“Prepare The World For Bad News” (#43)

“Okay, Mr. Truman, let’s say that we actually do land on this. What’s it gonna be like up there?”

“Two hundred degrees in the sunlight, minus 200 in the shade, canyons of razor-sharp rock, unpredictable gravitational conditions, unexpected eruptions… things like that.”

“Okay, so the scariest environment imaginable. Thanks. That’s all you gotta say, scariest environment imaginable.”

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Grab some tissues, because in our latest episode, we’re sharing the movies that made us cry when we were young!

In the summer of 1998, two blockbusters hurtled into theaters with virtually the same premise: astronauts blasting up into space to blow up deadly space rocks with nuclear weapons. In many ways, these twin disaster flicks couldn’t be more different. Deep Impact has Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood, and a comet, focusing on journalism and science. Armageddon stars Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and an asteroid, concerning loudmouth white male oil drillers with minimal education or training. (Bet you can’t guess which one Michael Bay directed!)

In 2018, these doomsday vehicles turn out to be surprisingly relevant in terms of current politics, but how do they hold up as mindless special effects-driven entertainment? When We Were Young discusses America’s actual first black president, Morgan Freeman, plus child marriage, daddy issues galore, and the efficacy of Ben Affleck’s animal cracker seduction. You won’t want to miss a thing!

Listen to the podcast here.

Boy oh boy, was there more to dive into here than we expected.

Back in 1998, I’m sure the differing political ideologies of Deep Impact and Armageddon were remarked upon by some people. I was a teenager with virtually no knowledge of or interest in politics, since I couldn’t yet vote. But I don’t think it was obvious, back then, that one of these movies is very “red,” and one of them is very “blue.” These blockbusters coexisted rather peacefully, and I recall no urgency to “pick a side.”

But now we’ve reached a state of political polarization in this nation that allows me to state that Deep Impact is a Democrat, and Armageddon is a Republican. In Deep Impact, the heroine is an MSNBC reporter, the president is black and thoughtful, and the comet is the size of Manhattan. In Armageddon, the hero is a gun-toting oil driller, the president is white and full of nonsense, and the asteroid is the size of Texas. (Of Texas? That’s overkill, if you ask me.) The space drillers will also only agree to save Earth if the government agrees they’ll never pay taxes again.

It would be hard to think of a way these movies could feel more right- or left-leaning, without straight-up flashing “Vote Bush!” or “Vote Clinton!” across the bottom of the screen. Deep Impact places a bit more focus on the crisis at a global scale, favoring journalism, science, and reason as combatants to doomsday hysteria. Armageddon is stuffed with Michael Bay’s trademark American flag, asking us to root for a bunch of ignorant blue-collar dudes who ignore facts and common sense in favor of shooting, smashing, or blowing things up to get their point across. (This is exactly who Donald Trump would send up into space to “save” us.)

That’s right. These two disaster movies predicted our political future. Please note that both depicted large swaths of America being decimated.

DEEP IMPACT
May 8, 1998

Budget: $80 million
Opening Weekend: $41.2 million
Domestic Total Gross: $140.5 million
Worldwide: $349.5 million
Metacritic: 40

In theory, this is exactly the kind of disaster movie I crave — thoughtful, character-focused, and centered on the real problems humanity would face under threat of an unprecedented global crisis.

That might be the reason it came across as a bigger disappointment. I liked Deep Impact well enough back in the day, but I hadn’t seen it since high school. Now, it became strikingly obvious how muddled its focus was, and how many opportunities it missed. A long stretch of the film centers on Robert Duvall’s incredibly named Tanner Spurgeon and his fellow astronauts, who go up into space to nuke the comet (as you do, in any American disaster film). Though this crew has some fine moments, it’s quite a bit less interesting than the human drama playing out below — a whole populace fearing that the human race is doomed, deciding how to spend what might be their final days. Morgan Freeman’s President Beck decrees that there will no riots or looting, so… there isn’t? (He’s playing POTUS, not God again, right?) A handful of citizens are chosen in a lottery to withstand the blast in an underground bunker, and that plan goes down without a hitch, even on those who are doomed. (Forget a lottery that saves your life — I’ve seen people more worked up about scratch tickets.)

Deep Impact narrows its focus on human relationships, like Tea Leoni’s Jenny Lerner, trying to forgive her flawed father for leaving her (awesome, but too briefly seen) mother played by Vanessa Redgrave. There’s also a strangely adult romance between two 14-year-olds that maybe is supposed to have biblical implications in this apocalyptic story, but doesn’t take nearly enough time to develop that. There’s way too much going on in Deep Impact for any of it to truly resonate. Even the tsunami hitting New York City feels like an obligatory afterthought.

Deep Impact‘s heart is in the right place. It wants to be a human drama more than it wants to be a summer blockbuster, so it ends up satisfying neither audience. There’s so much potential for a truly great movie in Deep Impact‘s premise, but it squanders this on what seem to be some of the most inconsequential moments of this whole ordeal. The world is ending! Surely someone out there is doing something interesting?

ARMAGEDDON
July 1, 1998

Budget: $140 million
Opening Weekend: $36.1 million
Domestic Total Gross: $201.6 million
Worldwide: $553.7 million
Metacritic: 42

Believe me, I’m ashamed that I shed my first cinematic tears at a Michael Bay movie. There are few other filmmakers whose work I find more devoid of genuine human emotion. For whatever reason, though, Armageddon still gets me.

Let’s start with the crying. We didn’t discuss it before recording, but Armageddon happens to be the first movie I ever shed a tear at, while Deep Impact had young Becky bawling. Deep Impact, at least, attempts to be a genuinely dramatic, character-driven movie, while Armageddon is slick and superficial. I don’t have any emotional stake in Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler’s father-daughter situation. In fact, it’s borderline creepy. When Harry is about to die and tells A.J. to take care of his girl, I recognize this as an echo of a better emotional beat in other movies, as well as rather staid sexism. (Grace is smart and capable; A.J. is a hotshot jackass. Why can’t she take care of herself?) But a side story that gets far less screen time brought out the waterworks back in 1998, and it still does now. (For the record, this is the “my eyes sting a little” version of crying at movies, not full-on sobbing.)

Will Patton, a deadbeat dad with a gambling problem, is forbidden access to his young son. He stops to say goodbye anyway, gifting the boy with a toy space shuttle. When his ex sees him on TV as part of the crew that saves Earth from total devastation, however, she decides maybe he isn’t such a bad role model for the tyke after all, and they have a happy reunion. I’m not normally sensitive to father-son issues. The Will Patton character has nothing in common with my father, or with me. i don’t know what it is. Some combination of the music and visuals trigger an emotional response for me, and I feel the joy this scene is depicting very intensely.

The whole movie works on that level for me, somehow. I’m well aware of Bay’s manipulation of Americana and heavy-handed symbolism, which is as subtle as Hallmark commercial. (Those make people cry sometimes, too, though.) It’s very pretty, and very obvious and saccharine. I did appreciate Bay’s attention to detail in the hardware and aesthetics of NASA, a setting I found reasonably convincing for this kind of story. (Bay also recreated Ben Affleck’s teeth for this movie, no joke.) I’m also genuinely amused by the supporting cast, which includes Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Steve Buscemi with plenty of one-liners. Mostly, I think it’s just Trevor Rabin’s score, which I find bombastic but genuinely beautiful.

There are a lot of things that nag at me during Armageddon — like its use of women as window dressing, or its assumption that a bunch of “regular dudes” know better than NASA when it comes to the future of our planet. Some of it is genuinely stupid. But it’s all packaged together in a way that entertains me. I know Armageddon isn’t good for me, and I know it isn’t even very good… but I kinda like it anyway.

Kinda.

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