Bruce Willis and an all-star cast of roughneck oil drillers blast off on a mission to save the planet in Michael Bay’s doomsday space epic.
I’ll actually come out and say that the transfer for Armageddon is a bit of a shame. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on the first dual-layered disc of this two-disc set, it has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions, and it's actually this fact that stops it from becoming one of Criterion’s better transfers.
I only have faint memories of watching the original Disney DVD a decade or so ago but do remember thinking that the Criterion release presented stronger, more natural colours. Otherwise I don’t believe there was a real discernable difference anywhere else. But for a non-anamorphic transfer it’s pretty nice on the eyes. Colours look wonderful, with perfect flesh tones, nicely saturated reds and wonderful deep blacks. Detail is quite excellent for this type of transfer; even long shots come off looking good. An anamorphic transfer would present more, but it still looks surprisingly decent. The CGI sequences also look pretty solid. The print itself is in good shape, but since this is a newer film that shouldn’t be a surprise.
But again the decision not to go anamorphic (Criterion’s first anamorphic release was Insomnia, which is an odd choice since other films calling for it, like this and Brazil, were released close together with Insomnia) holds it back. There are some artifacts, and zooming in on the picture makes them more apparent. But if I compare this to other early DVDs that were not anamorphic, Criterion’s Armageddon easily puts them to shame. Hell, it even puts some anamorphic transfers to shame.
Call me crazy (and I’m sure many will) but, despite the fact I really don’t see myself watching Armageddon again in the future, I wouldn’t object to Criterion revisiting this title to give it an anamorphic transfer, as long as they did it and not Disney, who I suspect actually did the transfers for The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, both of which I’ve always considered weak. Given what they can do now with films older than 50 years and how good this transfer looks for what it is, I’m sure it could easily be one of their best looking releases. But unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we may not see an anamorphic transfer of this film until it hits Blu-Ray from Disney.
Criterion presents Armageddon with a fantastic Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, one of the few in their entire library, and it does the film justice presenting the film as it was meant to be presented: Big, dumb, and loud. The surrounds get quite a work out, as it sounds like things are flying by you, around you, and at you. Everything moves naturally between the speakers, and the woofer has quite a bit to do. And it is most definitely loud, but clear and never distorted. During the sequences where asteroid bits come raining down everything is working overtime.
Music sounds very clear and the dialogue is (unfortunately) crystal clear and natural. This is an excellent 5.1 track that completely immerses the viewer into the utter chaos going on onscreen (in more ways than one.) Whether that’s your thing or not is up to you, but it’s hard to deny that it sounds good.
The Disney disc came with the Aerosmith video for "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" and a couple of trailers. These can also be found on here along with much more. Disappointingly, when you compare it to where DVD is now, this release doesn’t come off much different than your generic studio DVD release for a big summer blockbuster, but it should be noted that at the time of this DVDs release (1999) big lavish 2-disc sets were uncommon. This was actually not only Criterion’s first 2-disc release, it’s actually one of the first 2-disc releases for the format. Basically this set became the basis for all other DVD releases for big, loud, dumb movies. People were blown away that this release was going to be two-discs back in the day. Nowadays, it’s expected.
First it should be pointed out that this release contains the “director’s cut” which is approximately 2-minutes longer, and it’s exclusive to this Criterion version, not available on the Disney DVD. The added sequences include a bit where Bruce Willis goes to visit his father, and then the final moment between Liv Tyler and Willis is extended. There are other little moments that I needed the commentary to point out (a small aside where Willis’ character admits to being scared.) Does it add anything? Not really. Bay has his issues as a director, but in my opinion his biggest problem is making his films so damn long. Now this film is two-minutes longer when I still feel it needs to be at least 40-minutes shorter (I’d go for “it needs to be 151-minutes shorter,” but that would have been too obvious.)
On the first disc, running with the film, you get two commentaries. The first has Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, Bruce Willis, and Ben Affleck. Everyone was recorded separately, unfortunately, and then edited together. It was actually a pretty solid commentary thanks to the energy on it. It’s not one you have to listen to and I doubt you’ll learn anything from it, but it is at least entertaining. Bay and Bruckheimer are fairly serious, talking about their production, discussing the script, keeping the film moving, getting everyone together, so on and so forth. They’re both very technical, but they both keep it going. Willis is pretty low key, offering only a few insights here and there about working on the film. Affleck, though, offers the track’s levity. At points he can be obnoxious, but he makes some comments at the film’s expense, questioning its logic on occasion, but all in good fun.
The second commentary features director of photography John Schwartzman, NASA consultant Dr. Joe Allen and asteroid consultant Ivan Bekey. All three were recorded separately. It’s the drier track, but interesting if only for the comments made by the two “consultants” who don’t really come out and say it, but suggest the film is a crock. Schwartzman talks specifically about filming the movie, tricks on getting the look of the film. The other two talk about how they came on board, how they helped with the film (or tried to, as Bay seemed to have been pretty determined to get what he wanted no matter what) and also discuss what would probably happen in the event that an asteroid was barreling towards Earth. It’s an interesting track, the kind only Criterion would have put together (would Disney have thought to get actual scientists to talk about the film? Doubtful.)
The second disc is a single-layered disc and contains the remaining supplements. Some of it is filler but there is some decent stuff here.
First up is Michael Bay’s Gag Reel running 7-minutes. I hate gag reels because they’re usually very unfunny. This one is actually somewhat amusing, thanks mostly to Billy Bob Thornton. It’s edited in typical Michael Bay fashion (break neck) and presents interview segments about what it’s like working on a Bay movie, mixed in with bloopers and set antics. I should also warn there are plenty of f-bombs. These things are usually useless but this one is at least amusing.
Deleted Scenes presents a few deleted and extended sequences all played in a row, running about 4-minutes. The sequences don’t add much and I didn’t see anything particularly special in them.
The next section, devoted to Special Effects is probably the most interesting aspect of this set. Actually, coming back to this film and then these extras made me appreciate the film more (I dare say that.) I forgot that this film relied more on older methods for special effects and looking through how the effects were done proved quite fascinating. Watching these types of supplements for newer films usually involves computer effects and nothing else. So really some guy is just sitting at a computer moving his mouse around. The effects for Armageddon were more hands on, since the film was made during that transition period when films were moving from on set effects to computer effects, and therefore the behind-the-scenes stuff proves more interesting.
The section is divided into three sections and altogether they run 35-minutes. The section devoted to Richard Hoover looks at the shuttle and asteroid effects. It starts by showing design drawings and then moves on to models. For the asteroid they actually sculpted a giant one out of foam, which allowed the camera to get in and get decent close ups. The asteroid was then put in using computers. The shuttles were a blend of models and CGI, and, a big shock, matte paintings were used in some sequences. Explosions during the end were done the old fashion way: explosions were filmed outside in a back alley using different chemicals to get different colours. This footage was then fit into the film. This section has five chapters that can be watched individually or all at once.
The section dedicated to Hoyt Yeatman looks at the Paris sequence. A lot of work went into this one as well and this 10-minute segment breaks it down nicely. After an animatic is created they then started building the scene in sections. They first recorded the explosion on a much smaller scale, which involved a lot of explosives and we get to see this footage from different angles. Slowed down and coming towards the camera this alone looks rather impressive. Another bit was filmed where gargoyles are destroyed in the foreground. Then using the computer those two sequences are put together along with photos of Paris, and CGI buildings that will crumble. The effects in Armageddon have held up rather well and I think it has to do with this mix of old technologies and new technologies. The effects in this film put a lot of newer films to shame and watching them actually pull of the effects was far more fun than watching a computer effect go through the transitions.
The final portion is devoted to Pat McClung, and is a simple interview. Running 10-minutes, McClung talks about working with Bay, how it was decided whether older special effects should be used in sequences, or whether newer visual effects should be used. There’s some footage thrown in, including when the space station model is blown up for the film. He also talks about how far special effects have come and how the film could not have been done years ago. This is another excellent part dealing with the special effects. In all I found this section completely worth my time. It was fun watching these sequences be created.
The next few supplements don’t prove to be anywhere near as enthralling.
Production Design presents a 6-minute interview with Michael White. He discusses the large scope of the film, getting into the general design of the asteroid, the space station, the costumes, and creating the sets for NASA. It’s pretty shallow and doesn’t offer any real insight. A “Design Gallery” is also included here, containing sections called “Space Station,” “Gear,” “Space Suits,” “Armadillo,” “Asteroid,” and “Shuttle.” Each gallery is controlled with the arrows on your remote.
Storyboards presents the storyboards for two sequences in the film: the “Armadillo Jump” and the “Rock Storm.” These are both still galleries that you navigate through using your remote. Nothing you probably haven’t seen in an extra of this type before.
Marketing presents a collection of trailers including the theatrical trailer, the teaser, the Superbowl spot, and also a collection of 30-second spots and 15-second spots. Something that may have been interesting are international trailers, or even poster art. But nothing here.
I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing presents the music video for the Aerosmith song, which was also included on the Disney DVD. With this one, though, you get an interview with members of the band. Not terribly interesting and the song is still terrible.
And finally we get your typical Criterion insert, this time with an essay by Jeanine Basinger, who does defend the film as a work of art and talks about Bay. It makes for an amusing read.
In the end this release is only a step up from most DVDs of this type. The supplements are pretty standard and don’t offer anything truly deep, but Criterion did put in that extra effort. The segments for the special effects are some of the better ones I’ve seen on a DVD, and the commentaries are more informative and interesting than they probably should be. While I won’t get into the whole debate as to whether this film belongs in the collection or not, I have to admit it’s a pretty decent release. And while I can recommend it to fans of the film, it would still probably be best to hold off until the inevitable Blu-Ray release, mainly for the non-anamorphic issue.