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That time Michael Bay shut down Ben Affleck's question about Armageddon's implausible plot
The disaster blockbuster's director and star summed up the whole film with one interaction.
The further we get from 1998, the Year of the Big Asteroid Movie, the more it seems like a blessing that we got dueling films with the same premise over the course of one blockbuster summer. Yes, Michael Bay's Armageddon (now streaming on Peacock) and Mimi Leder's Deep Impact share quite a bit of narrative DNA, but in retrospect, it's the contrasts that make each of them great in their own way, and allow them both to stand on their own.
Deep Impact, widely viewed as the more scientifically accurate take on the scenario of a planet-killing asteroid heading for Earth, is certainly a more measured film, with an arguably wider narrative scope in terms of the number of characters and subplots it dares to follow. Watching it now, you're in for a more patient experience, an exercise in some real "What if?" imagining with an air of vulnerability and hope carrying it the whole.
Then you've got Armageddon, which...well, it definitely doesn't do all of that.
If Deep Impact is the "Humanity will struggle, but endure" Big Asteroid Movie, then Armageddon is the "We will kick that asteroid's ass and look cool doing it" Big Asteroid Movie, an unapologetic dose of early Bayhem that's as defined by its caution-to-the-wind approach to narrative as it is by its slick visuals.
In the years since Armageddon rose from blockbuster status to basic cable and streaming staple, the film's own knowing winks in the direction of its wild plot have become almost as famous as the story within the film itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the now-infamous 1999 Criterion Collection commentary track for the film, in which star Ben Affleck revealed the knowing answer Michael Bay gave to one of the film's most lingering questions.
Affleck was just beginning his journey to movie superstardom when Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer cast him in Armageddon (a whole section of the commentary track features Bay commenting on the dental work he and Bruckheimer scheduled for their star), and it's clear from the commentary track that he came into the action movie world with a healthy dollop of skepticism. This is the guy, after all, who just won an Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting just a few months before Armageddon's release. So, of course he had questions, and Bay had answers.
Here's the infamous passage in question from the commentary, in which Affleck recalled asking Bay what has become, for many, the central question of plausibility within Armageddon:
"I asked Michael why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers, and he told me to shut the f**k up," Affleck said. "So that was the end of that talk. [Does Michael Bay voice] 'You know, Ben, just shut up, OK? You know, this is a real plan.' I was like, 'You mean it’s a real plan at NASA to train oil drillers?' And he was like, 'Just shut your mouth!'"
Affleck's story is, in some ways, as much an interesting insight into his own star persona and approach to storytelling as it is into anything his director did with this film, but for our purposes, it's an especially potent distillation of Bay's aesthetic when it's working well. Bayhem is more than just a series of elaborate action sequences and explosions, despite what the filmmaker's critics would often have you believe. In his best work, Bay tries to create an internal consistency within the realm of each story, and that's very evident with a film like Armageddon.
Bay could have certainly made a film in which astronauts and scientists were in charge of journeying out to blow up the asteroid, and we know that because Deep Impact exists, and it's dynamic and engaging in its own way. That's not the film Armageddon was every trying to be. By making a film in which the only people who can save the world are oil drillers, Bay taps into that sense of blue collar Americana that permeates a great many of his films (sometimes to their detriment, but that's a conversation for another day), and creates a fantasy world in which the only way the planet will survive is if some roughnecks with a bad attitude get up there and do the work. It's this fantasy world that also allows for a romantic subplot with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the tension between the oil drillers and the astronauts forced to ferry them up into space, and of course the arc of Bruce Willis' Harry Stamper as he goes from self-involved, ego-driven powder keg to calm, assured, courageous leader. That all works because Bay's approach to the film's implausibility was "Ben, just shut up."
But even if you don't buy that, you have to admit that some of those asteroid sequences are still among the coolest things Bay has ever shot.
Armageddon is now streaming on Peacock.