A Gamers View of the Moviesby Donald J. Bingle
Last year it was two big volcano disaster movies (VolcanoThe Coast is Toast, the first to appear, and Dantes Peak, the second to appear and a far superior movie). This year it is two big giant-rock-falling-from-the sky-movies repeating the sequence, which says a lot about the copycat nature of Hollywood and something about how screenplays get written or re-written. Stories just dont flow from the pen or word-processor from scene one to final credits as the ideas occur to the author. Often, they flow from a big idea (man travels into the future and comes upon earth, which is run by apeshence, Planet of the Apes and four sequels/prequels which explain how this could come about). Even more often, I suspect, they flow from ideas for a couple of really neat scenes or lines of dialogue, with everything else created to get to and from those couple of ideas. For example, supposedly Lucas and Spielberg conceived Raiders of the Lost Ark during a walk on a beach in Hawaii around two key ideas: (1) a horse/car chase in which the horseman jumps from the horse to the vehicle; and (2) the notion that if the government ever got hold of the most important secret in the world, they would just file it away with all their other secrets (the final warehouse scene). Everything else, the use of the Ark of the Covenant, the headpiece to the staff, the Nazis, etc. was built around those two ideas (dont ask for my source on this, it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that I heard it). Its a fine way to write (Ive used it for columns and modules, myself) as long as it is not glaringly obvious by the fact that everything else seems so artificial and contrived.
Though I cant say that Deep Impact was written this way, you can almost imagine as it progresses the mindless studio execs outlining the movie. The sequence seems to go something like this: 1. We need a new action/disaster movie, but floods, fires, earthquakes, and volcanoes have all been done recently. 2. This whole dinosaur thing lately has focused a lot of attention on the fact that the dinosaurs were wiped out when a big, 7-mile diameter rock hit earth from space, so lets do a modern version of that. 3. Asteroids are hard to detect and not very visually scary, so lets use a comettheyve been in the news lately. 4. Gee, if it hits, it kills everyone on earth, which is not really a very happy ending, but if it misses, we dont get to do very many cool special effects, like tidal waves and explosions, so lets have two comets, one that hits (the smaller one) and one that misses (the bigger one, which we destroy through scientific ingenuity and last minute bravado). 5. Oh yeah, lets appeal to broader demographics by putting in a schmaltzy family touchy-feely storyline (good for hooking the chicks) and a plan to hide some people (chosen by lottery) in caves that excludes old folks (great for the teen audience). 6. Finally, lets cast a bunch of unknowns (or at least TV people playing to their TV character type) to keep costs down for more effects. Everything in Deep Impact seems to spring from this outline.
The result is a disappointing movie with a few nice effects. Never mind that the science of the movie is mostly either unexplained or hokey, violating the laws of inertia and motion with a totally inexplicable timeline for the arrival of the two comets sprung from one. Never mind that the whole national lottery thing is inadequately explained and tactically oversimplified. Never mind that some of the scenes are laughably unrealistic (buses going to pick up the chosen few for the caves; the army allowing crowds to press the gates just outside the caves and climb the fences without shooting anyone; geeky kid rides scooter through panic stricken streets to fetch the girl next store without the bike being taken from him, etc., etc.). Never mind that comets are generally made up of mostly rock and ice and that a seven-mile diameter comet could be vaporized by any of the several nuclear explosions the comet survives through in the movie. Never mind that the pacing of the movie is tediously slow and that no one cares whether the spunky news reporter reconciles with her Dad or not. Oh, and lets not forget that our heroic space crew has spare nukes, but inexplicably does nothing with them for days and days and days, so they can save the earth at the last possible second. Yawn.
Maybe Armageddon started out with a similar studio outline, but it is so much better in executionfrom writing to acting to effects to filming. Who cares if you cant see an asteroid from earth, so long as you have it sweep through the asteroid belt, picking up assorted clutter and debris that help make it look really cool from space and give you some chunks of rock that have had their orbits disrupted so that they hit Earth ahead of the asteroid, so you get those nifty earth-impact special effects with (gasp!) a semi-plausible explanation of how that could happen. Who cares that a crummy comet iceball could be vaporized by nukes, when you instead have a huge, iron ore containing asteroid the size of Texas (although the effects could do a better job of conveying sheer size and mass). Who cares that the movie contrives to have non-astronauts go into space (for both comic and dramatic effect) when they bother to explain why the nuke needs to be dropped into a hole drilled into the asteroid with an explanation even the junior high school dropouts can understand at a visceral level (cause they probably played with fireworks). Imagine, a disaster movie with decent comic relief because of good writing and because the producers bothered to spend enough on acting talent to get decent comic delivery! I also loved the fairly inconspicuous nods to such movies as The Right Stuff and Godzilla and the fact that the "dinosaur killer" comet is shown landing in the right spot (of course, the continental outlines would have been somewhat different then).
No, Armageddon is not perfect by any means. There are too many flames flickering in vacuum, too much wind and too much gravity (although they do their best to explain the apparent gravity), the drilling crews antics are just a little too outrageous (even though the script tries to explain one particularly egregious example by invoking "space dementia"), the quakes and rock showers are too conveniently timed, and the crew is too unhurried for the deadline they had and the importance of the mission. The ending was also pretty obvious and I really, really wanted Rockhound (Buscemis character) to do something. . .anything. . .courageous or heroic in the movie (like what Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis character) does at the end of the film). I also did not find it very credible that a wildcatter would fire a shotgun repeatedly and haphazardly on an oil drilling platform (gee, they use brass tools to avoid even accidental sparks) or that the crew for the upcoming space mission to save the planet would be let loose for a night on the town without apparent supervision. Despite all this, the movie delivered decent action with decent plausibility, some really good humor, and even some fine sentimental pathos. Hey, its not Die Hard, Star Wars, or Titanic, but those are tough standards to live up to, and Armageddon still is a big step up from Deep Impact. How can I say this when both movies have some unbelievable science and plot issues? Because when Deep Impact wasnt being stupid, it was boring. When Armageddon wasnt being wrong, it was exciting and funny (and they at least tried to explain most of the non-credible stuff in a way that seemed semi-plausible as the movie hurtled along at breakneck speed).
If you are interested in a truly excellent giant-rock-falling-from-the-sky story, read Lucifers Hammer, a sci-fi classic by Niven and Pournelle. On the other hand, avoid at all costs any and all made-for-TV movies on the subject (with their terrible writing, terrible science, and terrible effects); they make Deep Impact look intelligent and exciting when it actually had almost no impact at all.
Copyright 1998 Donald J. Bingle