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Terrible movies for troubled times: Celebrating the art of Michael Bay’s Armageddon

First up, the granddaddy of Hell Yeah America disaster flicks, Armageddon.

Steve Buscemi Will Patton Bruce Willis Michael Duncan Ben Affleck And Owen Wilson
Steve Buscemi Will Patton Bruce Willis Michael Duncan Ben Affleck And Owen Wilson
Photo By Getty Images

Let’s jump right into the magic that is Armageddon—NASA actually shows this gem to new managers as a part of their management training program and asks them to spot errors. So far, they’re at 168. But as is so often the case with movies made by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, the ridiculousness isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

Armageddon was released in 1998, back when we were young and innocent and thought the end times were just a fun thought experiment involving a lot of Aerosmith. For a movie that is, in so many ways, so very, very bad, it was also a game changer for several involved.

Michael Clarke Duncan had a large role in the film, but didn’t have his name in the primary titles. After Duncan passed away, Bay penned a eulogy only he could write. “We found him in a gym,” the director wrote, which feels an awful lot like he’s talking about a stray dog. “He cried at the first audition because he was so proud to audition for a ‘Michael and Jerry [Bruckheimer] movie’, he just wanted to make his mom proud. We gave him the role in the room.” Michael Bay, benevolent narcissist.

However, once cameras started rolling, Duncan’s performance suffered from insecurity. Bruce Willis and Michael Bay took him aside and told Duncan he would be replaced if he couldn’t find the ebullient spirit he had shown in the audition. Somehow, this “pep talk” did the trick, and Duncan’s performance improved.

Ben Affleck’s life was also dramatically altered by the movie. Good Will Hunting came out in 1997, Armageddon just one year later. Affleck had been a decent-looking everyman, but Bay insisted on a transformation into a full blown movie star.

First up was $20,000 in dental work. As Bay complains on the commentary track for Armageddon, Affleck had “baby teeth” that didn’t play well with Bay’s preferred camera angles. Affleck spent 8 hours a day for a week in a dentist’s chair before he was ready for Bay’s signature shot—explained beautifully in this piece. (Skip ahead to the 1:15 mark if you just want to see the angle in question.)

Bay also insisted Affleck get into great shape, and made sure to objectify all that hard work. In 2002, Liv Tyler told People magazine, “I remember Ben coming to me one day and saying ‘You’re not going to believe what happened to me.’ Basically Michael Bay had just made him stand there and have running water poured over his bare torso. He didn’t even know what scene it was for.” But it worked—Affleck had been made into a bankable leading man.

Famously, Ben Affleck’s commentary track resurfaced into the zeitgeist in 2017. It can be found on the Criterion Collection version of the film, and can definitely enhance viewing, as this clip shows:

Steve Buscemi’s life wasn’t changed all that much by being in the movie. He has said he was in Armageddon because “he wanted a bigger house.” He has also said he signed up for it because his character was depicted heroically, and he wanted a break from the lowlifes he had been playing. Once he was cast, the character was rewritten.

Perhaps the biggest thing Bruce Willis got out of the movie, besides his paycheck, was a lesson learned—don’t work with Michael Bay.

“Few people will work with him now, and I know I will never work with him again,” Willis said. “A screaming director does not make for a pleasant set experience.”

In the end, this story of American sacrifice to save the world may be a terrible movie in a lot of ways, but sometimes that is exactly what you need to take your mind off troubled times.