Guest Post: Melancholia vs. Armageddon

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Guest Post by Dana Gustafson

So, I finally got around to watching Melancholia, Lars Von Trier’s disaster movie.  It only took me three days of fever-induced nausea to find the time to do so.  Fair warning, I am sick as a dog, so not all of this might make much sense.   I thought I’d take a different route here and compare Melancholia to the absolute best disaster movie of all time, Armageddon, which, when you boil it down, is the same exact movie.  Sort of.  I’ll break it down in ten categories for you.

1. Plot: Armageddon came out in 1998 (so you’ve had 15 years to see it, don’t complain about the plot being spoiled) and is a Michael Bay movie starring Bruce Willis (If you possibly think that a movie with Bruce Willis made by Michael Bay is going to have a plot, you probably thought the Passion of the Christ had a surprise ending).  Anyway, a giant meteor is going to hit Earth.  Bruce Willis says “oh hell no” and goes to blow it up.  Melancholia has a similar plot, a giant hidden planet is going to hit Earth, and it does.  Before you cry spoiler, we are shown the collision in the opening scene.  Oops, there goes the suspense.  Also, while the planet is heading our way, two sisters have a mental breakdown, with enough talking and emoting to make the French New Wave catalog look like a list of 1980’s action films. Winner: Armageddon.

2. Camera work:  Michael Bay averages 1.5 seconds between cuts.  Von Trier averages 3.7 hours between cuts, and insists on mostly handheld camera work, zooming in and out, because it’s more authentic or artsy or something to make us feel like we’re there with the actors instead of some artifical omniscent observer.  Michael Bay will give you ADD.  Von Trier will give you narcolepsy.  Winner: Melancholia, because at least Von Trier doesn’t rely on post and editing to put together a film.

3. Director:  Lars Von Trier is probably our generation’s Ingmar Bergman, except that his films are so gloomy they would make Bergman run out of the theater and shoot himself in the face.  Europa is my favorite film of his, and he did give us the brilliantly disturbing yet incomprehensible Antichrist.  He is one of the most unique directors working today, giving Paul Thomas Anderson a run for his money.  Michael Bay is probably our generation’s most profitable director, despite possibly actually being the Antichrist.  His craftmanship puts him in the running with Paul W S Anderson in terms of working directors. Winner: Melancholia.

4. Running Time and pacing:  Armageddon, 2 hours 33 minutes, feels like 90 minutes.  Melancholia, 2 hours 15 minutes, feels like roughly two weeks.  Winner: Armageddon.

5. Paternal Suicide:  Bruce Willis kills himself with a nuclear bomb to save humanity.  Like a boss.  Kiefer Sutherland kills himself with sleeping pills in a horse stable.  Most un-boss-like. Really?  Kiefer’s Jack Bauer would have built a space rocket out of golf clubs, duct tape, and propane tanks, flown to the alien planet, and yelled “Dammit” at it 437 times, which would have caused it to melt into Kool Whip, that delightful, low-calorie, and most importantly, non-world threatening topping treat.  Winner: Armageddon.

6. Images of destruction: Armageddon’s NYC impact imagery is a little too close to reality.  On the plus side, the Eiffel Tower is destroyed, leaving the French no place to fly the asteroid’s flag after they surrender to it without a fight.  The asteroid looks like Satan’s Kidney Stone.  Melancholia gives us a space-eye view and a ground-eye view of the impact, bookends at the beginning and end of the film.  Animals just keel over or burst into flames, and weird magnetic lightening pops up from hair and fingers.  The menacing planet looks like a shiny pretty marble.  Winner: Tie.

7. Orchestral Score:  Armageddon has Trevor Rabin, formerly of the band “Yes.”  Melancholia has Wagner, of the band “Richard Wagner is Better Than A Guy Who Quit The Band Yes.”  Winner: Melancholia.

8. Female Lead: Liv Tyler can act, you learn Elvish and see how well you do with it.  But here, she’s just around for Ben Affleck to play with his animal crackers on her stomach.  Kirsten Dunst puts in her best work ever, but, that only really means she acts better than she did in Interview with a Vampire or the Spider-Man trilogy.  Congratulations? Winner: Melancholia.

9. Golf in Film:  Bruce Willis fires off golf balls at hippie oil protesters from his drilling rig.  Kiefer Sutherland owns a golf course, and tells us and the other characters this fact about 76 times through the course of the movie.  Most of the film takes place at this golf course, which should be an obvious clue when figuring out how exciting this whole adventure is going to be.  Also, apparently, the “19th hole” has some kind of “ooh I’m smart and noticed that there are is a 19th hole but there shouldn’t be because golf courses only have 18 holes, where’s my film snob prize” meaning. Winner: Armageddon.

10. Viewer abuse:  Armageddon has more astrophysics flaws than Star Wars.  Sure, NASA let Bay film a bunch of shuttle footage and let the actors wear real spacesuits, but in terms of insulting the viewer’s intelligence, man, this basically puts diapers on the viewer and lets us chew on the banisters.  Armageddon is to scientific theory as what Gladiator is to historical accuracy.  It’s that bad.  Melancholia goes the opposite route, you either have to have a friend with a doctorate in religious theory to explain the movie to you or you need to watch the movie 794 times to “get it.” Winner: Tie.

So there you have it, my friends, I had to let the ramble out.  It’s a tie, they’re the same movie.  Out of 10 categories, it’s 4-4, with 2 categories a tie and therefore discarded.  My main point is this:  Between these two films, here’s the problem with movies today:  we either get something studio-driven and dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, but is a fun movie, or we get something truly different and artistic, but we don’t know what the hell to do with it once we see it.  And we throw our money towards the stupidity.  Every time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Armageddon, but really it’s a very shiny pile of crap once you break it down.  I didn’t enjoy watching Melancholia all that much, but it stuck with me and forced me to think about it.  I’m not saying go watch every independent art movie and turn into a snobbish hipster about it, but I am saying that we need to be careful about throwing our money at every summer blockbuster just because the previews show a bunch of stuff exploding.  Thanks for reading.  Go watch a movie that no one you know has seen yet.  End of rant.

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