A salute to that moment at the end of a big blockbuster movie when a character has to say goodbye – via video message.
Spoilers lie ahead for Armageddon, Deep Impact and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The video call has, in better or worse circumstances, become one of the most emblematic touches spat forth from 2020. Usually reserved for polite FaceTime to far-flung relatives in enviable climes, or ditched in favour of the perfunctory phone call, we have collectively stared with starry, cybered eyes into the faces of colleagues, grandparents, teachers and more over the assorted lockdowns to date.
To be fair, everybody loves a metaphorical subject. Or more specifically, marketing companies really love them, which is why the next generation of campaigns borne out of COVID will absolutely hammer the link between the humble video call and new-found togetherness.
Jokes surrounding John Lewis’ 2021 Christmas advert plans have already orbited Twitter – and it’s almost too easy to imagine: the scene is set. A slow, soft cover of Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ creeps over a slow pan of Christmas lights and presents, as a child talks excitedly to his grandparents. Mum and Dad are watching fondly – maybe a little misty-eyed? – as he describes his day in glorious detail. Grandma and Grandad have their Christmas hats on, smiling. The song cuts to a piano instrumental motif. He reaches out his hand but, lo, those tiny fingers touch a screen where warmth should be. ‘Ah well,’ says Gran. ‘We’ll be together next Christmas.’
It’s a little ham-fisted – your Mum is already sharing it on Facebook – but still effective at striking the vital part of why video calls have become so integral to 2020, a year which has proven calamitous to so many.
Connection is precious. And if technology can bridge the gap between fleeting meetings and partings, then more power to its depiction in the media. Even more so at the figurative – and sometimes literal – end of the world.
Which brings us to the infamous goodbye message that the movies like to bring us.
The first two films that spring to mind are twins. Both born in the summer of 1998 to directorial teams focussed on extra-terrestrial threats in the form of big old rocks, Deep Impact and Armageddon utilise the video call to great effect.
Building on the ‘Final Goodbye’ Trope (thickly sandwiched between Heroic Sacrifice and Tearjerker) both movies feature doomed astronauts – or deep sea oil drillers-turned-space-cadets – forced to say their farewells from the cockpit.
“Mary, I’m coming home”
In Deep Impact, which sees the seasoned crew of the Messiah make the choice to plough their ship via suicide mission into the smaller of two rogue asteroids, their final moments are streamed to Earth via video-call. It’s a sobering sequence that in most circumstances would feel like dramatic overkill, as only moments previous the Comet Beiderman has wiped out much of the United States. Cities are wiped clean with a megatsunami, people scrambling over stacked cars like tiny ants, parents handing off children so they have a chance to get to higher ground.
As in real life, individual loss gets lost in a mesh of cinematic tragedy – even when the plot glues itself for a few scenes to follow an even young Elijah Wood trudge his way up a mountain for the first, but certainly not last, time in his career.
Alongside a handful of survivors he stares out at a CGI sea that blankets mountains in what is meant to be an uncomfortable show of destruction – but it misses an opportunity to showcase those reeling in the aftermath.
So when the crew of The Messiah have the opportunity to say goodbye to any surviving members of their family by way of NASA, the audience is ushered into a much more intimate sphere.
In a powerful series of messages, we tenderly watch them say goodbye to the people they love most in the world – learning more about them in their last five minutes than we have over the previous hour and fifteen.
The most wrenching is the final message from Commander Oren Monash. Blinded from a previous misfortune, his wife catches the call by mere seconds – all to introduce him to their new son, named in his honour.
In a bittersweet show of solidarity, the team keep up the pretence that Oren can see, whispering that the baby is holding a rocket. The last words from the Messiah before contact cuts is “Be good”, the camera focused on his outstretched hand on the screen. The ship crumples on impact.
Out of all the terror – and even previous onscreen deaths with notable characters – the use of a video call, limited dialogue and a toy rocket is a knife to the ribs. There’s something about the unfairness of it all that slams down twice as hard on the audience, punctuated by clever choices in building characters that breathe beyond the action.
We are left reeling at the loss onscreen – but are all the more thankful for the intervention of a final video call.
“I’m going to have to break that promise”
In Armageddon, Bruce Willis’ last message as Harry S. Stamper to daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) is a comparatively rushed affair, as he embarks on a one-man solo mission to detonate a bomb. In comparison to Deep Impact’s subtle but layered goodbyes, Harry’s is simplistic.
As noted in the script directions: A N.A.S.A. Tech hands Grace a mic and exits. She stares at the static on the monitor. Harry’s face fades in and out. Grace knows something is very wrong from her father’s strained, tired face. She forces a smile.
From that alone, the value of visual video in such important messages speaks volumes. Willis’s wavering delivery of “I’ll look in on you from time to time… okay honey?” before the screen cuts, with Grace reaching for the newly black space.
Armageddon is (and this is understating it) a little heavier-handed in its approach, but also draws on characters lamenting a life on pause beyond the call, tapping in to current sentimentalities: loss, distance, personal and public turmoil.
Both are strong slices of drama though, drawing the audience close to the consequences of what can be sprawling scenes of destruction by pinning it close to home, reminding us that all we want is to be with the ones we love.
There’s some skill in making you care deeply for a cast you’ve only known during the course of a movie, especially in coaxing empathy from viewers weary of experiencing so much action, stakes and break-neck pace in such little time.
“I thought I’d better record a little greeting”
Even Iron Man’s message in the final Avengers movie – delivered at his own funeral, in true Stark style – hopes to strike the same chord. I love you three thousand, said by the video ghost of someone there-but-not-quite-there resonates with anyone who has ever missed a person, a universal lesson in compassion that feels terribly prevalent.
Although films documenting the end of the world (in some sense) are probably the last thing anyone wants to watch right now, the art of the video message and what can represent in times of hardship has solidified threefold in cultural and current context.
But if anything, watching doomed astronauts manage to say goodbye on pure poetic license (optical links connecting Earth to a spacecraft didn’t actually come in until 2013) – gives ample food for thought as I get bumped from the work Zoom call for the third time in a row.
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