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Firing Scuds from the Aisle Seat

by Andy Dursin

As if the barrage of bad reviews that greeted the summer's other expensive summer movie weren't enough, I decided to weigh in with my two cents. I found it interesting that so many trusted, fellow on-line reviewers "weeped" at this particular movie (it's like tearing up during BAD BOYS), while a lot of people hated this picture with a passion. Of course, you'll see it anyway, but don't say you weren't properly warned!

One note to those of you out there--I do pay to see my movies, unbelievable as it may seem. If there's anybody with the knowledge of who to contact in terms of getting into press screenings, and how one would go about that, please let me know. I'm out in Rhode Island, however, so if any southern New Englanders are reading, do drop me a line. You will have my gratitude!

ARMAGEDDON (*1/2): Everyone has their version of what the "perfect American movie" would be. I suppose there's someone out there who will think that ARMAGEDDON is that film, since it contains more patriotic elements that any movie you'll see this year. After all, how much more American can you get than to have a film featuring Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, NASA, Aerosmith on the soundtrack, and Old Glory flying in virtually every other scene?

As all of the movie poster quotes from pre-fab, no-name movie critics would have you believe, the Fourth of July weekend was also the ideal time for the release of ARMAGEDDON, the latest Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay thriller, since the movie provides just as many explosions and fireworks on-screen as any local celebration you witnessed this weekend. Unfortunately, the REAL reason why this holiday was so appropriate is that the movie itself is as big a bomb as anything launched around the U.S.A. on Saturday night.

Perhaps the loudest movie I've ever seen and heard in a theater, ARMAGEDDON is a 150 minute, bloated, empty carcass of a movie, an assault on the senses that will leave your ears ringing for hours on end afterwards. It has the form of a disaster epic, done in the requisite Bruckheimer/Bay style, but it doesn't have the heart to support it, much less the sense of impending doom and disaster that the plot so desperately needs. (Even the 1979 belated disaster entry METEOR, with Sean Connery, had that going for it). As far as dragging out countless flag-waving elements to pander to the lowest common American denominator goes, how's a slow-motion scene of small-town kids running by a building with a JFK painting on it for you?

Bruce Willis stars as an oil foreman whose rag-tag team of rig workers (think CON-AIR) are recruited by NASA to drill a nuclear missile into an asteroid that is on a direct heading with Earth. Billy Bob Thornton plays the requisite NASA man whose disability prevented him from taken flight to the stars (every space movie has this character now, apparently), while Liv Tyler is Willis's lovestruck daughter and Ben Affleck is the young hotshot hero who has Tyler's heart. The assorted supporting roles are filled out by a predictably eclectic group of actors, including FARGO's Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare, the latter ludicrously overplaying a Russian cosmonaut stuck in a space station. Yet, for the most part, virtually all of these characters are more stereotypical than real--we have the wise-cracking nerd, the fat guy, a spaced-out "dude," and a big black man, all parts that feel as if they were decided upon by the studio before the script was even written.

After an early attack on New York, with effects that are so quickly executed we have no time to grasp the horror of the situation, the movie settles into a RIGHT STUFF inspired training film, filled with scenes we've watched one too many times before. However, I didn't much mind this portion of the picture, since a few of Buscemi's wisecracks are funny and the film is setting us up for something truly spectacular to occur in its second half.

But that never happens. Once ARMAGEDDON takes flight to outer-space, the picture never comes to life, and settles into an interminable set of unsurprising, senseless situations with virtually every single word being SCREAMED by the cast. (After much deliberation, I couldn't recall a movie with so much screaming, not even a Sean S.Cunningham horror movie). Believe me, Tylenol was the first thing I took when I got home after sitting through this film. If that wasn't bad enough, the picture lumbers its way to the finish line by incorporating a heavy amount of ersatz climaxes and one particular plot twist--a totally unnecessary government "conspiracy" back-up plan--that are paraded out in front of our eyes in order to pad the running time. When one particular character decides to sacrifice himself for the Greater Good of Mankind at the very end, we could care less about the guy's fate since we know it will result in just another climax to prolong the movie's bloated finale. Long before this point I was thinking, "enough already! Blow the damn thing up!", while various audience members around me blocked their ears in an attempt to hide from the sound (several walked out, and the theater's sound level, during the first half, didn't even seem to be all that loud to begin with).

The screenplay has its share of amusing lines early on, but also an incredible amount of unintentional yucks, the likes of which manifest themselves near the end of the film. To wit--after hearing Willis announce that the asteroid seems to be acting up as it heads towards Earth, Will Patton responds with the priceless line "that's because it knows we're going to kill it." Liv Tyler also has her share of ridiculous sequences, no more so than when she cries her eyes out in the NASA control room (for the second time) after learning that the government, with barely a minute to spare, has decided to blow up the asteroid itself in a last ditch attempt to save humanity. It may be unfortunate that her boyfriend and dad are up on the rock, but gee, don't you think she could care about anyone else on our planet except herself? This sequence is more than likely what Cannes patrons laughed off the screen a month ago at a preview, and I would think it will receive the same reception from audiences here in the States.

After deluging us with wacky comedy and pseudo-disaster situations, this picture even has the nerve to throw in absurd lines about God and a laughable, teary-eyed "goodbye" sequence between Willis and Tyler, which rings even more hollow given Trevor Rabin's by-the-numbers "wall of sound" musical score and Michael Bay's motion-sickness inducing direction. For once, though, I didn't particularly mind Bay's rapid-fire cutting, at least not any more than I found it objectionable in THE ROCK, but there's still nothing beneath all the pseudo-patriotic banner in this movie except a director doing the same thing he's already done before and a movie whose only motivation is to cash one gigantic check.

Again, the thing that's fatally missing from the core of ARMAGEDDON is the sense of impending holocaust. The special effects of little meteorites crashing into New York are underwhelming, and a single sequence showing Paris getting hammered near the end of the film feels like it was inserted at the last minute. Where the heck did the $120 million budget for this movie go?Certainly not in the effects department, since DEEP IMPACT had a far more elaborate set of effects sequences that were truly evocative in their scope and believable in their execution.

In that movie, I also felt a connection with the characters because the situation itself--that Earth is about to be destroyed and our way of life erased from the planet--was so well exploited. The cause of humanity's survival, and how people would react to the news of worldwide catastrophe, was truly terrifying and tragic, and the end of the picture was that much more meaningful and suspenseful because of it. I didn't feel any of that in ARMAGEDDON, and maybe that's because the issue of Earth's survival is addressed in no more than a series of "international location shots" that closely resemble a long distance commercial for AT&T.

In retrospect, I should have known that ARMAGEDDON was in trouble early on, at least from one little sequence that most viewers won't even recognize as a cheap shot. Right at the beginning of the film, a little dog tears into a collection of Godzilla figures on a sidewalk in New York. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and was obviously thrown in by the filmmakers as a knock against GODZILLA, the summer's first blockbuster (and also not the last) that failed to live up to expectations. If there's anything worse than a movie that disappoints, it's a group of smug filmmakers who have made a movie that they believe to be better than someone else's. Too bad for them that that scene, meant as an in-joke, was more a case of foreshadowing for ARMAGEDDON than a sign of bragging rights to the summer movie crown. (PG-13, 150 mins.)


A few assorted comments worth mentioning this time around...

From Roger Feigenblatt:

    While I concur that reviewing the film along with the music can help the reader grasp what the composer and the score are trying to do, I find that you go into too much detail regarding the plot and who is in front of and behind the camera. You also have a penchant for dry, satirical comments which are usually the signs of a frustrated outsider who must take potshots at "those who can". This site and the mag are suppossed to be devoted to film music and are not designed to show off how witty (or not) your capsule reviews appear.

    Please don't take any of the following personally. It is nearly impossible to write about music since it is such a personal response, but keep trying.

Thanks Roger (I guess). A few people (read: three) have been confused about what The Aisle Seat is all about sometimes, particularly because it appears here on a film music website.

But the bottom line is this--my reviews are MOVIE reviews. I would think this would be obvious to anyone who reads one of my columns. First and foremost, I'm reviewing the movie, since when I go to the cinema, I usually watch the film and judge it on its merits as a film. The musical score is, to me, secondary in most cases. This is because my orientation is towards watching the movie and writing about the film, and IF the film has a particularly interesting or noteworthy score, I'll mention it. If it doesn't, it's impossible for me--in writing one of my reviews--to bring up the score in the context of a FILM REVIEW just for the sake of doing so. After all, how many movie reviews discuss film scores to begin with? That's not to say that most critics don't overlook film music, because I believe they do, but when so many movies have marginal or serviceable scores, there's no need to bring the music up just because we're on-line at a movie music site. In the context of reviewing a movie soundtrack, naturally the music is the main point of interest, but that's not what I'm doing in my columns.

Secondly, who's to say what content belongs and doesn't belong on this site? To me, movies are such an inseparable part of experiencing movie music that devoting a day, or a column--either from me, Lukas or Jeff Bond or whoever--simply to the movies themselves is NOT at all inappropriate in our forum. And if you don't want to read the reviews, then don't. Simply come back tomorrow.

Finally, I'm far from frustrated or point fingers at "those who can." (Incidentally, have you actually calculated the ratio of good reviews to bad ones in my columns? Don't forget that I'm one of five people in North America who didn't think GODZILLA was all that bad!). This is the same fallacy that used to dominate the arguments about soundtrack reviews in FSM, where someone would inevitably say, "you aren't a composer so what right do you have to judge film music?" My response is, even better here, what right do filmmakers have to say that people who watch movies CAN'T judge them? After all, filmmakers are only making movies for the AUDIENCE who PAYS to see them! Movies are meant to make money, for the most part. Few directors just grab a crew and some actors for the thrill of it and go out and make a movie if nobody is going to see it. What it all comes down to is a movie's execution and craftsmanship, and if there's a semblance of thought or style behind the main motivation for the film's release.Subsequently, criticism is, if anything, even more valid when related to movies. Everyone who views a movie is a critic and justifiably so, since if there wasn't an audience supporting most filmmakers, this entire industry wouldn't exist in the first place!

And as for sarcasm, I personally don't think my comments are anywhere near as cynical as others that appear both in the print and on-line FSM (insert predictable sarcastic comment here. Just kidding).

From Eric Wemmer:

    I am with you, I loved this X-Files movie and can't wait to see it again. You said one thing that was really integral on something that I believe, too. You said that this movie came in with confidence and was itself, and didn't try to be anything other than X-Files. This, unlike, the recent Star Trek films, which have lacked all of the good things this film has. Things like good writing, good stories, being true to itself (this criticism goes for all of Star Trek now), and what not. So, yes, I am excited about this X-Files movie and where the future is for this series. I think it is safe to say that the X-Files might be the "new Star Trek" so to speak. Anyhow, it's always good to read your articles. I always look forward to them.

Gracias, Eric. I agree that the X-FILES movie works because it doesn't do anything different than what the show is known for, though our next comment does have something interesting to note...

From Josh Gizelt:

    Although I did enjoy THE X FILES, I have to say that I disagree with some of the assumptions made regarding audience reaction to the film, and, subsequently, the series.

    I found that THE X FILES probably will lose momentum once the series fans and casual watchers of the series lose interest.When I saw the film, I was acutely aware of the fact that many of the best moments in it would not make sense to anyone that has not followed the series. I also found that the conspiracy situation was treated somewhat oafishly in the movie; way too much information is revealed at once, and way too soon at that.

    I think that any people who watch the series following the film will be annoyed when they see that information is rarely given freely in the show, and all the good stuff occurs at the season finale, when you have to wait six months to find out what's happening.

    The handling of the Mulder and Scully characters is also something that probably won't carry on so well for someone who watches the show after having seen the movie; cinematic romance and that of television work on different levels.

    It was nice seeing Blythe Danner show up for no reason, though.

One of the things that always bugged me with the show was that, as you said, Josh, you wait six months for something to happen--there's always a lot of running in circles on the show, so to speak. But that's how a lot of plot-heavy series work, you always wait for the "Big Episodes," the ones that alter the course of the program, and that's how THE X-FILES movie works. That said, your points about what will happen to the show now--whether or not it will simply fall back on its old, sometimes frustrating plot developments--are valid. My take is this--the movie seems to give the conspiracies, the running around, etc., a whole new, specific purpose, one which the show has been lacking for a while. If they can keep up a couple of seasons more on TV, THE X-FILES ought to have a solid cinematic future ahead of itself, and in terms of Mulder & Scully, you can turn down the heat for a while and have the relationship develop more when the "Big Episodes," or movies (if it turns out to be in theaters), come about. I'll give Chris Carter the benefit of the doubt that he'll be able to pull it off. He did a good job on this film, after all.

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