'Armageddon': The Countdown To Catastrophe

Science fiction has taken a paranoid turn lately. The friendly aliens of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" are being zapped off the screen by nasty-looking monsters with Washington accomplices, and outer space has become our enemy as heavenly bodies zoom toward catastrophic collisions with Earth.

Another such cataclysm looms in "Armageddon," the latest in what might be called the Countdown Category of Hollywood adventure movies. An asteroid as big as Texas is heading our way, and the clock is ticking. No matter what part of the globe gets the direct hit, life as we know it will be wiped out forever.

No one can save us except Bruce Willis, as a rough-and-ready oil engineer with a knack for drilling far beneath the earth's surface. Government agent Billy Bob Thornton recruits him and his scruffy assistants to become instant astronauts, rocket to the asteroid, and blow it to bits.

Everything about the first half-hour of "Armageddon," devoted to early signs of the impending calamity, is so coarse and crude that if you are watching this Disney movie, you might hope the asteroid will land on the very theater where you're watching it.

True, this vulgarity may not damage the picture's popularity. But people looking for glimmers of sensitivity may find themselves less dismayed by the on-screen action than by what it reveals about a world that would spend its treasure making such trash.

Things improve once Willis and company land on the asteroid, allowing director Michael Bay to concoct some of the season's more imaginative special effects. Yet while the movie's emotions grow a bit gentler, they remain as forced and artificial as ever, pushing market-tested buttons - heroics, patriotism, family values - with a monotony that denies us any chance to think or even feel for ourselves.

"Armageddon" may sell tickets, thanks largely to a high-powered marketing machine that's been conducting its own countdown for the past several months. But it's not a pretty picture.

* Rated PG-13; contains violence, foul language, and sexual innuendo.

David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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