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Armageddon, Ragnarok, the Apocalypse... by whatever name, it’s the end of the world. Or, in the case of a gigantic asteroid colliding with the Earth, it’s the end of life as we know it.

Armageddon: Criterion Collection
Armageddon, directed by Michael Bay and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, takes us to a near-future scenario in which a deadly asteroid on a collision course with our planet gives humanity a bare handful of days in which to either avert the catastrophe or prepare for death. Naturally, the film’s storyline follows those who take on the challenge of saving the world: Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his misfit team of deep-core drillers, who must cooperate with NASA in order to pull off the most difficult space mission ever.

I initially saw Armageddon in the movie theater and enjoyed it as a fun “popcorn” movie. Seeing it for the second time, on DVD, gave me a much clearer view of the film’s strengths as well as its flaws.

Director Michael Bay’s handling of cinematography tops the list of strengths of this film. He’s a master at assembling countless extremely brief images into longer sequences to create exactly the mood and pacing that the scene demands. For instance, there’s a crash sequence that is made up of a montage of images that are each no more than a couple of seconds long, interwoven to create an intense feeling of “being there” as the shuttle falls out of control. But Bay doesn’t reserve this amazing artistry only for action sequences; for instance, in another shot, rapid glimpses of people’s faces all over the world convey a strong sense of the emotions being experienced at that moment.

Out of the total two-and-a-half-hour running time of Armageddon, I was completely sucked in by the film for about the first hour and forty-five minutes. Bay’s grasp of pacing here is top-notch, moving along quickly but without rushing things, and again using creative cinematography to tell the story without excess dialogue or unnecessary scenes. The heart of the film takes place on Earth, in the discovery of the threat and the preparation to deal with it. It’s a fun ride, both engaging and entertaining.

However, in the last forty-five minutes or so, Bay takes a wrong turn with his directing choices, resulting in an unnecessarily drawn-out conclusion. If it had been only two hours long, with the finale being cut at least in half, Armageddon would have ended with an impressive adrenaline-rushing bang, As is, the ending moves onto rather hokey territory, tries to fit in a few too many thrills in a film that’s already as packed to the gills, and concludes with more of a thump than a bang.

Acting isn’t generally a large concern in a primarily action-oriented film like Armageddon, but Bay assembles a cast that includes some quite well-known actors. In addition to Bruce Willis, there’s Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton, William Fichtner, Will Patton, Owen Wilson, Peter Stormare, and Michael Clarke Duncan. These actors certainly make the ensemble cast more interesting and memorable than the typical action-hero lineup. Women, on the other hand, don’t seem to have much of a role in the Armageddon universe apart from tending the home fires. It would have been nice to see Liv Tyler (as Grace Stamper) have a more substantial role than “the girlfriend waiting at home,” especially since the setup of the movie suggests that she learned about drilling at her father’s knee. The lone active female in the film is one of the NASA astronauts (Jessica Steen), who doesn’t get much screen time.

Armageddon: Criterion Collection
Unfortunately, another badly-handled element is the excessive flag-waving. The rah-rah U.S. patriotism goes way over the top, detracting from the fun of a literal “save the entire world” scenario. It’s the United States that is in charge of saving the world, of course, with the assumption that none of the other nations is even capable of reacting in a non-hysterical manner, let alone coming up with a solution to the problem. Admittedly NASA’s solution does involve using a Russian space station... with an incompetent, comedic cosmonaut in charge. Oh, please. Incidentally, when I mentioned flag-waving, I meant it quite literally. By the end of the movie, I was almost laughing at how the U.S. flag just “happens” to appear in so many shots. Characters just happen to stand in front of flags, close-ups focus in on the flag patches on the astronauts’ suits, and yes, flagpoles with the U.S. flag waving pop up in every scene that even vaguely justifies them... and at least one where it’s patently absurd.

The transfer of Armageddon is all that I could ask for in terms of image quality: it’s extremely clear, with vivid colors and no noise. However, for some bizarre reason the Criterion producers chose to make the transfer non-anamorphic. On a widescreen TV, the lack of anamorphic enhancement is painfully apparent. Edges are clearly jagged, showing the lack of extra pixels to fill in the details. Ironically, it’s partly because the image quality is so good, with no noise to blur jagged edges, that the lack of anamorphic enhancement stands out.

With a plethora of literally explosive special effects, Armageddon is a movie that puts any sound system through its paces. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack provides an excellent surround experience for the impressive special effects, though the filmmakers would really have wowed me if they’d elected to omit the “swooshing” sounds of the asteroid moving through space. (Without air to transmit sound waves, real space is utterly silent, a fact that moviemakers other than Stanley Kubrick have cheerfully disregarded.) Volume is nicely balanced between “loud” and “quiet” scenes, so there’s no need to keep reaching for the volume control on the remote as with some movies. The dialogue is likewise handled well, coming across clearly and distinctly even in action scenes.

The packaging for this two-disc set is probably the nicest I’ve seen, and I wish more studios would use this style. The two discs fit into one normal-width keep case, which opens up to reveal an inner hinged panel which holds the extra disc securely. It’s neat and tidy and ensures that the second DVD won’t go sliding around or get lost.

Oddly enough, the extent of the special features was a bit of a letdown. With an entire second disc devoted to supplements, I expected the special features to be somewhat more substantial than they are.

Disc one (which contains the film itself) features two commentary tracks: one with director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Bruce Willis, and Ben Affleck, and the other with cinematographer John Schwartzman, NASA consultant Dr. Joe Allan, and asteroid consultant Ivan Bekey.

Disc two contains the majority of the special features. Michael Bay’s gag reel is a seven-minute montage of clips of the actors goofing around on the set and joking with each other. I didn’t find it particularly funny. The set of deleted scenes was reasonably interesting, including at least one scene that I felt should have made its way into the final version of the film. The “Marketing” section includes five different versions of the Armageddon trailer, showing how it was marketed for different TV audiences. Production design drawings and storyboards for several sequences are included in this disc as well.

Armageddon: Criterion Collection
The “Special Effects” section features brief commentary from three different visual effects staff, with the interviews running fifteen minutes, eight minutes, and seven minutes, respectively. Similarly, the “Production Design” section consists of a seven-minute interview with designer Michael White, and “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” features a seven-minute interview with the band Aerosmith, which performed for the soundtrack. The overall feel of these features was choppy and disconnected; it would have made for a much more informative and enjoyable experience if all the different short interviews had been crafted into one longer, substantial documentary feature.

All in all, Armageddon is a fun movie that falls just short of being a really good movie as well. The Criterion edition of the DVD is a nice package, but considering the lack of anamorphic enhancement and the fact that the special features are good but not overwhelmingly so, I don’t consider it to be a good value for the high suggested retail price. If you’re looking to add Armageddon to your collection, you should consider whether the Criterion’s special features are worth paying almost twice the price of the regular edition, which has the same non-anamorphic transfer and 5.1 sound.