So my brother put Armegeddon in the other day, and because I like to pretend I have good taste in movies it's been a really long time since I've watched it.
Having watched it, I've made the three following, seemingly contradictory realizations.
1. Micheal Bay is a very talented story teller. And I'm not being sarcastic. He manages to hit every note just right, to convey all the information you need to become attached to characters, involved in a story, and afraid for the life and livelihood of every person involved. But he's hampered by a severe handicap.
2. Micheal Bay is a total moron.
3. Armageddon is a very polished, well put together, extraordinarily well structured turd. See ya after the break.
Let's stop for a second and talk about structure, mkay? Just like every building needs girders, supports and rivets, every good story needs things like character development and rhythm. If a writer fails in story structure, the story will be horrible. See Skyline for a good example of this. Also, Battle: L. A., which I need to blog about but can't find enough enthusiasm for it one way or another. The most glaring structural mistake is a ten to fifteen minute lag between when the movie starts and when the story starts (see: WHERE THE FUCK ARE THE ALIENS). In Skyline, another mistake is how the characters do absolutely nothing for half of the movie. They waste a lot of time attempting character development, not understanding that good character development starts the second the character is on screen--that you don't have to block out a set amount of time to further this character or that one because each moment in your story IS that set amount of time. You can develop your characters just as well in the middle of a fire-fight as you can in the middle of a graveyard. And you SHOULD be developing your plot at the same time. Building suspense and fear for these characters. And at the same time, you should be building what I call "Energy", a sort of emotional momentum that will carry you all the way through to the end.
It's a lot of work to do this right. It means knowing where to start a scene, knowing where to end it (pro tip: If you've ever hit a cliff-hanger chapter that made you want to fling a book across the room, or shout "Fuck you!" at the tv, congradulations. That's this principle in action) getting dialogue right, knowing where characters need to go, how they need to talk, when to be funny, when not to be funny, how much to show your audience, when the plot needs to take a sharp downward turn and when an aspect of it needs to be resolved. This is what I call story rhythm. And Michael Bay is good at this.
The problem with Micheal Bay movies is not that the structure sucks. It's good. The problem is that, as I said earlier, Micheal Bay is a flaming moron. He's like an idiot savant, granted this amazing talent with storytelling while simultaneously being so totally divorced from the human race that he doesn't know what to do with it. Armageddon is a case in point. It's perfectly structured, and yet every single choice that isn't story-related is fucking wrong.
The movie opens IN SPACE! An astronaut is doing a thing to a satellite. Replacing...something. Okay, whatever. It doesn't matter because both he and his shuttle die a terrible firey death when meteorites bombard the satellite and the shuttle. Kaboom. Switch to Trailer Trash Telescope Man. T3 Man's Wife comes in, shouts some product placement and demands a divorce. Meet the first example of Flaming Moron characterization. White, poor steriotypes, who are somehow in charge of a very expensive high powered telescope observatory, even though everything about how our government and space program is structured says these guys should be nowhere near the observatory. And this isn't just some rinky-dink abandoned building T3 Man is squatting in. Later in the movie, it's revealed that only twelve telescopes (or something) can see the Death Comet. This one is the first, which kind of implies that it's really good. Why are this foul-mouthed dude and his hateful wife here? Because Micheal Bay's Idiot Savant skill says "Colorful Character Must Go Here", but because he's a moron, he chooses the easy way out. And it's about to carry through, because in the next scene meteors bombard New York City. And we see:
1. Colorful Black Homeless Stereotype
2. Colorful Hawaiian Street Vendor Stereotype
3. Colorful Black Cabbie Steriotype (thank all your lucky stars it wasn't an Arab, kay?)
4. Colorful Japanese Tourist Stereotype
The problem here is not that Bay sucks. It's that Bay understands how this scene needs to be played--colorful characters we instantly relate to make "Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies" immediate and interesting to us--and then makes the absolute wrong choice. It works because we've been trained to expect certain things from a well-structured story and Bay has given them to us. It fails because...Japanese Tourists, Bay? Seriously?
Cut to limos, military music, shots of the pentegon and then shots of NASA. Billy Bob Thorton is breifing a room full of people about Death Comet. Black Military Stereotype asks why they can't just throw nukes at it and blow it out of the sky. The good answer (because it only took a six mile chunk of rock to destroy the dinos, according to movie, because this thing is the size of fucking Texas, according to the movie, and blowing it into smaller chunks WOULD JUST MAKE MORE SIX MILE WIDE PIECES TO KILL US WITH thank you) is ignored in favor of Smart Guy Stereotype, who uses a bad firecracker and ketchup bottle metaphore to say that to blow it up (into six mile wide pieces) you have to stick a nuke down inside it. And Smart Guy is established as "The Smartest Guy On the Planet". Remember this. Oh, and they have 18 days to blow Death Comet into those smaller chunks I was talking about.
Structually, this is a good scene. It sets up the conflict for the rest of the movie (We can't just blow the thing up from here, we actually have to land on the asteroid to kill it) in a way that the audience finds interesting. Story rhythm is satisfied.
But...Micheal Bay is a moron. As I said, the reason you can't "blow it out of the sky" is because blowing it up doesn't get rid of the "Debris" that will still kill us. Also...it's the size of Texas, and they want to blow it up with one Nuke at a depth of 800 feet.
Bay, have you ever SEEN Texas?
And that doesn't BEGIN to address the many, many chunks of Death Comet that will still kill us. Bay certainly doesn't. Ever.
So we cut to Colorful Drilling Rig. Time to meet our main characters. Bruce Willis is shooting golf balls at a Greenpeace boat. I like him. Stoic Friend comes up and says that a piece of equiptment was working when it shouldn't have been. Bruce wakes up Ben Affleck and starts screaming at him, only to discover his daughter Liv Tyler (...wow. That came out of him?) is in Ben's bed. Cue Colorful Workplace Abuse, as Bruce Willis chases Ben around the rig with a shot gun.
Congradulations. These are the last hope for humanity.
The movie rushes through the next several stages in the desperate hope the audience won't call bullshit. Bruce is breifed and then taken to examine the equiptment no one can get to work. It's his design. And the Smartest Guy Stereotype is the one who is putting it together. And this is where its really evident that Bay is an idiot savant with NO FUCKING CLUE how humans work.
Earlier in the movie, we needed someone to tell us just how severe the problem was. Intro Smartest Guy Stereotype. He has to be the one to introduce the idea about this whole space-walk thing, and because the idea is so very laughably bad, he's got to be really smart to give it credibility. Smarter than everyone else in the room. Smarter than the President's advisors level smart. He is THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM and he has a pocket protector to prove it.
Now, however, Bay isn't trying to sell us on the space walk. He's trying to sell us on the idea that Bruce Willis and his band of merry misfits is a better choice to save the world than NASA astronauts (having the NASA astronauts be the band of merry misfits never occured to Bay I guess) So all that characterization on Smartest Guy Stereotype? Thrown out the window. This is a guy who can figure out the best way to blow up the Death Comet so that it can't destroy Earth. He can't figure out how to make a drill work. But Bruce Willis can! Bruce Willis, the oil driller who never went to college, who spent most of his intro shooting at his employees, is smarter than Smartest Guy Stereotype. We should trust him!
This is why Bay is a flaming moron. He does know exactly what to do to make a story work, in a "Character goes here" kind of way. What he can't do is remember what he did thirty minutes ago, or figure out why, when "funny moment goes here" rears its ugly head, having racist stereotypes or two dogs humping each other might be a bad idea. He established NASA and Smartest Guy in particular as the guys with the best judgement...and then he shot that in the head to establish oil drillers as the guys with the best judgement. And then he shoots that in the head by making the Merry Band of Misfits...well, a merry band of really, really big misfits. Drug addicts, folks with anger management issues, and one guy who has been arrested for statutory rape so many times his first response on seeing a uniform (not a cop uniform. ANY uniform) is "She never told me her age".
Yes. It's colorful and having these characters are a lot of fun...but it doesn't stand up to reason AT ALL. Especially when every single scene in the rest of the movie proves having these guys along was a bad idea.
The next tool Bay uses is "make it worse". If any part of your story is sagging, take a given situation (the guys refuel at a space station) and make it worse (station blows up). And it doesn't so much backfire on him as it does swivvel around to shoot the movie in the face. You seriously expect me to buy that having the station blow up when the untrained oil-driller fake astronauts are there is just coincidence? How about later on when the president decides to blow the nuke instead of give the drillers a chance. You expect me to believe that "Look, the guys we sent? They are total idiots" was never part of the Presidental Conversation and Decision Making Process? How about when Statutory Rape Guy gets space dementia and shoots a fucking gatling gun (WHY THE FUCK IS THIS HERE????) (SERIOUSLY. WHY THE FUCK DID YOU WASTE PAYLOAD ON A FUCKING GATLING GUN???? COULD NASA NOT THINK OF SOMETHING ELSE TO PUT ON THE SHUTTLE AND THEY SAID FUCK IT DO A BIG ASS GUN? I DO NOT THINK SO) around, fucking up the bomb and forcing Bruce Willis to become a martyr for the cause of humanity?
And yes, the ending is beautiful and the first time I saw it, it made me cry. But it doesn't stand up to reason very well. They couldn't rig a timer? You expect me to believe that NASA, the people that literally put a square peg into a round hole when Apollo 13 needed more air, cannot figure out how to make a remote detonation device for a nuclear bomb out of random spare shuttle parts? If it's because the bomb is already in the hole how the fuck did the on-site detonator work, then?
And that doesn't begin to touch the massive science fail in every part of the movie. When they get on the russian space station, it begins to spin so that the astronauts can have gravity to work in. EXCEPT NOTHING ABOUT THAT IS CORRECT. The station is not designed for that kind of gravity, and even if it was, there's no way they could be walking around on the bulkheads like that, when the bulkheads are in the wrong place for centrifugal force to imitate gravity. Also, see the aformentioned thing about blowing up the asteroid only to make more planet killing chunks.
Micheal Bay has convinced me that talent exists and he has it, because there is no other way I can reconcile such perfect timing and elegant story structuring with the massive pile of dog shit said strucutre is covered in. He knows how to tell a story, but when it comes to filling said story with stuff he turns into a poo-flinging monkey and grabs whatever turds he happens to have on hand. And his audience is left sitting in their seats scratching their heads, going, "Damn. I enjoyed that...but I shouldn't have. I really shouldn't have. REALLY."
"...I'm ashamed of myself."