In 1998, if you were a fan of films where the earth is at risk of being annihilated by an asteroid, you were in luck! Within the space of three months, audiences were treated to two separate big-budget blockbusters centered on the possibility of humanity being wiped out by massive space debris and the ragtag team put together to prevent chaos. Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact and Michael Bay’s Armageddon represent two sides of the same coin: An era of summer blockbuster cinema straddling the line between serious adult fare and bombastic spectacle, each film representing the ways an entire genre of filmmaking had begun to move forward. Both made lots of money, but one became a phenomenon that reshaped the way we think about the American blockbuster. Twenty years on, it seems hard to believe that we haven’t always lived in the age of Michael Bay.
But how do these films stack up today? Which film has aged better, which story works best, and what was it about 1998 that had us all clamoring for two movies about life-ending catastrophes?
It's not unusual for Hollywood to release two movies of similar plotting and concept within close proximity of one another. Only one year prior to Armageddon and Deep Impact, 1997 had two competing films about volcanic disasters: Volcano and Dante's Peak. 1998 was also the year that Dreamworks went to war with Pixar over animated insects, with Antz and A Bug's Life duking it out in theaters and Pixar's John Lasseter accusing Dreamworks executive (and former chairman of Disney's film division) Jeffrey Katzenberg of stealing their idea. Dreamworks faced similar plagiarism accusations when Shark Tale was pitted against Finding Nemo. Decisions like this aren’t always bold-faced exploitation. Sometimes, it’s just a staggering coincidence that two studios greenlight films with eerily similar set-ups, but then the rush begins to see who can get a wide release first and who can lure in the biggest audiences.
Deep Impact was released on May 8, almost two months before Armageddon. Paramount Studios had wanted to remake the 1951 film When Worlds Collide, and even approached Steven Spielberg with the proposition, but it remained in development hell for close to 20 years. Eventually, in 1993, Spielberg had bought the film rights to Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Hammer of God and decided to merge this project with the pre-existing ideas of a When Worlds Collide remake. He had intended to direct himself, but scheduling issues got in the way, so duties were handed over to Mimi Leder, a director for ER and China Beach who became the first woman to win an Emmy for directing. Reviews were solid, and from an $80 million budget, Deep Impact grossed close to $350 million worldwide. That made it the sixth highest grossing film of 1998 and made Mimi Leder the most successful woman director working at the time.
And then along smashed Michael Bay.
You know a Michael Bay movie the moment you see it (or are utterly deafened by the noise of it). As video essayist Lindsay Ellis noted in her wonderful series on film studies through the lens of the Transformers series, "Michael Bay movies all portray a distinct point-of-view, one which even casual filmgoers can nail down. Some subtexts of Michael Bay movies include: male protagonist eager to push back against own inadequacy; soldiers good, government bad; minorities are loud and that's funny; Bay's very distinct visuals, and the list goes on." Bay’s films are big, bigger than everyone else’s definition of big. They’re visually busy to the point of near endless confusion, and they’re driven by simplistic ethical beats. Armageddon made $553.7 million worldwide and was the biggest movie of 1998 by far, although it was far less well-received critically than Deep Impact. Armageddon may not be the most potent realization of the Bay ethos — that title belongs to the Transformers sequels — but it is arguably where his domination of the industry and blockbuster genre began.
But first, let’s start with the key differences between these two similar but highly different movies.
Deep Impact is a story about people. Armageddon is a story about symbols. The former is far more interested in its vast ensemble of characters and how they interact with one another, both before and after the severity of the approaching comet is revealed. This is a film that spends time establishing the stakes by showing each of these people as fully fleshed characters who impact the story and those around them. They are not just glorified background extras to make the impending doom scarier. You care about the lovelorn teenage astronomer Leo (Elijah Wood), his girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), and their respective families' fight for survival; you care about Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), the journalist who uncovers the story and tries to remain stoic in her reporting while her relationship with her parents begins to flounder; you care about every single astronaut aboard the spacecraft Messiah, whose task of impossible bravery leads to the ultimate sacrifice. Their lives aren’t ruled by the comet, but they are greatly defined by it and how they react to the news tells us everything about the human cost of such chaos.
Deep Impact feels both epic and intimate in the ways that matter the most. Bay’s film is just epic. The emotions are as simplistically overwhelming as the asteroid the size of Texas that threatens the Earth’s future (the comet in Deep Impact is “only” the size of New York City). Where Deep Impact is a story of an ensemble of typical people, Armageddon is about Heroes. Not just any old heroes, of course, but good old-fashioned, salt-of-the-earth blue-collar American Heroes. Headed by Bruce Willis as the top oil driller in his field, this rag-tag group are positioned as the proper kind of good guys in the face of snooty government policy, elitist astronauts who pack heat, and vaguely sinister scientists. It’s not the people who know things about space, asteroids, or piloting multi-million-dollar shuttles at 22,500 miles per hour who can save the earth: It’s Joe Schmo and his pals! This is nothing new in Bay’s work or the action genre — it would take weeks to list every film about a regular guy who saves the day — but it’s the symbolism of this image in Armageddon that hits home the hardest. It’s the simplest possible take on this story — big bad comet versus cool good American guys (and Peter Stormare once again playing a creepy Russian).
But nobody comes to a Michael Bay film for the deft character work. That’s probably for the best since the most unbearable moments of the story are when the movie tries to force the audience to care about the romance between a never-smarmier Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. There’s a conversation about animal crackers that rivals the sand talk in Attack of the Clones for sheer cringe. These characters are broad tropes, often easily defined by one vague characteristic, who are easy to remember and mostly expendable once their inevitable end comes. There’s the tough black guy, there’s the dorky fat guy, there’s spacey Owen Wilson doing his thing, there’s Steve Buscemi going full weird character actor and loving it, there’s that one guy who doesn’t even get an introduction but is suddenly there and then dies, and there’s Ben Affleck (there’s also a host of crude racial stereotypes, an unfortunate recurring theme in Bay’s work). They’re here to spout one-liners, give momentary pathos to a scene, then blow things up.
And boy, do things get blown up in Armageddon.
Deep Impact, by contrast, isn’t as concerned with the disaster itself, although those scenes remain impressive. The impending collision isn’t a mere few weeks away like it is in Armageddon. The problem is a couple of years away, so the dread is sustained but low enough that people can get on with their lives. It’s only when the Messiah’s plan fails that we see how the planet reacts when it goes into contingency mode. These people still have to live their lives, go to work, pay the bills, visit their family and interact with one another under the crushing weight of their own mortality. The pain of being estranged from your father doesn’t end just because the world is about to. When the carnage starts, the effects are impressive and there’s weight to what happens. Millions of people die and that’s the happier outcome. Their deaths are felt more because the preceding film has been so quiet by comparison.
“Quiet” is not a word in Michael Bay’s dictionary. From the booming Charlton Heston opening narration to the blasts of Aerosmith to the deafening destruction of countless buildings to the fact that none of the actors have a speaking volume lower than “bellow,” Armageddon is a film that forces your attention at every microsecond through sound and fury.
The sheer force of Bayhem cannot help but overwhelm the more ponderous and decidedly human approach of Leder. His never-ending changes in editing, camera focus and movement make for some dynamic moments but there’s little room to breathe in-between it all. Then again, that’s partly why the summer blockbuster has become so undeniably defined by Bay.
Armageddon has the unique honor of being available in the Criterion Collection, something that doesn't happen very often for proudly stupid blockbusters. Its inclusion alongside the greats of cinema highlights its importance as a piece of cinema. As noted by film scholar (and former teacher of Bay) Jeanine Basinger, "Despite what you may have heard, Armageddon is a work of art by a cutting-edge artist who is a master of movement, light, color, and shape—and also of chaos, razzle-dazzle, and explosion... Yes, it gives audiences a lot to absorb. Yes, it cuts quickly from place to place, person to person, event to event. But it is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense."
Your mileage may vary on whether you agree with Basinger or not — Roger Ebert said it was "an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained" — but all the elements she describes are the norm in blockbuster cinema in a way they simply weren’t before Bay stormed in. Few filmmakers can say they have rewritten the language of cinema in such a short amount of time like Bay has. His fingerprints are over most of the multi-million-dollar movies we watch every summer, from the macho aggression of Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to the frenetic action of Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean to the heightened blue-collar patriotism of Peter Berg's work with Mark Wahlberg.
Deep Impact is the better movie of the two, but Armageddon is the more important one. 1998 saw the blockbuster caught at a precipice between the past and the future, between a more serious, character-oriented disaster drama from a classic Hollywood mold, and the eye-watering spectacle of technological marvel drawn in proudly crude lines. Mimi Leder mostly returned to directing television after her Deep Impact follow-up film, Pay It Forward, flopped and sent her to director jail. However, she’s re-established herself over the past few years as a formidable talent thanks to her exceptional work on HBO’s The Leftovers and will be returning to film this year with a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic. As for Michael Bay… Well, it is his world, and we all just live in it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.