Following the great Ad Astra, which ultimately deserved far more love from general audiences, writer-director James Gray bites back with Armageddon Time. Sadly, after sitting through what is undoubtedly Gray’s most personal piece as a longtime fan, I was left cold and contemplating what the film’s true intent was. To set things up, Armageddon Time, despite its suggestive title, is a subdued exploration mainly told through the guise of childish naivety. But the film falters as Gray tries to grapple with one too many topics and in the midst of this juggling act, its messaging gets totally lost.
Queens, New York, 1980. This is where we find the young and privileged Paul (Banks Repeta) as he begins a new year of school. Here, he gets into continuous trouble with his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) as they mess with their superiors. Paul is a talented young artist in the making, yet his dreams are largely ignored by his family who are blind to the boy’s wants and needs as they care more about giving him a stereotypically good private school education. All the adults surrounding Paul, beyond just his parents, are also ignorant of his talents, barring his loving and caring grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins).
Armageddon Time begins by submerging us into Paul’s inexperienced outlook of the world, but everything soon comes crashing down as he returns home from school. It’s evident that his family, although not extremely wealthy, are privileged and would like to fit in with the Trump-like characters of the world. Paul’s relatives are splintered at the seams, thanks to their stubborn adherence to old systemic beliefs that Paul is woefully unaware of. This is where Armageddon Time starts to lose its steam as the issues around ingrained racism, abuse, and entitlement are all brought up to only be lightly glossed over. The film has nothing more to say than “racism is horrible and it’s always been there.”
Paul frequently uses his advantages and connections as a get out of jail free card, literally to the point where he leaves his parent-less friend, who is Black, to take the fall for his actions after they are both arrested. Likewise, when Paul is sent to a new private all-white school, we are greeted by members of the Trump family, who are donors. Showing up out of nowhere, Jessica Chastain portrays Donald Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump, who gives an impassioned speech about the successes these white students are destined to face.
This is just another example of the film’s mixed messaging, what was the point of randomly including the Trumps? And why does the film do very little to denounce or even say anything at all about their rhetoric? It almost feels like an accidental condoning of that side of society, while also acknowledging the inherent problems still at hand to this day but not pointing to any solutions either. Somewhere within Armageddon Time lies meaningful themes on class disparity and the toxic nature of being overly nostalgic, though looking for them here is not worth the chore.
After working with Hoyte Van Hoytema on Ad Astra, James Gray goes from one master to another as he teams up with renowned cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Uncut Gems), who beautifully captures all the ugliness through Paul’s innocent lens of the world. Khondji’s use of soft, warm tones adds to the nostalgic effect of the film. You are easily swept away by his images, however, these sentimental frames often contradict the more serious, harsh realities that Gray’s film tackles, counteracting his intent. In regards to intent, one must bring up the film’s ambiguous and seemingly meaningless ending. It’s clear that Gray firmly believes he leaves the audience with final shots that conclude his personal story in a powerful way, though all is already lost by then. Nonetheless, Khondji’s lighting and visuals are eloquently crafted and should be praised.
Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb lead Armageddon Time with great chemistry. The two relative newcomers are backed up by a range of big names who round out the ensemble. Anthony Hopkins gives the most notable performance, continuing his streak of excellence as always. He plays it stern with a loving touch, his purpose is to ground Repeta’s character and give him some sense of what normalcy should look like. Hopkins and Repeta are a believable grandson-grandfather duo, their relationship is quite touching. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play Paul’s parents, who are nothing more than an average pair of middle-class do-gooders. They aren’t given much to really build on their roles, unfortunately. Apart from Strong adding a little spark with a little, funny dance.
Armageddon Time tries to touch upon too many points for its own good, like merely checking off marks on a list. James Gray’s script stumbles across the finish line with little to no impact. Midway through its runtime, it becomes evident that Armageddon Time is actually going nowhere, and the ending only solidifies that. Despite Gray’s clearly good intentions, this is nothing more than surface-level averageness – a real shame considering his previously stellar track record and the talent on board.