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by: Scott Renshaw

You gotta give bonus points to the Touchstone Pictures publicity department for uncommon candor on the subject of big-budget film screenwriting. Press materials for Armageddon proudly trumpet the fact that producer Jerry Bruckheimer "assembled a cadre of talented writers" to polish up Jonathan Hensleigh's script, including Tony Gilroy, Paul Attanasio, Scott Rosenberg and Robert Towne. Even cast members Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare and Owen Wilson were acknowledged for ad-libbing many of their lines. After creating an additional writing credit to accommodate two more names ("Adaptation" on top of "Story" and "Screenplay," as if you could figure out the difference), Bruckheimer and Touchstone appear to have embraced the concept of pot-luck screenwriting: the notion that if a dozen different guys all bring something to the table, you end up with a cinematic meal.

Or, in the case of Armageddon, one massive snack. The subject, of course, is this summer's favorite - a huge celestial body on a collision course with Earth, this time an asteroid the size of Texas. Faced with a "Global Killer" certain to wipe out life as we know it, NASA chief Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) initiates a plan involving landing a shuttle on the asteroid and planting a nuclear warhead 800 feet below its surface. To that end he recruits deep-core oil driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) for the job of making the big hole to house the big bomb. Naturally, Harry needs his misfit crew along with him, including hot-shot A. J. (Ben Affleck), who coincidentally is in love with Harry's daughter Grace (Liv Tyler).

It's enough to generate flashbacks from Deep Impact, where the feeble attempts to generate sweeping emotion more often generated sleeping emotion. Armageddon, to its credit, at least has its priorities straight. Make no mistake about it, this is a special effects-driven action film, with a generous dose of ahhh-inspiring scenes - exploding shuttles, meteor showers toppling the Empire State Building, the gargoyles on the Notre Dame Cathedral watching as Paris is reduced to baguette crumbs. Director Michael Bay predictably resorts to tension-builders like close shaves with countdown clocks, but at least he knows enough to keep the focus on the drill team's mission once they're in space. For its final 75 minutes, Armageddon is virtually nothing but explosions, crashes and narrow escapes…and that's a good thing.

It's the first 75 minutes which proves to be a test of endurance, as the aforementioned cadre of writers tries vainly to create the illusion of character development. Stock interpersonal conflicts - between headstrong Harry and his equally headstrong daughter, between Harry and even-more-headstrong A. J. - share time with tender moments of reconciliation as all involved make their peace before heading off to save humanity. It's all a load of nonsense, made even less interesting by Bay's foolish decision to keep chopping back and forth between the playful introduction to our protagonists and a solemn war room session at NASA. There's nothing cohesive or compelling from a narrative standpoint in Armageddon; strangely enough, it feels like the result of a dozen different writers contributing individual scenes or lines of dialogue.

I'm not going to suggest that Armageddon isn't a pretty effective diversion; it there's one thing a dozen writers can do, it's produce a bunch of solid laughs and craft a few exciting action sequences. It's fun watching the unhinged performances of Steve Buscemi (as the crew's horny geologist) and his Fargo partner Peter Stormare (as a loopy Cosmonaut), and it's fun grinning at the creaky introduction of military men as heartless villains. There's just not much more you can expect from a film where they seem more interested in throwing in a Godzilla gag than in letti


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