every toddler can follow, told with overblown action-speak dialogue. It's both his strength and his weakness.
To this end, Armageddon flaunts the traditional disaster-movie stencil of building up the characters for the first 30 minutes. But we're too easily bored with that: we need faster, louder, bigger things to keep our attention. And Armageddon delivers: a space shuttle explodes and New York City is rocked by asteroid fragments that sever skyscrapers and send buses spinning through the streets in flames. It's a blockbuster opening made in heaven.
And while other disaster films are still mapping out their relationships, we flit frantically between giant telescopes, presidential meetings and NASA brain-storms, finally settling on an oil rig, where (for beautiful-daughter-related reasons) boss-man Harry (Willis) is chasing rebellious young redneck AJ (Affleck) around with a shotgun. It's an elephant syringe of attractive characters and plot exposition, speedballed in about the same time it takes to knock-up a Pot Noodle. "Breathless" doesn't even come close to describing the opening third.
But then, director Bay's pop-promo past comes back to haunt him as Armageddon fails to provide a satisfying pay-off. The set-up, delivered in sound-and-vision bites, is exhilarating, just as oil riggers being rounded up by the FBI in strip-joints looks great in shaky-cam. But Bay's talent is in capturing single, explosive moments, such as New York's swirl of fast-cut, high-octane devastation.
Once the shuttles are in flight, what's required (and distinctly lacking here) is a more linear method of storytelling. Between the unusual asteroid location and the rat-a-tat editing, it's hard to tell which characters are in which of the space shuttles, let alone what they are doing. A potentially great landing approach, for example, leaves you disorientated and squinty-eyed rather than high on adrenalin.
Plot ceases to exist and is replaced by a number of identikit action sequences that could have appeared in any order. There's a technical hitch, a crazed driller ("My God, he's got space dementia!") and a meteor shower, but no sense of impending doom. Compounding this modular feeling, events are sprung on the viewer with no build-up at all. "Look out! Meteor! BAM!" Another fatality. "Look out! Gas pocket! BAM!" It's supposed to be thrilling, but it's just confusing.
Thus the first act makes promises that the next two can't keep. It's annoying, as there's so much here to like: the ensemble cast is uniformly engaging, the dialogue is as funny and sparky as it is unlikely, and the effects are astonishing. Want to apportion blame? Then hurl it at Bay (for his over-editing) and the writers (for forgetting to insert a central plot).
Since it's an American film, they're allowed to save the world single-handedly. But do they really have to deck out every cute child in US-flag T-shirts, set every press conference against Stars And Stripes backdrops, and portray every other race in the crudest stereo-typical terms, with Indians in turbans gathered by the Taj Mahal and Italians on scooters outside pavement cafés? On the strength of recent releases, it would seem that they do.