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The Big Bang

'Armageddon' threatens the world, and only an unlikely bunch of guys can save the planet in a long, noisy and sporadically watchable film.


You know you're not in the intended demographic group for "Armageddon," the loud new film about how a Bruce Willis-led team of roughnecks tries to save the world from a deadly asteroid, if:

* you even notice it's loud;

* you don't consider two hours and 30 minutes an ideal length for this kind of thing;

* you find yourself missing the barely there sensitivity of "Deep Impact";

* you think of roughneck Steve Buscemi as a mainstay of American independent films, not one of the co-stars of "Con Air";

* you have your doubts about lines like "Let's chew this iron bitch up";

* you notice a shot lifted from a Robert Frank photograph and wonder what it's doing there and if he's going to get residuals;

* you recognize plot elements so venerable that they can be categorized by name, like "the blue wire or red wire dilemma" and "the damn kid knocked me out and flew the plane himself";

* you actually care that director Michael Bay's filmmaking style is so frantic and frenetic that it's often impossible to figure out exactly what is happening;

* you decide that rooting for the asteroid is a viable option.

Big and clumsy the way only $140-million projects manage to be, "Armageddon" is finally undone by its grandiosity as much as by anything else. Sporadically watchable, it's at its best at those infrequent moments when it doesn't take itself too seriously. But the film's general tendency to overplay its strengths and emphasize its weaknesses is a tough obstacle to overcome.

One of those squandered strengths is Bay. He is a celebrated commercial director whose previous features ("Bad Boys," "The Rock") demonstrate, as this film does, a sharp, slick look (here achieved by cinematographer John Schwartzman) linked to an ability to move things along.

"Armageddon's" story is set up by a prologue (read by Charlton Heston) that relates the widely believed theory that the last time a large object from outer space hit the Earth, it eliminated the dinosaurs. "It happened before," Heston intones as only Heston can; "it will happen again. It's just a question of when."

The first warning that that time is now comes when high-speed debris destroys a space shuttle and plows into Manhattan, creating a wave of flying taxis and exploding buses and causing the top of the Chrysler Building to flip point-first onto the street like an oversized dart.

It's only going to get worse, warns Dan Truman, the executive director of NASA (Billy Bob Thornton, expertly handling the take-charge Texan role usually reserved for Tommy Lee Jones). An asteroid the size of that great state will hit Earth in 18 days and function as "a global killer. Half the world will be incinerated by the heat blast; the rest will freeze to death in a nuclear winter. Basically, it's the worst parts of the Bible."

The only way to stop this cataclysm, the government somehow decides, is to rocket a team of drillers onto the asteroid, have them dig an 800-foot hole, plant an atomic bomb and then get the hell out of Dodge before the thing goes off. If you think a lot can go wrong within that scenario, you've been peeking at the script.

The world's best deep-core driller just happens to be oil wildcatter Harry S. Stamper (Willis). No touchy-feely tree-hugger, Stamper divides his time between hitting golf balls at anti-drilling Greenpeace activists and trying to kill A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck), the top man on his crew, who happens to have fallen in love with Stamper's daughter Grace (Liv Tyler).

Naturally, Stamper won't take on the job without his Dirty Dozen-like seven-man gang, a group of well-cast wacky eccentrics that includes Will Patton, Buscemi and "Bottle Rocket's" Owen Wilson. Military types aren't happy "leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of a bunch of retards you wouldn't trust with a potato gun," but that's Hollywood for you.

Speaking of Hollywood, what is hard to figure out is why "Armageddon" needed so many writers. Five of them got screen credit, arrayed in a configuration so complex (story by Jonathan Hensleigh and Robert Pool, adaptation by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams) you practically need a directive from the Writers Guild to understand exactly who did what.

Also, and this may be a first, the film's press kit boasts about and even lists by name some of the high-profile uncredited writers (Paul Attanasio, Ann Biderman, Scott Rosenberg, Robert Towne) who worked on the script. All this talent has led to some amusing moments, but overall their use only underlines the manufactured nature of filmmaking on this scale.

Despite this horde of writers, the emotional side of "Armageddon" remains stubbornly and conspicuously weak, and it's an area the filmmakers have regrettably fallen in love with. Considerable screen time is devoted to the sensitive romance between A.J. and Grace, but their moments together can most charitably be called unconvincing.

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