Disaster movie fans were living their best lives in 1998, specifically the two-month span of 1998 that delivered two earnest epics about what might happen if a rogue celestial object suddenly threatened our planet: Deep Impact and Armageddon. Despite the déjà vu, both films were massive box-office hits. But how do they hold up 21 years later?
Well, it depends on what kind of movie you’re looking for. It’s pretty incredible that two movies with such similar premises, that even share several identical plot points, are actually so different. Tone is a big part of it. Deep Impact is way more introspective, examining the probable end of days through the eyes of several disparate characters and emphasizing the emotional and spiritual agony that they all feel. We meet an ambitious TV journalist, Jenny (Téa Leoni), whose long-awaited big break comes, horribly, when she discovers that the U.S. government (including the president, played by Morgan Freeman) has been concealing the fact that a comet (roughly the size of lower Manhattan) is on a collision course with Earth. We also meet a group of astronauts (including Robert Duvall and a very young Jon Favreau) assembled to solve the problem from space, as well as the lovelorn young astronomy buff, Leo (Elijah Wood), who helped discover the comet in the first place.
The bombastic Armageddon is practically a comedy by comparison, following a group of misfit oil drillers (led by Bruce Willis, with an ensemble that also includes Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, and a very young Ben Affleck) who are pressed into service (by NASA director Billy Bob Thornton) to save the world from a fast-approaching asteroid that’s roughly the size of Texas. To its credit, Armageddon outright acknowledges that sending a bunch of roughnecks with zero astronaut training into space is inherently ridiculous—though it often feels overly pleased with itself for running with such a ludicrous idea for two and a half hours. That’s kind of par for the course for director Michael Bay, who was still a relative newcomer in 1998 with just two prior films (Bad Boys and The Rock), though his love of spectacle—something he’d explore to the heavens with the Transformers series—was already fully entrenched.
Somewhat more surprising is remembering that Armageddon was co-written by J.J. Abrams, and that the movie’s success surely helped propel him toward things like Lost, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Fortunately, none of Abrams’ later projects display Armageddon’s most unpleasant aspect, which is that there’s some fairly rampant misogyny wedged into the story. Deep Impact and Armageddon both have a token female astronaut character, but only Armageddon makes sure to have one of the menfolk refer to her as “really hot.” Deep Impact’s comet is named after Leo and the other scientist who first spotted it; Armageddon’s asteroid is also named by the astronomer who discovered it, with a twist: “I want to name her Dottie, after my wife. She’s a vicious, life-sucking bitch from which there’s no escape.” Those are just a few examples, but every time it pops up, the misogyny is always played as a joke. As depressing as it sounds, audiences two decades ago probably weren’t even bothered by it, or the fact that the female lead (played by Liv Tyler, as Willis’ daughter and Affleck’s betrothed) is a startlingly empty vessel, or that Armageddon’s NASA appears to be staffed entirely by middle-aged white men. Watching it today, though, that’s all pretty hard to ignore.
It’s worth mentioning that Deep Impact is the rare action film to be directed by a woman: Mimi Leder; the script’s by Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin (the latter of whom won an Oscar for Ghost). Though it too has its share of knowingly dumb action-movie moments—like when Leo manages to outrun a monstrous tidal wave on a motorbike—its main focus is on how its characters try to cling to hope despite the ticking clock of annihilation.
For some, like the astronauts and Morgan Freeman’s POTUS—a performance that mostly consists of giving stirring speeches every time things go from worse to even worse—it’s about taking action, by coming up with backup plans to salvage what feels like a lost cause, and trying to inspire others to do the same. But Deep Impact’s most meaningful relationship is between journalist Jenny and her father, who mend their bitter estrangement just in time to watch a giant wave crash over their heads en route to wiping out the East Coast. Though they both perish, there’s a sense that the peace they found made it worthwhile. By contrast, Armageddon’s parallel father-daughter relationship feels far more superficial, especially since the wedge between them is something as goofy as Ben Affleck’s character, and for most of the movie, Bruce Willis is preoccupied with saving the world.
There are so many other things one could dig into when it comes to both Armageddon and Deep Impact—how overtly religious imagery is used in both films; why each film felt the need to include a “wacky Russian” character; the contrasting ways that people outside the U.S. are depicted as reacting to the impending disaster; and even random stuff like stress-induced teen marriage, Michael Bay’s JFK obsession, and how much Aerosmith is too much Aerosmith. But all those are secondary to the question that began this post: Are these two apocalyptic thrillers still worth watching today?
Honestly, they’re both still entertaining. They’re both terribly dated at this point, though Deep Impact’s antique computer technology is more amusing than Armageddon’s crappy treatment of all the women in its orbit. But while Deep Impact is clearly trying to infuse a certain amount of realism into its story, Armageddon has zero interest in anything but explosions, landing its quips (“Houston, you have a problem!”), and getting its hodgepodge of characters—humankind’s most unlikely saviors, as we’re reminded over and over—into outer space so they can do things like incinerate a space station, “Evel Knievel” over an asteroid crater, and introduce the concept of “space dementia” like it’s a real medical diagnosis.
Doomsday in all its forms is still as popular a topic as ever—check out Good Omens if you want to see the world (almost) ending in a truly delightful way. But as relics from the 1990s, the thoughtful Deep Impact might make you cry, while the dumb-as-rocks Armageddon will make you snort at its extravagance.
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