'Armageddon' at 20: How Bay's action epic became stealth comedy via hilarious commentary track

From left, Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ben Affleck, and Owen Wilson in Armageddon. (Photo: Disney/Touchstone)

Michael Bay makes big movies, and few have been bigger than 1998’s Armageddon, the story of a group of top-notch oil drillers (led by Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck) hired by NASA to become astronauts — all so they can be shot into space to blow up an asteroid that’s on an apocalyptic crash course with Earth. From its large-scale urban destruction to its colorful Dirty Dozen-style cast of characters (including Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Patton, William Fichtner, and Peter Stormare) to its Aerosmith soundtrack hit single “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” Bay’s third big-screen feature created the template for much of modern popcorn cinema. And with a $201 million domestic haul ($553.7 million globally), it was a monster hit, clocking in as the top-grossing film of the year and far outpacing its same-subject, different-tone rival Deep Impact (released two months earlier, on May 8, 1998, to $140.4 million).

Loud, flashy, chaotic, corny, and jingoistic, it’s a Michael Bay film through and through — as well as one of two of his works (the other being The Rock) to receive the illustrious honor of a home release via the classic-cinema-celebrating Criterion Collection. That 1999 disc may be the company’s most controversial, but it also contains one of the funniest audio commentary tracks ever, thanks in large part to wisecracking analysis by Affleck, whose comments provide levity that’s otherwise largely absent from the more self-serious remarks of director Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and (largely silent) headliner Willis. With the 20th anniversary of Armageddon’s theatrical premiere upon us July 1, we present highlights from that superlative must-listen commentary track.

Michael Bay on sparing the life of Eddie Griffin’s pooch in the early meteor shower scene:
“You never kill a dog. You must learn that as a filmmaker. Never, ever kill a dog, or kids — it’s just a rule.”

Bay on Deep Impact:
“I went out of the movie [Deep Impact] feeling ‘Wow, this is a way, way, way different movie.’ I wish [director] Mimi Leder luck, and the choices that she made are very different than mine. And I felt the core of Armageddon would appeal more to the masses than Direct Impact.”

Ben Affleck on a scene that mixes footage shot on a set and on an actual oil rig:
“It cuts together pretty seamlessly, I have to say, for something that I thought would look like total hokum.”

Bay on Ben Affleck’s secret dental makeover:
“We paid for a set of $20,000 of pearly white teeth — Ben’s gonna hate that story. I always like low shots that kind of come right under your chin, just make you a little bit heroic, and he kind of had these baby teeth. So I told Jerry Bruckheimer, ‘God, he’s got these baby teeth, Jerry. I don’t know what to do.’ Jerry used a very famous star in a plane movie that he replaced teeth with, so he says, ‘We did it to him, why not do it to Ben?’ So my dentist had Ben sitting in a dentist chair for a week, eight hours a day.”

Affleck doing his best growling Billy Bob Thornton/Sling Blade impersonation (for the first of three times):
“‘Now take a look at this here asteroid, there. Hmmm. I reckon that them there asteroid’s gonna hit us, mmmm-hmmm. Well, I suppose so.’”

Affleck on a shot of Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler speaking on an oil rig that inexplicably features a helicopter taking off in the background:
“This is where you just have a random helicopter in the background for no real reason, just because you’re a big movie and you’re expensive and you can.”

Affleck on Bruce Willis’s oil driller being labeled “the Best”:
“Have you ever noticed how everyone in all these movies is always ‘the best’? He’s the smartest man in the world, Bruce Willis is the best deep-core driller. I didn’t know they rated deep-core drillers, you know what I mean? If you went around and asked somebody, ‘Who’s the best? Who’s the best deep-core driller?’ You know what I mean? I’m like the best espresso maker there is in Manhattan. How do you know? Who’s keeping track of these things?”

Affleck on shots of stuntmen sliding down a ramp during an oil-spill catastrophe:
“Stunt acting is always fun to watch. Wooooooooo! Waaaaaaaaaa! Aaaaaaaaaa!”

Affleck on his first slow-motion jump:
“Look, slow motion. That was my indoctrination to Michael Bay-dom, you know what I mean? He was like, ‘You just jump off the thing, it’s in slow motion, and the explosion’s behind you.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve arrived.’ A lot of times, I really was upstaged by what was going on around me, I felt.”

Bay discussing the film’s average-guy-saves-the-world plot:
“Let’s face it, this isn’t brain surgery, this movie. This movie is pure entertainment.”

Affleck on the ludicrousness of the film’s premise (hear above):
“I asked Michael why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts than it was to train astronauts to become oil drillers, and he told me to shut the f*** up. So that was the end of that talk. He was like [affecting Bay’s voice], ‘You know, Ben. Just shut up, OK? This is the real plan, all right?’ I was like, ‘You mean, it’s a real plan at NASA to train oil drillers?’ And he was like, ‘Just shut your mouth!’

“You see, here’s where we demonstrate that, because Bruce is going to tell the guys that they did a bad job of building the drill tank. He’s a salt-of-the-earth guy, and the NASA nerdonauts don’t understand his salt-of-the-earth ways. His rough-and-tumble ways. Like, somehow they can build rocket ships, but they don’t understand, like, what makes a good tranny. Like, eight whole months? As if that’s not enough time to learn how to drill a hole, but in a week, we’re going to learn how to be astronauts. One whole week, now you know how to fly into space? ‘I need my guys.’ ‘Why do you need them?’ ‘They’re the best!’ Everyone’s the best. ‘Why are they the best?’ ‘I don’t know, they just are.’

“I mean, this is a little bit of a logic stretch — let’s face it. They don’t know jack about drilling? How hard can it be? Aim the drill at the ground and turn it on. ‘You think it’s just drilling a hole? There’s a lot you gotta know about, and when you get a brick snap off an edge in a tranny on a corner of a hot pipe, and you gonna get a gas pocket.’ Well, yeah, and what about when the booster rockets don’t fire and your EVA suit and your zero-gravity … [affecting Thornton’s Sling Blade voice] ‘Didn’t you see Apollo 13, boy?’”

Affleck on his “big nuts” reference:
“Including the phrase ‘big nuts’ was questionable, because it’s PG-13. If I were referring to big nuts as in big testicles, then that wouldn’t be PG-13. But the argument was posed and accepted that I could be talking about lug nuts, ostensibly.”

Affleck on his perpetual sweatiness:
“Grease. You had to be constantly swathed in grease in this film. People would come up in between takes. … Other movies, they pat you down so you won’t be shiny. For some reason, shiny is considered the worst thing. In this movie, they were constantly wiping everyone with glycerine, so that it would look like … and it would just stick to your face. It’s like gelatinous sugar. But everyone’s constantly slick-looking, throughout. I guess that’s the look.”

Affleck on Willis’s patriotic pronunciation:
“Bruce liked to say, ‘The United States, the United States of America.’ That’s the only time it ever got included in the film, just because, I think, what other America, really, are you talking about? To say the full name seems a little bit extreme.”

Affleck on Willis’s character asking NASA (as payment for the mission) for a lifetime exemption from taxes:
“Bruce is a big no-taxes kinda guy, so that was close to his heart. [Whispers] You know he’s a Republican — you know that.”

Affleck on the scientific theory of “slingshotting”:
“There’s the often-heard, but never seen in actual practice, theory about slingshotting. Using planets to speed you up somehow. I’m not sure how that exactly works, but it’s become kind of part of the vernacular, so you can just say, ‘We’ll be slingshotting around the moon,’ and everybody nods, as if ‘Oh, yeah, of course you will.’”

Affleck on Bay’s montage of Americans watching the astronaut launch:
“Kind of looks like a Miller Genuine Draft commercial, but I really like those commercials.”

Affleck on being asked by Bay to pretend to be weightless:
“‘Didn’t they teach you this in acting school?’ ‘No, Michael, they don’t teach weightless mime at acting school.’”

Bay on his astronaut vehicle’s giant gun:
“OK, don’t get mad at me, but the reason why we had a gun — because remember I’m doing a PG-13 movie — they had toys attached to this. Mattel told me that guns with trucks sell more toys. All right, now I know that’s a very bad thing. I had to add some of these things for my younger audience. And using a gun such as this scene was one of them.”

Affleck on Bay:
“If Tony Scott had a kid with Jim Cameron, it would be Michael Bay, cinematically speaking.”

Bay on Armageddon’s critics:
“Most critics are 45 years old, on the average, and I remember I was watching an esteemed Los Angeles Times critic sitting in a theater full of 800 people — he didn’t know I was there, but I was watching him. And he literally looked like he had a scowl on his face, and I’m telling you, the audience 12 times cheered, and I don’t think he liked that. I think the audience nowadays is not listening to what critics are saying, especially for these types of movies. These are entertaining movies; this is a movie where you’re supposed to just lose yourself and be entertained. We’re not doing anything more than that. And there’s nothing wrong with movies that just go for entertaining an audience.”

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