Monday, March 22, 2010

Movie Review
    — Armageddon

I watched Armageddon last week, the 1999 sci-fi flick about an asteroid the size of Texas bent on crashing into Earth (and killing us all), with the solution being to recruit and quick-train deep core oil drillers as astronauts to drill a hole in the asteroid and drop a nuke in to blow it up.

Okay, admittedly seeing the the names Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay on a movie’s credits list should trigger the brain into saying “This is going to be lots of stuff exploding and levels of ridiculousness three times what anyone should be expected to endure, so just shut yourself off now.”

But I can’t do that!

Thoughts (and spoilers for every bit of the film!):
  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the high concept was quite so easy to distill: “Roughnecks in space.”
  • If you send up two shuttles, one will crash.  That’s a given.
  • The music (and some of the visuals) in this around the astronaut departure and return was some of the most patriotically manipulative I’ve encountered, to the point that it was almost a parody of itself.  (And let me note that by “encountered”, I mean “noticed” — so over the top that it broke me out of the film to analyze what they were trying to do.  The first film I noticed this with, and still my marker for egregiousness in that department, was A.I.)
  • Why did they even bother having a woman astronaut in the crew if they were going to leave her in the shuttle the entire time?  The only thing she really got to do was to get tossed against the wall when the Russian cosmonaut wanted to hit the equipment with a pipe to make it work.
  • After the (surviving) shuttle overshot its landing by 20-plus miles, it still basically crash landed, since the terrain wasn’t what they had planned on.  So how did it manage to take off again without any issues at all before the bomb blew up?
  • Why do they have to put stupid countdown deadlines into these things?  All that does is tell us “Don’t get your hopes up.  The bomb won’t and can’t go off until the last few seconds.”  Here they had 18 days, and they still set it off in the last half second.
  • What was so special about the drilling depth of 800 feet?  The asteroid was a million miles away when they detected it, and they could only barely analyze details on it anyway.  So why did the hole have to be 800 feet and not 775 (in which case they could have set the bomb off a good 30 seconds earlier)?  And why was 800 feet still the right depth when they were drilling in a completely different location than planned, in totally different material?  (I suppose this can be rationalized as the roughnecks and the shuttle crew didn’t have enough knowledge of the situation to ask the question, and even if the crew in Houston could have revised their estimates in time, would it have made a difference?  At that point, it was “Drill the hole, dump the bomb, and just pray like crazy.”)
  • With radio and video transmission cutting in and out, it was amazingly clear for a good minute or more for Harry to say his goodbyes.  (There should also be a several second delay in transmission times due to the distances.  For dramatic purposes, we can excuse that some and they actually left things hazy enough to not make me complain about it too much.  It would have been a wasted plot point to make a big deal of it.)
  • On the other hand, an extended period of clear video signal sure wipes out the tension from earlier regarding their absolute last chance to remotely detonate the bomb.
  • The repeated scenes of small town America with people costumed right out of a 1950s farm really bothered me.  No one dressed like that in 1998.  See my earlier comment about the music being manipulatively patriotic.
  • The surface of the asteroid was covered by razor sharp spikes of rock.  People were flying all over the place, crashing into the terrain.  Rocks were exploding, creating showers of even smaller razor sharp rock fragments.  And not a single spacesuit got even a tiny puncture.  (One guy did from his helmet being smashed to bits, but that’s not quite the same thing.)
  • Given that the shuttle that didn’t crash overshot by 20-plus miles, how didn’t the second armadillo even find them?
And wasn’t that ending amazing?  At the very last second, the bomb that was dropped in the hole drilled in the wrong place on the asteroid tumbling end over end in all three dimensions (which had ruined their earlier calculations) blew the asteroid in exactly two pieces, sending both of them to pass Earth on opposite sides of the planet (“Missed it by that much!”), and the explosion also vaporized all the other rubble, including the basketball, Volkswagen, and presumably Chrysler Building-sized chunks which were in the rubble cloud stretching hundreds of thousands of miles ahead of and behind the asteroid (which had already destroyed much of New York and Shanghai, and all of Paris), so nothing more hit Earth at all.  What are the odds?

Let me tell you, as a math/comp sci major in college who started as a physics major, the odds are… (calculate) um… (check again) er… (grimace) zero.

Even if we close our eyes to the largest chunk (ahem) of this, that the asteroid itself was exploded enough for the major pieces to miss Earth and avoid the“global killer” nature, the fact remains that huge chunks of stuff were hitting the planet for three weeks before the big one arrived, and had already killed millions.  We saw massive amounts of smaller stuff preceding and following and all around the asteroid; if the shuttle didn’t blow up from the nuclear blast, then neither did anything further away than it, nor did many things closer than the shuttle that were larger.  There would be far more volume of that rubble than the leading bits that had already hit, given a reasonable normal distribution.  Even with the Texas-sized chunk missing, you’re still going to have one the size of Dallas (about 1/1000th the size of Texas) going boom into the mid-Pacific and creating a tsunami that wipes Tokyo, Sydney, and Los Angeles off the map.  You’re still going to have one the size of Crawford, Texas (1/1000th the size of Dallas) leaving a crater where Switzerland used to be.  You’re still going to have Lake Michigan vaporized by something the size of a semi.  You’re still going to have stuff the size of golfballs destroying the Hagia Sophia and the Taj Mahal (since they were both seen in the film).  And what’s more, you’ll have had this happening increasingly for a couple days before the bomb went off (the destruction of Paris was a good demonstration of this, but there would have been several more impacts of that size in the day or two before the bomb exploded) and you would have them coming for 3 weeks afterward, asteroid strike or not.

Global killer, with nothing more than bacteria surviving?  Averted.  Massive climate change that still lasts for a few hundred years?  Right on schedule.  Human population drops from 6 billion to 600 million (and that may be generous), with technology infrastructure and everything we know of as industrial-level civilization destroyed?  Check check check.

But I guess that sort of a slightly upbeat but ultimately depressing ending wouldn’t go over well, huh?

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