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Just two months after Earth was threatened by giant comet in Deep Impact, it gets threatened again by giant meteoroid. Too near in time; too distant in tone. The total focus of our attention here, to say nothing of our hopes and our prayers and our desire to identify with winners, heroes, and Bruce Willis (or, for the younger set, Ben Affleck), is a blue-collar, free-spirited, rowdy, wisecracking group of deep-core drillers, familiarly called "roughnecks," easily distinguishable from the stiff-necked, by-the-book, puppetlike U.S. astronauts, part-Dirty Dozen, part-MASH unit, part-Animal House fraternity ("Talk about the Wrong Stuff," someone sniffs, though the boys are nonetheless flattered with a slow-motion group portrait lifted straight from The Right Stuff, walking shoulder to shoulder toward the camera in full spaceman regalia); and needless to say, though it is said numerous times anyway, they are the Best in the World at What They Do. If one of them, in the course of planting a bomb in the core of the meteoroid, begins to suffer the symptoms of "space dementia" -- sitting astride the nuke like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, for example -- it will be no cause for real concern, merely an excuse to escalate the comedy material beyond such pedestrian quips as "This place is like Dr. Seuss's worst nightmare." Every now and again the mood will shift to Instant Sentiment or Instant Inspiration, but the effect is rather as if the action were periodically being interrupted by a commercial spot for a long-distance phone service or an athletic shoe. Only a man who feels things shallowly, secondhandedly, or not at all, could change moods so swiftly. And director Michael Bay, an alumnus (no surprise) of television ads and music videos, looks to be just such a man. His hyperkinetic camera -- circling, stalking, charging, buttonholing -- is hopeless in matters of clarity, emphasis, nuance, crescendo. (No mission is more foredoomed than the quest for that oxymoronic pipe dream, the nonstop thrill.) But, like that merry band of oil drillers he is so delighted to lionize, he's the world's best at what he does: the big, empty, loud, blustery, blubbery embarrassment. Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler. (1998) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated PG-13


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