Ever since Twister turned a natural disaster into box-office gold, Hollywood has tried to repeat that feat . . . in pairs. Last year, the industry had a lava-affair with molten mayhem in the films Volcano and Dante's Peak. This summer, two other pictures with similar themes--Deep Impact and Armageddon--streaked into theaters, attempting to scare up business by suggesting that giant asteroids could collide with Earth, break a few windows, snarl traffic and, oh yeah, annihilate the planet.
The most recent of these doomsday thrillers is Disney's $140 million Armageddon (PG-13). The movie opens with Charlton Heston warning of the end of the world with the same biblical earnestness he once used to overdub cinema's creation of it. Sure enough, a Texas-sized chunk of debris is hurtling toward Earth. The only way to stop it is for a mercenary crew of deep-core oil drillers to land on the asteroid, bore an 800-foot hole, drop a nuclear warhead down the shaft, and detonate it so the resulting pieces pose no further threat to mankind. But that's not the only crisis. Spaced strategically throughout the film, deadly meteor showers decimate New York City, Shanghai and Paris.
Parents may object to Armageddon pandering to young sci-fi fans hungry for mass destruction. Adults may also bristle at the apocalyptic paranoia it has inspired (the news media now speculates about "global killer" asteroids the way it pondered cloning dinosaurs following the release of Jurassic Park). But there are even more immediate reasons to scratch this film off teens' summer-entertainment wish lists.
Dozens of profanities--including one f-word and many blasphemous uses of God's name--assault audiences. In one scene, an amateur astronomer barks orders at his nagging wife as he calls the authorities to report spotting the enormous space boulder. He asks if he can name it after his spouse because it is "a vicious, life-sucking b--ch from which there is no escape." Hearing him, the woman flips her husband the finger. This is supposed to be funny.
Such vile, misguided attempts at humor also turn Armageddon's ensemble cast of would-be heroes into contemptible scoundrels unworthy of our rooting interest. Steve Buscemi plays Rockhound, a sex addict who propositions a married woman, sees women's breasts in inkblot tests, implies that he's guilty of statutory rape, and spends his last night before blast-off on a licentious, $100,000 romp at a strip club (the film's most offensive scene). Two other drillers reportedly served "serious" prison time for unnamed offenses. The group also includes a compulsive gambler who has long-since sacrificed his family to games of chance, and a cocky young roughneck (teen idol Ben Affleck) who is sexually involved with his girlfriend. The crew's leader, played by Bruce Willis, chases his daughter's lover with a gun and shoots him in the leg. Some heroes. Fleeting moments of nobility aside, they're all unrepentant delinquents.
Armageddon uses dizzying special effects, migraine-inducing editing and a thundering soundtrack to drive home a fairly simple message: The human spirit, with a little help from technology, can triumph over amazing obstacles. But the film erects an amazing obstacle for families. Profane speech by dishonorable louts, coupled with a lust for the violent demolition of entire cities, makes this summer hit a cosmic disappointment. Pray it doesn't have a deep impact on teens.