This week, Michael Bay did something that I thought was only possible if you were named Joel Schumacher: he apologized for a loud, bloated late-’90s summer stimulus-athon. In an interview with the Miami Herald promoting his Florida-set Pain & Gain, Bay said,
“I will apologize for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could. But the studio literally took the movie away from us. It was terrible. My visual effects supervisor had a nervous breakdown, so I had to be in charge of that. I called James Cameron and asked ‘What do you do when you’re doing all the effects yourself?’ But the movie did fine.”
It’s unclear exactly what Bay’s problem is with the third act of Armageddon that isn’t also characteristic of the film as a whole (cloying sentimentality, a rushed pace, the central premise), or whether or not, in typical Bay fashion, his real problem is solely with special effects or the film’s box-office performance (“the movie did fine” here seems to relinquish any issues he may have had). But one thing’s for sure: Armageddon, according to its maker, is not a pure, ideal Michael Bay vision. (Bay, of course, later refuted the story and says he’s proud of the film, as he should be.)
Tell that to The Criterion Collection. Lodged in Spine #40 between Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V is Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Naturally, this isn’t Bay’s only title in the Collection – The Rock is at #108. And of course, popular, block-busting titles like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs exist in the Collection as well, but these movies have been met with serious respect in movie culture (Verhoeven’s treatment an auteur who uses B-movies for incisive social critiques, Lambs’s validation by the Academy). To my knowledge, there is little serious discourse about Armageddon, either initially or recuperatively. So why is a film that even its maker distances himself from located prominently in The Criterion Collection?
This isn’t the first time this column has attempted to seriously address this question. On April Fools Day 2011, when FSR devoted its entire front page to articles on Armageddon, Adam Charles opened his address to this same question by asking, in short, “Why?” Charles argued that we should take the Collection’s approach to “relevance” broadly, acknowledging (and I’m completely paraphrasing here) that popular contemporary Hollywood directors are going to have a place somewhere in the same film history books as other Hollywood directors ranging from Ford to Lucas (especially if that book is called, “Every Hollywood Movie Ever.”)
But there are additional factors to consider. The most obvious might be economics and identity-formation. Armageddon was released in The Criterion Collection in 1999, during which time the Collection had existed in its DVD format for barely a year. The Collection’s Laserdiscs were far less selective and much more contemporary than the DVD and Blu-ray output that has come to equate Criterion with prestigious standards and discriminating regimes of taste (in this regard, the Collection can be rightfully accused of not often operating outside presumptive values of the Western film canon).
Sure, by this point in time, Criterion had already included standards like Grand Illusion, Seven Samurai, Andrei Rublev, and The Seventh Seal, but it was also already exhibiting some diversity with the British gangster film The Long Good Friday, two Paul Morrissey titles, and slated to release its first TV title – John Lurie’s quietly brilliant and enchantingly bizarre Fishing with John – shortly after Armageddon. It’s not unimaginable that Criterion would attempt to include a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster as a declaration that the realm of “significance” was hardly exclusive to European and Japanese arthouse fare, or to perhaps get some mainstream attention directed toward a company devoted to cinephilia in the early days of DVD.
As with all Criterion titles, both Armageddon and The Rock come with justifications of their worthiness in the form of critical essays by designated experts. Of Armageddon, Jeanine Basinger (film historian and professor at Wesleyan, perhaps one of the last universities one would think that Michael Bay attended) states the following:
“At its core, Armageddon is a genre picture, and like all genre pictures that arrive late in the cycle, it has been subjected to misinterpretation. Although it qualifies as a science fiction/disaster movie, I see it as an epic form of the old Warner Brothers movies about working-class men who have to step up and rescue a situation through their courage, true grit, and knowledge of machines —productions such as Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and Alfred E. Green’s Flowing Gold (1940). The “science fiction” or “disaster movie” elements of Armageddon fit into the epic form—a form that exists to make movie stories we already know grander, larger, and more “real” in historic setting.”
The essay, to be frank, up to this point threatens to resemble its subject, struggling to strike a workable tone between apologia, “humble beginnings”-style biography, criticism of critics, and attempted recuperation through historical comparison. It’s as if Basinger already knew the problematic undertaking of justifying this film as part of a collection that already spanned from Flaherty to Gilliam. But Basinger’s concluding point does seem to hit at the heart of Bay’s cinema, notably a consistent strain of modern conservatism that is illustrated most pointedly with Armageddon. Basinger hits it home when she states,
“Armageddon is grand, large, and set at NASA, but, the story of Stamper, his daughter, and his hard-living, oil-drilling buddies is the kind of movie that has previously been smaller and tighter. This film makes these ordinary men noble, lifting their efforts up into an epic event. Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet.”
Bay’s work exercises palpable anti-intellectualism – an embrace of the immediate, the tangible, and the seemingly necessary over pontification, scientific rationality, and critical thinking. But there’s also a bit of hypocrisy to Bay’s politics – as fearful and dismissive of science and technology as the narrative of Armageddon is (the film’s protagonists are positioned to celebrate an American form of industry that is largely past-oriented if not invisible with the exceptions of massive catastrophes), the film itself relies precisely on what it dismisses in order to exist as an excessive Hollywood spectacle: developments in science and technology that, yes, likely came from Ivy League graduates.
Thus, Bay is the emblematic filmmaker for the post-Star Wars Hollywood era in his use of complex moving image technologies that, in execution, deliberately mis-direct attempts at forms of engagement beyond surface distraction. This is what Hollywood has done for decades: present fun entertainment in a way that hides its complex, even contradictory, means of production.
The Rock is certainly the less controversial Bay title in The Criterion Collection – as the late Roger Ebert suggests in his essay, the film’s incredible entertainment value is justification in of itself. But Armageddon is easily the most quintessential Bay title, as its problems (a self-serious, considerably less fun or entertaining film than The Rock) pointedly reveal Bay’s fascinating contradictions. It doesn’t make Armageddon a good movie, but it’s more of a “Michael Bay movie” than even the filmmaker himself would like to admit.