Space Dads for America: Armageddon

It’s not that Michael Bay isn’t to blame for Armageddon. I want to be very clear about that. Bay should absolutely be held responsible for the film he inflicted on an unsuspecting world in 1998. But for all that the weight of guilt rests on his shoulders and his alone, one would be remiss were one to forget the serpent twined irrevocably ’round the roots of that motion picture: America’s subconscious desire to play the abusive father figure to a grateful world.

(There’s a lot of material here, reader. I’m dismayed to inform you that, despite what many literary wanks would like to tell you about the shallow nature of genre cinema, Armageddon is embarrassingly ripe for analysis. Let’s drill down (sorry) to the bottom of the longest montage ever made. Here we go. Armageddon.)

Armageddon is a film composed of two neatly dovetailed love letters to toxic patriarchs. Neither can be called the primary narrative, any more than one of the four cold-opens of the picture can be called a ‘beginning.’ Grace Stamper (Liv Tyler) learns to appreciate her abusive father, Harry (Bruce Willis); her story unfurls in unwavering parallel to the story of the American military industrial complex saving the whole world. Well, the whole world except for Paris. Sorry, Paris.

Armageddon desperately wants the viewer to see Harry Stamper as the hero of the story, because in this parable of international diplomacy, Harry Stamper embodies America. All he wants to do is drill for oil, isolate his daughter from any support networks outside of the ones over which he has direct control, and kill any man who tries to form a meaningful peer relationship with her. In the scene which introduces the dynamic between Grace and her father—a scene in which he repeatedly fires a shotgun at her boyfriend, A.J. (Ben Affleck)—Harry asserts that he has repeatedly asked Grace to call him “Dad.” The camera lingers on his soulful eyes, and the viewer is reminded that he is Sympathetic. He wants what’s best for his daughter, the camera explains. It just happens that what’s best for her is the complete sublimation of her personal agency. Is that so much to ask?

Meanwhile, in Outer Space Problems, an asteroid is headed toward Earth. The asteroid is comparable in size to several different countries that America has bombed, but it is described as Texan, lest we forget who is most important in this film. Life as we know it will be destroyed if the asteroid is allowed to fulfill its diabolical plan to smack Earth real good.

America must save the day.

The answer, of course, is nuclear. The asteroid threat justifies the existence of the American Military Industrial Complex the way nothing else ever could. “Thank goodness we have nuclear bombs,” shouts Michael Bay over the half-eaten remains of a Thanksgiving dinner you wish you had found an excuse to miss, “because what if there was an asteroid?!”

Because this movie is science fiction, NASA is well-funded enough to save the day. The United States Government is competent and useful, the movie tells us, and so NASA and the military work together seamlessly to train Harry Stamper’s team of oil rig roughnecks. This demonstration of American ingenuity harmonizes with the film’s attempt to convince the viewer that Stamper is smart and useful—that his overt displays of hypermasculine aggression are important facets of his unique leadership style. Just as America needs to maintain a large munitions stockpile in order to free the world from the asteroid menace, Harry Stamper needs to shout a lot in order to push his rag-tag team of ne’er-do-wells to feats of heroism. It’s just necessary.

Midway through the endless training montage that makes up the second act of this film, poor purehearted Steve Buscemi utters the line “in part, we all feel like a bunch of daddies here.” (I am here compelled to note that Buscemi was lured to this film with the false promise that his character, Rockhound, would not be a vaguely pedophilic dirtbag). In these eleven words, Rockhound efficiently summarizes the primary thesis of the film. Most explicitly, he highlights the social isolation to which Grace has been subject throughout her life. She was raised on an oil rig among men who work for her possessive, overbearing father; she lacks a community of peers, because the men who have helped raise her all see themselves as father figures. The sole exception to this rule is, of course, Ben Affleck — the Ferdinand to her Miranda, the only nonpaternal figure in her life, with whom she has fallen in love.

But that’s not all Rockhound is getting at. The phrase “we all feel like a bunch of daddies here” is rich with nuance. Rockhound is, per the film’s insistence, a supergenius; we know this because he solves a Rubik’s cube, like, real fast. Thus, it only makes sense that his words would carry layers of intention that run beyond “please stop trying to lock your adult daughter in an oil-rig tower.” He’s telling Harry Stamper to chill out for God’s sake, yes—but he is also speaking to the deeper importance of the work that the oil-riggers-cum-astronauts are carrying out. They are become daddies to the world, protective fathers who will sacrifice their lives should the need arise. They are protective patriots, serving their country and, by extension, enabling their country to serve the globe. Per that complementarian model of patriarchal duty, all the America they represent asks in return for their sacrifice is the willing submission of the world it’s leading.

(If ever you should doubt my devotion to you, reader, please remember that I have now performed for your enjoyment a deep dive on the phrase “we all feel like a bunch of daddies.” The lord is tallying my sins and the weight of my soul grows with every passing hour, etc.)

As anyone who has studied narrative is aware, the Training Montage portion of the film must give way to the Space Explosions section. This movement could easily have slipped into an accidental indictment of the tightly-controlled Dad’s-in-charge reality of Grace Stamper’s life. As the oil riggers destroy a Russian space station and jump ravines in low-to-moderate gravity, the viewer is treated to several intercut shots of Grace languishing at Mission Control, draped across tables and waiting for her daddies to return from the sea of space. When she’s asked why she hasn’t left Mission Control to go somewhere more comforting, she chokes out the truest line of the film: “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

If not for the expert craftsmanship of the Father Knows Best theme of the film, this scene would read as a condemnation of the abusive isolation of women by dangerously controlling patriarchs. Fear not; the viewer is at no risk of such an apprehension. As often as one sees Liv Tyler gazing woefully into the middle distance, one is also treated to shots of the world watching America’s attempt to save the day. In parallel with an achingly Rockwellian representation of the America We Need To Protect—pickup trucks and barbershops and churches—eyes across the globe are on the Space Dads. In case this montage of global desperation for successful American intervention isn’t convincing enough, the viewer is treated to the following newscaster exposition:

“While the consciousness of the planet is unified, focused on the NASA mission taking place right now in the vast ocean of space, we’re now in the final hours of the mission as the Freedom and Independence prepare to slingshot around the moon.”

The international focus on America’s heroism is reflected in miniature by a small family, composed of a mother and her young son. These two characters are given a subplot that is coherent only if one recognizes the thesis of the film as “Dads! Forgive them!” The boy is the child of one of the hero oil-riggers, Chick (Will Patton). Chick breaks a court order in an attempt to give the boy a space shuttle toy before the big mission. The mother tells her son that the man with the space shuttle toy is just a salesman—but when the boy recognizes that salesman as one of the heroes who has gone to space to save the world, she decides to tell him the truth. “That man’s not a salesman,” she says, in a move that certainly won’t psychologically scar the boy for years to come. “That’s your daddy.”

The boy learns the identity of his father; simultaneously, the President of the United States of America delivers a global address. He tells the world that “all of our combined modern technologies and imaginations—even the wars that we’ve fought—have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle.” Speaking to countries that the United States has bombed, economically disenfranchised, sabotaged, and colonized, the President says: wasn’t it all worth it, since you’re not going to die from the impact of a huge fucking asteroid?

That country’s not an international aggressor, the President explains. That’s your daddy.

At the end of the film, America succeeds. Grace Stamper shares a tearful, oddly high-res farewell with her hero father, telling him that “everything good that I have inside of me, I have from you,” a statement that is backed up by zero evidence presented throughout the film. The asteroid gets blown up. Everyone is saved, except Paris. Sorry, Paris. All the nations of the world rejoice, because America the hero-Dad came through.

It’s all worth it, Armageddon tells us, as the credits roll over sepia-toned photos of Grace and A.J’s wedding-slash-astronaut-memorial. All those times your father shouted at you, manipulated your elections, disobeyed the restraining order, turned away your refugees, tried to shoot your boyfriend, bombed your civilians—it was all worth it, because he saved you. Be thankful for the dad you’ve got, the movie insists. He just might die a hero.

A final point of order: The animal cracker scene. There’s no getting around it. Why? Why does it exist? To convince us that Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck are engaging in heterosexual mating rituals, so we should root for their relationship? As a justification for an Aerosmith song? To make us feel ambivalent about whether we should let an asteroid deliver us into the sweet release of the abyss? Life is a rich tapestry of mysteries and horrors, and some things defy explanation. People wrote, storyboarded, lit, framed, costumed, directed, edited, and approved that scene, and they did it on purpose. All is chaos. No matter how many daddies we send into the void of space, we will never be delivered from this particular vector of suffering.

Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their work has recently appeared in Mashable, the Boston Globe, and Fireside Fiction. They are a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. You can find links to their work here. They tweet @gaileyfrey. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, and its sequel Taste of Marrow, are available from Tor.com.

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