A little more than 100 years ago, cinema was a deceivingly simple spectacle. Late 19th-century vaudeville audiences would attend variety shows and be introduced to this new technological apparatus that could reproduce moving images of anything, from people arriving at a train station to a prolonged kiss. Cinema could even realize the potential of imagination through practical special effects.
So much potential. So much promise. Audiences and filmmakers wondered and debated throughout the next few decades not only what this device was, but what cinema should be or could become. Essays were written, manifestos were signed, and camps all around the world situated themselves within particular “isms” and would fight for the notion that the ideal potential achievement of cinema would be this or that. They imagined futures in which pure expression through the 7th art – that medium that could contain all collective art forms, reproduce and manipulate reality, manifest fantasy, and move masses of captivated audiences simultaneously in a way no communicative form before or since has been able to do – could actually take place, thus allowing us to finally understand what cinema really is.
Then came Armageddon. And all these questions were finally answered.
A Brief History of the End of the World
The places summer movie audiences had gone halfway through the summer of 1998 simply weren’t stimulating or thought provoking. They were introduced to one story about a man who lives in a manufactured simulacrum of reality who one day finds out everything he knows to be true is actually a facade. Yawn. They were given an adaptation of one of the wildest works of journalism ever written, directed by the guy that made Brazil. Bo-ring. Summer movie audiences went to movie theaters not only to seek solace from the heat, but to experience a radically new and challenging form of cinema that made them conceive of the world around them in a completely different way, not some redundant World War II movie from the guy who made Always.
Movies like Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were silly, escapist works of noise. Audiences weren’t looking for cheap entertainment. They were looking for insight into the world they lived in.
Then, on July 1, 1998, everything changed.
There are many reasons Armageddon had the impact it did. It is, first of all, a work of empowering leftist activism. It’s a film that celebrates the average working laborer, and illustrates how a coalition of laborers can organize and work together in accordance with the government to achieve the greater good of all people. In fact, the film situates the coalition of the working class under the auspices of governance to be essential for humanity’s survival, and to do otherwise would bring certain catastrophe. If Armageddon were a mural, Gov. Paul LePage would have it taken down.
Like John Ford’s The Searchers or Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, the film explores with great subtlety a celebration of an achievable proletariat utopia within the guise of a conservative framework, except Armageddon is far better than each of these films combined. And it continues to speak to us today. Last year’s BP oil spill didn’t happen because of gross negligence and zero regulation. It happened because its employees were busy training themselves to save the world if called to do so at a moment’s notice.
While the political nuance of Armageddon finally allowed Hollywood to say they had their own Battleship Potemkin, this isn’t the main reason Armageddon is such an important work of art. Armageddon’s true importance lies not in the cerebral, but in the fact that it cuts to the core of what it means to be human. It’s transcendent in that it mesmerizes us to move outside the confines of society and language and get in touch with our most natural, ancient human forms of perception that we lost so long ago in the wake of civilization and modernity. Armageddon is the cinematic equivalent to an orgasm.
The Profundity of Animal Crackers
Armageddon is a cinematic orgasm both sensationally and structurally.
People often complain about the Michael Bay aesthetic. Haters say it’s not so much a sensory overload as it is a sensory beating of the senses, violating and degenerating one’s ability to perceive and understand information until they don’t know up from down. They say it’s a violent affront of sounds and images that confuses noise for spectacle and attacks audiences with stimuli so that they don’t realize there’s actually no story anywhere to be found. They say watching a Michael Bay film is akin to having a metal trash can lid placed atop your head while somebody beats it with a hammer. Well, I have one word for “they”: Nope.
A Michael Bay film is a process, and one is forced to endure a lot in order to achieve its worthwhile ends. Bay’s films prove that to make a truly beautiful work of cinema, one cannot have beauty throughout, but must go through an involved sensory reconditioning in order to get there. Armageddon strips our own sensory apparatuses for all their pretensions. In a way more inventive than the greatest Surrealist painters, Bay inundates us with stimuli that ultimately desensitizes our need for story and our desire for a sensical hierarchy of sensory information.
Of course Michael Bay’s films aren’t pleasant, but that’s not the only requirement for aesthetic value. Is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (pictured above) pleasant? Is Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” pleasant? Of course not, but like the far superior Armageddon, such work takes away all expectations of normalcy and through the arduous, unpleasant process of its sensory affront, ultimately takes us to a purely aesthetic utopian place where we’ve transcended the norms of “senses” and “meaning’ and experience pure, unmitigated sensation. For a brief period of time, we no longer know up from down. We have entered the realm of the cinematic orgasm.
While the unpleasant sensory overload necessary to achieve transcendence in Michael Bay’s work isn’t necessarily analogous to the practice and experience of having sex, the end result absolutely is. Like the way in which the screenwriters choose not to understand how the science of gravity works, both sex and Armageddon eventually put the participant in a place where they don’t know or care about their relationship to their surroundings. Like foreplay, the film has a lengthy slog of anticipation and preparation, from the use of animal crackers (an inherently sexy snack) to the condom-like donning of space helmets. After that, things really get started, and suspense and tension intensify as the participants wonder what will ultimately happen and if they will achieve their goal. Then, finally, transcendence takes hold.
And then there’s a giant explosion. And a lot of crying.