“Armageddon” director Michael Bay may just be the future of movies. Will the world survive?

By David Ansen and Corie Brown

It’s two weeks until “Armageddon.” Two teams are working round the clock to get the movie finished, and director Michael Bay is sitting at a console in a sound-mixing stage in Culver City, Calif. On screen, a terrified Ben Affleck is screaming for his life in an action sequence aboard the Mir. Before long half of Affleck’s lines have evaporated. “It’s bulls–t,” Bay mutters loudly to himself. “No one would say that.” The spoken word does not get top priority in a Michael Bay movie. Indeed, you’re lucky if you can hear anybody above the explosions.

James Cameron may be King of the World today, but in the world of blockbuster movie- making, the 34-year-old Bay is the new crown prince. In Hollywood, where getting in touch with your inner child is an economic necessity, Bay’s boyish obsession with speed, energy, and excitement has made him a whopping success. In fact, he has yet to taste failure. “Bad Boys,” his 1995 action-comedy debut with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, was a surprise hit. His follow-up, “The Rock,” grossed $332 million worldwide. And now, with “Armageddon,” he has been entrusted with the largest budget (some $150 million) in Disney Studio history. That’s a lot of money to spend on the second asteroid-hurling-toward-Earth movie of the summer. But if the seers are correct, it’s going to leave its summer rivals biting meteor dust.

Joe Roth, Disney’s Studio’s chairman, believes Bay is the action-movie heir apparent to Steven Spielberg and Cameron. “He’s the only one in the field right now positioned to be the leading director in his class,” says Roth, who’s signed the director to an exclusive deal for his next two pictures. Bay’s ear-splitting, frenetic MTV style does not resemble the aforementioned giants. What the director does share with them is a gift for tapping into the gut, and the pocketbook, of the mass market.

There are critics who see Bay as the Great Satan. For them, he’s a symbol of Hollywood’s capitulation to mindless, meaningless razzle-dazzle–a poster boy for the death of cinema. Bay in unapologetic. “Isn’t the whole idea to fill the theaters? I’m the first to admit it isn’t f-cking brain surgery. You do it because you want approval from the audience. Failure is when no one shows up. When people–not the critics–absolutely hate your movie.”

Judging from the roar of approval at an advanced screening, people are going to like “Armageddon” a lot. Unlike the touchy-feel “Deep Impact,” which actually takes the possibility of the planet’s demise seriously, “Armageddon” is a slap-happy adventurism. It’s “The Dirty Dozen” save the world, in which a disreputable band of roughneck oil-riggers, led by Bruce Willis, are recruited by NASA and trained in a week to fly into outer space, land on the Texas-size asteroid and drill a hole for a nuclear bomb.

The movie’s a 2 1/2-hour roller coaster that shamelessly leaps from one ticking-bomb cliffhanger tot he next, from rowdy jokiness to unabashed sentimentality, from chest-beating patriotism to flaming special effects. “Armageddon” moves with such speed the audience doesn’t have time to wonder if any of it makes sense. The movies true subject is its own momentum. Bay’s camera is always on the move– for no particular reason except the rush it supplies. Every scene is diced and spliced into tiny pieces: not since “Beyond the Valley of Dolls” has there been such hyperediting.

Yet the damn thing works. “Armageddon” is as irresistible as it’s indefensible. Its excessiveness, it’s arbitrary mood swings and ersatz passions all seem part of its nutty, gungho charm. Bruce Willis has rarely been so appealing heroic; Steve Buscemi,as a horny genius, and Owen Wilson, as a cockeyed optimist, supply lovely quirks tot he motley crew; Billy Bob Thornton as a big man at NASA gives a familiar role an unfamiliar flavor, and the coltish Liv Tyler is sexy without seeming to try. Bay borrows from everywhere, and recognizing the eclectic sources can be part of the fun: “The Right Stuff,” “The Terminator,” “The A-Team,” American Express and IBM ads and even a startling Robert Frank photograph. Bay is a pop magpie, but he recycles Hollywood cliches with such velocity and slickness they almost seem newly minted.

Growing up in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, Bay loved to play with trains, build miniature volcanoes and blow things up. He never lacked confidence. As a childhood friend puts it, “Michael doesn’t suffer from self-doubt.” Michael attended Wesleyan College in Connecticut, he stood out from his fellow Film Studies majors. He didn’t wear black or strike suffering poses, says Jeanine Basinger, his teacher and mentor. “his senior film was about a fraternity boy who was driving his yellow Porsche around town very fast.”

Bay began his career as a music director of music videos and commercials (the Got Milk? campaign). His award-winning work led producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to hire him for “Bad Boys.” “This was my one shot,” Bay remembers. “My career could go down the toilet on this.” After an uneven test screening, he fought hard to shoot a new scene. “But the line producer said, ‘We’re not going to shoot it. We’re done.’ I asked how much was it going to cost, and he said $25,000. And I wrote him a check right there. He wouldn’t even take my check. I was this close to quitting the movie business. F-ck this. I’m treated better on commercials. I’m out here busting my ass every day and you won’t take my f-cking money to get the f-cking audience to clap.”

Bay knew he had an eye, but it took him a while to get the hang of working with actors. Affleck, for one, liked the room he was given to improvise. “For him, acting isn’t so precious. It goes on in such chaos that it’s baptism by fire for the actors. If you thrive in it, nothing will ever distract you again.” Will Smith is another fan: “He wants to have a good time and wants everybody there to have a good time. How does he do it? I don’t know if these are things I can share with NEWSWEEK.” Smith will say, “Michael Bay has a very serious appreciation for the fairer sex. He loves women. Martin [Lawrence] and I would have our shots–he’d spend an hour on us and then four hours to get the shot of a girl walking by.”

Some critics are already blasting away at Bay’s latest movie–Variety had nothing but contempt for “Armageddon.” To Bay’s former teacher, Basinger, it’s an old story. “It’s an American tradition when a filmmaker is hugely successful to kill him critically. Michael really is the 21st century. It’s the kind of filmmaking we like to say is the end of civilization. Michael isn’t doing what the intellectuals would like him to do and he never will. If he did Jane Austen, those people would be walking pretty goddam fast across the English countryside.”