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7 November

The Ensisheim meteorite hits Earth, 1492

On this day in 1492, a large meteorite landed in a field outside the walled town of Ensisheim, in Alsace (present-day France). The flaming passage of the meteorite through the sky was visible from over 150km away. It was one of the earliest instances of a meteorite fall on record. The stone can still be seen today in the town’s museum, though it is now nowhere near the original 127kg it weighed when it fell – the locals, having dug it up from a metre down in the soft arable land, started prising chunks off it as keepsakes, before the local authorities stepped in to claim it for King Maximilian, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and known, depending on who he was trying to impress, as either King of the Romans or King of the Germans (he was later also Holy Roman Emperor). Such an event was obviously an omen, and Maximilian soon arrived in person, consulted with the stone on a man-to-stone basis, before he too prised off a couple of chunks, one for himself, one for his friend Archduke Sigismund of Austria. He then ordered the meteorite to be chained down, lest it make good its escape using the same celestial force that had brought it hence. But what did this messenger from the heavens portend? Before long Maximilian and his council had determined that the meteorite was a good omen, and augured well for the upcoming wars with France (Ensisheim was at the time part of Further Austria) and Turkey.

Armageddon (1998, dir: Michael Bay)

Armageddon is the first example by director Michael Bay of what has become a recognisable genre. In the Michael Bay film a lot of money is spent destroying things in the most spectacular way possible, often at the expense of coherent characters, plot or dialogue. Pick your way through Pearl Harbor or the Transformers films for evidence. There are entire websites devoted to putting forward the proposition that Michael Bay is the worst director who ever lived. But I’m going to stand up for Armageddon, and here’s why. Yes, it’s a big, noisy, spectacle about a group of oil-drilling guys (and a token woman; always with the token woman) who head off into space to nuke an asteroid “the size of Texas” before it crashes into Earth. But, unlike Bay films since, it actually spends time with the guys. We get to know and like them (much as we got to know Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bay’s previous film, Bad Boys). It helps that the guys have faces that tell half their personal story – Bruce Willis (tough), Billy Bob Thornton (wildcat), Ben Affleck (prettyboy), Steve Buscemi (ker-ay-zee), and so on. It helps even more that the screenplay is co-written by JJ Abrams, who took a background working on smallish films about human feelings, rather than industrial hardware, and projected those hopes and fears into the sphere that was to bring him the big bucks – sci-fi adventure. True, Armageddon is loaded with cheese – the tension between Willis and Affleck, the former the father of the girl (Liv Tyler) that the latter wants to marry – is several kilograms of ripe Brie on its own. But it’s also loaded with self-sacrificing heroics which for all their corniness somehow just work. And for all its faults it has a swagger and a mad glint in its eye which made the other asteroid film of that year, Deep Impact, look as inert as an old 1970s disaster movie.

Why Watch?

  • Michael Bay when he was still good
  • JJ Abrams’ breakthrough into sci-fi and action
  • Bruce Willis in one of his first “dad” roles
  • The locations, the space suits – the real Nasa deal

Armageddon – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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