In the beginning of 1998’s Armageddon, New York City is under attack. Grand Central Station is blown to bits. People are wiped out in enormous explosions and flying debris. It’s about as Michael Bay and/or Al-Qaeda as it gets. But in this case, Our Nation Under God isn’t under attack by a global terror, it’s under attack by an unfeeling, seemingly unstoppable alien terror—“a global killer, the end of mankind.” Everything we hold dear is being threatened. The American way of life is at stake.
Then, Bruce Willis slowly solidifies as the ultimate example of a productive Trump supporter, a man’s man who shoots golf balls at tree-huggers, who chases around the man his daughter is consensually sleeping with with a shotgun, who knows nothin’ but oil drillin’, and that’s that. As the Head of NASA tells a military general: “We did some research calls and every time, the same guy is recommended. [Bruce Willis’s character] worked on every terrain this planet can offer. Whenever they said it couldn’t be drilled, this guy drilled it.” Whether that meant he ignored treaties, environmental protection agencies, global agreements, or the terrain was simply assumed to be impenetrable, he brought those gas prices down a few cents goddammit, even when they said it was impossible. Who’s they? Probably ignorant scientists.
So, they take Bruce Willis to NASA. When they present to him the team of trained astronauts who have spent the last eight months designing a drill, he scoffs at their efforts before this pure gold of a Bruce Willis monologue nails the plot of the movie into place: “Drilling isn’t a science, it’s an art. Third generation driller. Doing it all my life, and I still haven’t gotten it all figured out. … If you want to send these boys into space, fine. I’m sure they’ll make good astronauts. But they don’t know jack about drilling.”
Don’t. Know. Jack. About. Drilling. Jesus Christ. Forget the idiom: “It’s not exactly rocket science.” We apparently need to revise it to: “It’s not exactly oil drilling.”
Based on Armageddon, not even NASA could figure out how to build a solid drill and operate it efficiently, even after eight months of effort. It’s one thing to build spaceships that can go to the moon and back, it’s another to, as Ben Affleck put it in the DVD commentary of the film, “Aim the drill at the ground and turn it on.”
Armageddon would have been such a timely film if it came out today, when the Trump administration claims Global Warming is a hoax. It so successfully and patriotically glorifies not only blue collar workers and the oil industry, but also elevates the idea of resting the fate of the planet solely on the shoulders of the United States. In fact, China helps out at one point, but they too trust these American oil drillers to save the planet. The hell? Armageddon is so unintentionally timely, and I mean that in a bad way. American voters have a reputation of voting for the man (yes, man) they feel is the most relatable, the most “tell it like it is,” the one they want to have a beer with. We apparently want a man who’s the least qualified, because they’re not bogged down by all the experience that makes them hesitate and think before they react.
We want someone we can root for. I mean, the fate of the world is at stake! Let’s give the underdog a chance, right? What’s the worst that could happen? The movie has a sad ending? We all die in a horrible hellfire the likes of which only the last of the dinosaurs could describe? Where’s the conflict? Where’s the excitement? How are we supposed to separate fact from fiction when they blend together and split apart like the which-cup-is-the-ball-under scam people fall for on Chicago public transit?
And to a generation who grew up on movies and TV and Internet, how are we supposed to genuinely separate real-world expectations from cinematic, manufactured expectations? How are we meant to tolerate boredom when entertainment sits at the ready in our pockets? Is it really possible to comprehend the gravity of a decision like who to vote for when everything is supposed to work out in the end?
It’s not Armageddon’s fault for Bush being elected, and it’s not movies like Armageddon’s fault for getting Trump elected, because the glorification of manual labor over cerebral pursuits has been pushed into the American psyche long before Michael Bay and Bruce Willis teamed up. Societal change based on intellectual logic, scientific findings, or the willpower of activism have always received tremendous pushback. It’s safer to our way of life to go with the person we understand than it is to go with the person that’s better than we are in almost every conceivable way. We instinctively want to root for the one who reminds of us of ourselves, not the ones who remind us of what we can never be.
Clearly, NASA could not save the planet without the help of Bruce Willis and his men. But I don’t think the message is supposed to be that nothing can get done without the elbow grease of the average citizen. Instead, I think the message is that pride can only be found in hard work, and no amount of intellectual prowess can change that American tradition.
Even as our industries shift to automation, and new machinery is regularly developed to make more laborers redundant, even as the scientific community rallies across the board against the oil industry and other environmentally harmful practices, concepts like universal healthcare, quality equal education, welfare, and guaranteed basic income—concepts shown and/or proven to stimulate economic growth—are considered reserved for the laziest.
So, here’s a thought. Forget glorifying STEM industries, just stop glorifying the everyday manual laborer. Someday in the not so distant future, those jobs will become niche, quaint markets reserved for the principled wealthy who enjoy the idea that their house was built by human hands or their house was cleaned with a personal touch. The majority of those laborers will be out of work because, outside of those affluent areas, robots are doing the job more efficiently at a cost of light maintenance. Once automation takes over, the sea of newly out-of-work people will assuredly feel guilty about their newfound relaxation given our culture’s insistence that there’s nothing more amicable than a hard day’s work, even though we only have one very short life to live. Or, if automation creates a bunch of new jobs, those new jobs will definitely be easier and more enjoyable—which, to many, is tantamount to communism.
And if your quality of life really is improved by a sweaty brow and an aching back, consider not having to worry about money anymore. You could pick and choose your projects, help those in your community and around the world, all while robots do the corporate bidding. Instead of drilling into the ocean floor, you could drill a hole into the ground and erect the broad side of a barn like they do in every single movie featuring an Amish community. The hero being the laborer and God being the corporation providing the job are ideas consistently perpetuated by those who benefit the most from that power structure, and that’s a bipartisan perpetuation. Obviously, the plot of Armageddon is ridiculous—if our society was completely logical. But frightfully, as logic is devalued and the once-outrageous seems completely feasible, the “Armageddon question” looms large. What would happen in 2017 if scientists said a meteor was headed our way? Fake news! And that would be the end of the conversation before the end of us all, because the opinion of the scientific community has been deemed invalid. How’s that for principles?