Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) immediately announces what kind of film it is. Beginning 65 million years ago with the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, we watch the blast ripple across the planet and into the opening titles. “Armageddon” bursts into flames and explodes in pieces outward toward the audience.
From the vantage point of 2023, we know what to expect from a Michael Bay film: explosions, tight pacing, sweeping cameras, and the male gaze. However, in 1998, Bay was still establishing his auteur style. Armageddon is his third feature film — after Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996) — though he previously had extensive experience in music videos and commercials. In many ways, Armageddon solidified the “Bayhem” directorial style that has become so familiar.
The story of Armageddon operates under Murphy’s Law, with constant catastrophe propelling the plot forward. Immediately after the title sequence (3 minutes and 21 seconds into the film), a meteor shower shreds an international space station and decimates New York City. It’s almost 12 minutes in before we meet our main hero. The story continues to build itself around action set-pieces with just enough breathing room created through exposition, romance, and male bonding to make the action sequences stand out.
“Wow, this is a goddamn Greek tragedy,” says Rockhound (Steve Buscemi).
The reason it all works is because Bay and his co-creators effectively build pacing through strategic camera movement, tight montage, and frequent cross-cutting. Armageddon is a long movie (2 hours, 31 minutes), but barrels forward at a popcorn pace, a signature of Bay’s directorial style. It’s impossible not to draw a connection to Bay’s music-video background.
Bay worked with cinematographer John Schwartzman to craft the visual style of the film. The two knew each other as kids (Bay went to school with Schwartzman’s younger sister), and they worked together on college film-school projects before launching their professional relationship through their mutual commercial work. Schwartzman shot one of the music videos Bay directed — Meat Loaf’s “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” — and three of Bay’s feature films (The Rock, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor).
At this point, some of the style moves have become action movie clichés, but in Armageddon they are narratively motivated. The camera dances around the characters, guiding the audience through the shifting perspectives of the montage. For example, on launch day our astronauts and drilling team walk the bridge to board their space shuttles, and the film cuts to a tracking shot from their perspective walking toward their heroic fate. Techs strap the team into their seats, and the camera tracks forward and backward between close-ups and two-shots, eye-level with the prone astronauts, cultivating intimacy with the audience.
Throughout the launch sequence, the film crosscuts between the two crews, extreme close-ups of the bulbs in the countdown clock (a flashbulb sound effect punctuating the countdown), NASA control center, and Liv Tyler resplendent in front of an oversized United States flag. The sequence has a lot to communicate. We need to feel the global stakes of the mission, the complicated feelings of the crew who know they may be walking into death, and the heartbreak and pride of a woman potentially losing both her father and fiancé. As with the rest of the film, the cuts are efficient, centering the emotional journey of the audience and giving us just enough exposition to feel oriented.
There were three credited editors on this film (Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Glen Scantlebury), likely because Bay had a tight timeline to deliver his final edit. While he has expressed in interviews that he wished he had been able to devote more time to the edit, he and his editors crafted some lean montages.
Armageddon was a smash success in 1998 but many critics disliked it, a theme for Michael Bay’s career. (Roger Ebert hated it, calling it “an assault on the eyes” and giving it one star.) Bay is the auteur that highbrow loves to hate. On the one hand, one can’t deny Bay’s distinctive style and visual craftsmanship. On the other hand, he unapologetically revels in patriotic genre fare and a heterosexual male perspective. He prizes the visceral over character development, effective editing over effective plotting.
His films have been compared to feature-length music videos, and, honestly, his fans are here for it.