Armageddon: The Final Challenge

Movies try to evoke a wide range of emotions and reactions from their viewers. Shock, delight, sadness, joy, despair — in the century or so that humans have been making movies, the bag of tricks film makers use to manipulate our emotions has become large indeed, and the range of emotions and experiences movies seek to simulate has grown to encompass pretty much everything we’re likely or unlikely to ever encounter in real life. There are, however, a few mental states and experiences that, while a movie could potentially ask us to invest ourselves in, it probably shouldn’t. At the top of my list of experiences I don’t need recreated for me by a movie would be the frustrating tedium of phone-based customer support.

Sure, a clever screenwriter, director, and actor could take this all-too-often lampooned maze of hopelessness and turn it into something funny, something that causes us to sympathize with the beleaguered protagonist pressing one for more options until he ends up back where he started, but more than likely, rather than being amused by the situation, all it will do is remind us of the impotent rage we feel when faced with an automated phone tree and disinterested, unhelpful customer service reps reading from a script.

Armageddon: The Final Challenge asks us to relive that experience in excruciating detail, as a full fifteen minutes at the beginning of the movie is reserved solely for watching a man wander aimlessly through a series of call reps and assistant managers who can’t help him with his problem. At no point is the situation played for laughs, or even for sympathy. Instead, the entire laborious sequence seems scripted to take full advantage of the directionless boredom inherent in being put on hold and transferred around from one person who can’t help you to the next. And just when you think the movie can’t spend any more time watching its bland hero ask to speak to someone’s supervisor, it will serve up a line of dialogue like, “You need to speak to the people in the other bank,” which then allows it to start the whole process from the beginning.

Is it an accurate recreation of the experience of going through this yourself? Yeah, probably. But sometimes, I don’t need accurate recreations. No one needs to create an artificial environment in which I can relive the mind-numbing slog of calling customer support and trying to get a banking error resolved, just like I don’t need anyone to accurately recreate the physical sensation of getting stabbed in the face. Armageddon: The Final Challenge, however, not only feels I need to experience this; it leads with it. This is the first scene, the mood setter, the example of what’s to come. And just as it conjures up the boredom of customer service calls with frighteningly dull precision, so too does it accurately set the mood for the entirety of what’s to come.

Todd Jensen stars as a guy named either Michael Edelander or Michael Throne, a courier of some sort in a post-apocalyptic future that is realized by recreating Blade Runner‘s famous cityscapes using nothing but paper towel tubes, cardboard boxes, and novelty light bulbs and fog machines purchased no doubt from Spencer’s Gifts. In an opening text crawl set against a backdrop of spaceships realized by dangling flashlights and more cardboard boxes from twine, the nature of this particular future is explained to us and will have almost nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie. War, biological disaster, so on and so forth, has caused many people to leave Earth. Those who remain live in what we’re told is a nightmarish future lorded over by the New World Order Bank and patrolled by Fear-Permutators, who apparently keep people in line by playing a game called “Multiple Murdering.” None of this takes place in the actual movie, mind you, where the future seems to suffer from an over abundance of blue strobe lights and fog but otherwise seems fairly mundane. Hell, this guy has his own private movie theater and an awesome flying car and a room full of sex robots — how shitty can this future really be?

Michael enters the scene courtesy of said flying car, or a model of a flying car on a stick being dangled around the stacked boxes that create the city of the future. In case the opening text crawl didn’t provide us with enough exposition that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’re watching, Michael delivers additional expository dialogue via bored, film noir style narration which, once again, doesn’t really have much to do with anything. We then get to watch Michael spend fifteen minutes morosely pleading with bank managers and sales reps as he tries to straighten out the aforementioned accounting error. Then some General Zod looking bank manager appears out of nowhere to taunt him and attack him with a sword.

So at that point, I was thinking, “well, that was a godawful first fifteen minutes, but at least that fey guy appeared out of nowhere and killed Michael.” But then Michael wakes up, and it was all a dream. Really? That whole irritating bunch of nonsense was just a dream? There really wasn’t an accounting error? He didn’t really get stuck in call center hell? Or was that part real, and just the sword fight part was a dream? Or was it a dream at all, because when Michael wakes up, he sees leaning against the wall…THE VERY SWORD USED TO KILL HIM IN THE DREAM! The “something from my dream appears in real life” motif will appear a few times in this movie, and at no point is it explained, nor does it ever affect the plot in any way. Well, any sense of hope I may have gotten from mincing bearded guys leaping out of nowhere to kill people with swords is quickly dashed against the rocks of boredom as the movie quickly recovers from that ill-advised burst of non sequitur energy and settles into a steady rhythm of being the most amazingly dull non-movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.

When he’s not being harassed by sword-wielding branch managers in black leather, Michael finds time to discover a mysterious, vacant-eyed, sort of Suzanne Vega meets Siouxsie Sioux looking girl (Joanna Rowlands) lying in his front yard. Incidentally, his yard and house, despite the attempts at creating a dystopic future landscape elsewhere in the movie, appear to be a very normal looking white duplex and lawn. The introduction of this girl, named Voyou, allows the film to indulge in a staggering number of minutes watching her stare at walls, out windows, at herself in the mirror, and at the racks and racks of theater costumes and clothing that Michael has in his place for no reason we can deduce — though his fascination with human-looking androids might intimate that he regularly indulges in some freakish sort of dress-up games with his sexbots (of which he seems to own both male and female varieties, because the future is swingin’, baby). It could also be that this entire movie was shot on location in the back stage area of a local community theater playhouse.

Voyou also has dreams about that bearded guy killing Michael. I guess we all have dreams about someone killing Michael. This bearded guy is named Geiring (Tony Caprari), and he’s the bad guy, maybe? But he’s also the only one putting any effort at all into his role, even if that effort is channeled entirely toward “dandy ham,” so really, it’s hard to root against him. Actually, no, I think Todd Jensen is putting effort into his role, too; he’s just too bad an actor to make it matter. Anyway, the movie must have felt that it didn’t have enough bearded guys in it, so another dude shows up out of nowhere (Michael should seriously consider buying a lock for his front door), this one named Plato (Graham Clarke). He’s Voyou’s father and one of the leaders of the rebellion. Oh, did we not mention there’s a rebellion? Oh well, yeah, it turns out I guess there’s some sort of rebellion or something, being waged it seems solely by Plato and his daughter.

Incidentally, I said when I reviewed Circadian Rhythm — a movie that, incidentally, was nearly as boring and pretentious as this one — that any movie that has a character named Prometheus that isn’t a fantasy film about the mythological character of Prometheus, is probably going to suck. Well, that also applies to any character named after a famous Greek philosopher. Seriously, how lazily can you go about trying to make a character seem deep? When’s the last time you met someone named Plato? It was Dana Plato, wasn’t it, and look how that turned out.

Plato happens to also be a psychic painter, in that he foretells coming disasters and renders them in a “space art” style worthy of the side of any custom van. His latest vision has something to do with a big spaceship, but whatever he’s saying to Michael about it is rendered incomprehensible by the writing, the bad audio recording, and the fact that there’s a badly composited video loop of…I don’t know what, playing endlessly outside his window. Is that a spaceship? Or like…maybe a giant fluke or something? Hard to say. It’s very distracting, though. Plato wants Michael to help him spread the truth of the revolution because Michael was apparently a DJ on the day the world ended, and his heartfelt final message to his wife and child was heard by the whole world, and so moved were they by his earnestness that…well, nothing at all happened.

Michael decides that the best way to digest all this information is to go sit in a cardboard box with a strobe light (or, in the parlance of this film, “hop in the Dream Pod in search of the universal mind”), which makes him see a vision of himself badly superimposed against a glittery star field, playing chess with Geiring, who I guess is…I don’t know? Death? The Devil? Aren’t those the only two people you’re allowed to play against in a game of cosmic chess while spouting inane fake philosophy? At least Geiring has the good sense to end the game by shooting Michael’s apparition with a sparkly ray gun. I’m not sure what lesson Michael was meant to take away from his moment of expanded consciousness.

Geiring and Michael have another fight, this time on a series of theater catwalks with Geiring doing his best imitation of Roy Batty from the end of Blade Runner. I think this turns out not to be a dream, and Geiring beats the unholy hell out of Michael, then leaves him unconscious. Maybe Geiring is one of these Fear Permutators or something? This is actually the first time the overly aggressive bank manager has appeared in real life instead of inside someone’s dream, but it turns out he’s even more wacky in the flesh, going so far as to kit himself out with some wicked death metal fan face paint.

When Michael wakes up and saunters downstairs, Voyou has been murdered. Except, Plato explains, she hasn’t, because that wasn’t Voyou. It was just an android copy of her. The real Voyou is on Venus, waiting for the opportunity to hijack a broadcast signal so Michael and Plato can deliver their call to arms. So the big moment comes, and our two revolutionary heroes pirate the broadcast signal, announce that they are making an illegal broadcast, then proceed to lay the truth onto the masses: The Lord Jesus Christ Our Savior is coming back to Earth in his big gold spaceship to, you know, kick some ass and do some Jesusy stuff.

Yeah, pretty much.

So you’d think that suddenly hitting us with some bizarre religious awakening about Jesus flying around in a Yes album cover, and expecting us to believe that the entire world would hear two nutcases on the radio spouting this and believe every word of it (perhaps this movie is prescient in its prediction of the existence of Glenn Beck, or they listen to a lot of late night HAM radio operators), would be the final straw this atrocious little movie would have to offer. Ha! These are the End Times we’re talking about, The Rapture, the Second Coming! You think God is going to let you off that easily? No, no, no. Having told the solar system about Space Jesus, Michael dons his film noir costume (sometimes it pays to live in a community theater) and heads out to meet the real Voyou, presuming to pick up the romance where it left off with her robotic automaton, although I’m not sure why the real version, who has never met and been bored by Michael, would agree to this. But who should be waiting for him instead but the dastardly Geiring! I guess this is the final challenge of which the film’s title speaks.

Well, this final challenge proves about as exciting as the rest of the film. Michael and Geiring walk slowly down a street, with Michael picking his feet up high in what I guess is meant to simulate running. Because having the actor actually run would have been to agitating. Geiring blasts Michael a couple times with a gun, because who wouldn’t, then moves in for the kill. But Michael blasts Geiring right back, get the upper hand, and then refuses to kill the persistent pest because Michael thinks this insanity of man killing man must stop, or something to that effect. So Geiring gets the upper hand back, sticks his gun in Michael’s face, and — giggling manically, mind you — agrees with Michael, then proceeds to caper down the street, singing “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring.”

THEN Jesus comes back, lights some cardboard boxes on fire, and the movie ends.

There is a point at which a movie fails so utterly on every imaginable level that it can longer legitimately claim to be a movie. Armageddon: The Final Challenge certainly approaches that point, mercilessly assaulting the viewer with a plodding tedium so profound that even a seasoned veteran of such movies is in danger of being crushed beneath the weight of the boredom. This isn’t one of those “nothing makes sense, and it’s all hilarious!” movies. No, no, good sir or madam. This is a “nothing makes sense even though almost the entire movie is people talking to each other.” It’s like being stuck in a room with a stoner explaining in minute detail a dream he once had. There are stabs and profundity that don’t mean anything at all, because whoever is saying these things gets confused and loses their train of thought halfway through. And, like hearing a dream explained by a stoned guy, most of this movie is comprised of people just staring off into space for minutes on end.

When they aren’t staring, they’re talking, but they aren’t actually saying anything. How can a film have this much exposition but not say anything? What makes it worse is that the film thinks it has something to say, and thinks it is saying it, but what we get are a jumbled assemblage of words that, while technically forming sentences in the English language, seem like something coughed out by Google Translator. Was this movie trying to make a statement about the evils of globalization? Was this a religious movie trying to wake me up by putting me to sleep? Is the very fabric of reality melting, which is why Michael can be mortally wounded in his dreams, then wake up with those same wounds, except somehow he’s otherwise healthy and recovers from them immediately? Is he John the Baptist, announcing the return of Christ? If so, was John the Baptist fond of picking up brain damaged women and sleeping with them? And did he have a collection of sexbots? I know there was a lot of freaky stuff in The Bible, but I missed the sexbot book.

I was raised in a predominantly areligious home, and atheism has been with me since I was a child. So while I’m interested in religion in terms of the role it plays in culture, sociology, and history, I’m no authority on The Message. I know a fish swallowed a guy, then John Huston got drunk, and then I think Charlton Heston punched Yul Brynner in the face. Then Jesus came down from space and used his birthday gold to help Elliot’s bike fly, and there was something about a colorful jacket, then Sam Neill is elected President. And I’m pretty sure that’s a generally accurate summary of the Testaments both Old and New.

So I can’t say whether or not someone more in tune with feelings of a religious nature would find something more of value in what Armageddon: The Final Challenge is babbling about — though I suspect anyone who takes their faith seriously would somehow be even more irritated and confused than I am. There are certainly plenty of “Jesus was a super space alien guy” theorists out there, but even their somewhat non-mainstream beliefs are poorly communicated by Armageddon: The Final Challenge, if in fact that’s what it was trying to communicate. Sun Ra’s apocalyptic religious science fiction movie made more sense than this, and it had better music to boot. It’s likely that Jesus himself, upon viewing this movie, would hurl his mighty lightning bolts with great anger to strike down writer-director Michael Garcia (pretty sure that’s what Jesus does, right?).

But I’m not convinced that Garcia had some religiously motivated ulterior motive to his story. I think stuffing quasi-religious claptrap into the movie is another shortcut to fooling yourself into thinking your film is somehow more artistic than it is, like how pretty much every horror movie ever with a religious angle has a character who says, “Jesus wept” at some point, or how everyone likes to have people quote Shakespeare. Because I like to accentuate the positive, both in film reviews and how clothing compliments my body type, let me say that I actually do admire this film’s completely out of left field delivery of the Second Coming. For a while, I was worried that we’d hit the ninety minute mark, and Michael would again sit up in his bed, and the whole thing would have been another dream. So Jesus showing up out of nowhere in his spaceship to set some stuff on fire was a welcome twist.

It’s easy to attack the movie’s lack of production values, but that’s not much fun. I mean, this thing is operating on basically the same budget as you’d find in a horror movie made by a few high schoolers. But while the toilet paper tube towers and needless abuse of blinking lights (seriously, why do so many movies assume the future will be illuminated entirely by swinging, blinking lights?) might get a chuckle, they’re hardly a reason to hate the movie — not when the movie gives you so many other, far more odious reasons to hate it. Hell, I admire the bravado behind the out of focus cardboard box city and spaceship models. Someone put more work into this stuff than the rest of the movie, so hooray for little models. When a movie can’t do justice to the level of its special effects, and those special effects are flashlights hanging from visible wires, then you’ve entered a whole new level of hell.

I wish I knew more about writer-director Michael Garcia. I bet he’d make a good interview subject, and maybe peering into his mind would give us some glimpse into just what the hell he thought he was doing when he wrote this movie. I think he was shooting for something strange and arty and possibly even “deep,” but if this movie is deep, it’s deep in manure only. I’ve seen student films that were better than this. On the other, hand, I’ve seen (and been involved with) ones that were worse, too. It’s completely batty in the most uninteresting way imaginable. Scenes have very little to do with each other, and the whole thing is assembled as if by space aliens who had only ever heard of the concept of a “movie” but had never actually seen one.

There is some attempt at a freaky avant garde look and feel, but it comes across less like something meaningful and more like someone trying to mimic Blade Runner without any of the talent or money that went into that film. Michael has a bunch of oddly posed automatons in his industrial flat because a guy in Blade Runner had them. Voyou is an android because some of the chicks in Blade Runner were androids. The weird cuts to robotic reactions from the androids, not to mention Voyou’s weird pseudo-lesbian yet strangely chaste dance with an android recall nothing so much as they do the weird stylization and staging of Cafe Flesh (but without the obvious payoffs that movie delivers), or maybe Flash Future Kungfu — both movies I wished I’d rewatched instead of watching this one.

Dialogue often seems to be coming from an entirely different movie, though I have to admit that even though much of it is as nonsensical as a riddle contest with Gollum, some of it achieves a certain poetic grace to it. “Gujiana City: Deformed offspring of quasi-religious quibblings, thermonuclear fireball design, achieved at ruinous cost.” That could be a description of a nuked city into which Michael is flying, or it could be a description of Armageddon: The Final Challenge itself. Whatever the case, it would sound great in a Front Line Assembly song.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this movie is that the only person who didn’t go on to have an actual film career is waifish weird girl Joanna Rowlands. Everyone else got to work regularly in Sci-Fi Channel movies where sharks and snakes get into arguments, and things of that nature, but Joanna seems to have come and gone with this. She’s not exactly an engaging performer, but then, neither was anyone else in this movie, except maybe Tony Caprari with his weird General Zod meets Roy Batty meets The Master from Doctor Who performance. And for a man whose voice was supposed to have enraptured the entire planet, Todd Jensen sure does give a bland performance. Graham Clarke delivers Plato’s lines with all the verve of a guy who doesn’t care at all about what he’s doing — which I think has less to do with any lack of effort on his part and more to do with the fact that, just like in old movies about Jesus, people sometimes mistake being “grave and important” with “being dull and monotonous.” You really think Jesus was as boring as he was in King of Kings? Hell, Michael and Plato yammer on so much that I became increasingly appreciative of the fact that Joanna Rowlands does almost nothing but stare blankly and take naps while fully clothed in theater costumes. Also, I liked her hair.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. There is not an ounce of entertainment to be wrung from this soul-searing wasteland of a movie, not a single instance in which you can take refuge from the relentless onslaught of boredom. As science fiction, it fails. As some weird quasi-religious tract, it fails. As a showcase for actors, directors, or the plucky can-do spirit of micro-budget film makers, it fails. I was desperately hoping my viewing of the movie would be interrupted by a bearded guy strolling out of my kitchen and swinging a sword at me, but alas, I was granted no such reprieve. I suppose the film taught me the folly of hubris.

I suppose Armageddon: The Final Challenge is aptly named – it was a challenge, and for most of the running time, I was praying for the world to end. This was my trial, my End Times test, the litmus paper by which the ancient space gods would judge me come Rapture. I truly thought, after all these years, that I could take pretty much anything, that any movie no matter how terrible could no longer phase me.

But this one? This one showed me the error of my ways.

Release Year: 1994 | Country: United States | Starring: Todd Jensen, Tony Caprari, Graham Clarke, Joanna Rowlands | Screenplay: George Garcia, Michael Garcia | Director: Michael Garcia | Cinematography: Buster Reynolds | Music: Johan Laas | Producer: Mark Bruno | Alternate Titles: Armageddon Force, Armageddon Throne