SINCE James Cameron used this year's Oscars ceremony to proclaim himself King of the World, every Hollywood director has been dreaming of his own massively overlong, cash-harvesting blockbuster in which a group of poorly realised characters get the living daylights bashed out of them by an enormous heavy object. In Titanic, Cameron belted Leonardo DiCaprio with an iceberg. In Deep Impact, Mimi Leder chucked a comet at Vanessa Redgrave. And now, in Armageddon (12), Michael Bay sends Bruce Willis hurtling into a giant asteroid. One day - if we're really unlucky - all films may be as stupid as this.

Anyone who saw Deep Impact will already know the plot: a huge boulder is on a collision course with Earth, and a space-shuttle crew are despatched to drill a hole in it, drop a in nuke and blow it up. With the difference that this time, I was cheering for the asteroid: if Bruce Willis represents the zenith of our evolutionary span, then let's start again with the cockroaches.

Willis plays oil-rigger Harry Stamper, a hot-tempered knucklehead who gets his kicks firing golf balls at Greenpeace protesters and shooting at anyone who lays a hand on his daughter (Liv Tyler). His colleagues are the rougher end of roughneck: Rockhound (Steve Buscemi) sleeps with underage girls, and the rest (played by Ben Affleck, Will Patton and Michael Clarke Duncan) make the cast of Police Academy look like the Warnock Committee. When Nasa enlists them for their boring (sic) skills, Harry's gang agree to take part in the mission, on condition that they never have to pay their taxes again. As they blast into space, the President speechifies about "the human thirst for excellence". It's all right-wing guff, of course, disguised as idealistic individualism. If Ronald Reagan still had all his faculties, I'm sure he would have agreed to a cameo.

The most dispiriting aspect of this film is the casual contempt it has for its audience. The thick-eared tone is established by the opening narration, delivered in patrician tones by Charlton Heston: "This is the Earth at the time of the dinosaurs. A lush and fertile planet. A piece of rock six miles wide changed all that ..." But rather than improve the painfully inadequate script - which, for instance, requires Will Patton to exclaim, "This is turning into a surrealistic nightmare!" - Michael Bay drowns out much of the dialogue with engine noise.

And he lets obvious continuity slips go unchecked. In one scene, Nasa supremo Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) explains that there is no back- up plan for the mission to detonate the asteroid. Five minutes later, another official declares: "At Nasa we double up on everything." Everywhere you look, there's proof of Bay's laziness as a director. He has a predilection for embarrassing racial stereotypes like grinning Japanese and drunken, foul-mouthed Russians. His visual sense is strangled by cliche: when he wants to indicate the world's responses to the imminent catastrophe, he gives us slo-mo Indians looking anxious outside the Taj Mahal. When he wants to pull our heart-strings, he pipes in some faux-Celtic Enya-type music. When he wants to show us a British TV news broadcast, he stands a reporter in front of a huge Union Jack.

And his images of America look like out-takes from another film entirely. Armageddon is set in the present day, yet Bay shows us clapboard churches with Model T's parked outside, and a group of boys dashing past a poster of John F Kennedy. I was mystified. And as the film has a running time of just over two and a half hours, I was numb with boredom too - quietly fantasising about how nice it would have been if the movie could have been blown up before it reached Britain.

So thank heaven for films like Zero Effect (15), a small-scale detective thriller written and directed by 22-year-old Jake Kasdan (son of Laurence). It's a heavily disguised adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" - and Doyle's work has rarely been used more cannily. Bill Pullman is Darryl Zero, a private investigator so private that he keeps his identity hidden from his clients, out of a mixture of professional zeal and nervy paranoia. Zero is an intelligent, irreverent updating of Doyle's hero: instead of scraping away on the Stradivarius, he composes naff rock ballads with titles like "Let's Get Married"; instead of injecting cocaine, he drops acid; he indulges in pretzels rather than shag tobacco when staying awake all night. And references to "the Case of the Mis- Matched Shoe-Laces" and "the Case of the Hired Gun Who Made Way, Way Too Many Mistakes" are every bit as intriguing as untold Holmes tales like "The Adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra".

Pullman has that sly, anaemic sexiness exuded by the best screen Holmeses, and his performance is a virtuoso display of affectation, insecurity, genius and vanity. He gushes and twinkles when he's displaying his baroque knowledge of mattress sizes. He crumples with neurotic terror when asked to perform a task outside his field, like filling in a tax return. But it's Kasdan who should really take the credit: his script is witty, and his handling of detective conventions is easy and unmannered. Remember his name.

This week's other new release is a less satisfactory reworking of a classic thriller. Australian director John Hillcoats's To Have and to Hold (18) is a daft, nasty version of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, relocated to Papua New Guinea. Rachel Griffiths plays Kate, a romantic novelist who moves into a nicely-appointed hut with her jungle-dwelling boyfriend Jack (Tcheky Karyo). We're never told why Jack has chosen to live in this green hell, nor why Kate has agreed to accompany him there. And as Karyo has "drunken wife-murderer" written all over him (there's a glare in his eyes that says whisky and meat cleavers) this lack of information is a substantial obstacle to sympathising with either of them. Hillcoat could have sent Kate on her trip in search of material for her next book - but instead, her status as an author of pulp fiction acts as an excuse for the florid prose of her narrations. "She loved his moonlight - and the black places in his heart," she says - whatever that might mean. If it were not so pretentious, Hillcoat's film might have made effective horror schlock. In its current form, it's probably best left to disappear, glugging, into the morass.

Finally, two from the archive. In the silly corner, the 1938 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood (U) gets a re-release, and is chiefly enjoyable for its air of camped-up ridiculousness. Claude Rains licks his lips and purrs, "By my troth, you are a bold rascal." Errol Flynn swings about in rose-pink blusher, a sequinned blouson and green tights. The Merry Men give the impression that quiche would suit them better than venison, and Basil Rathbone delivers lines like "I'll have him dangling in a week!" with a smile that suggests he knew that Flynn's tights were artificially bulged out by the make-up department.

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is now the Sight and Sound reader's favourite name-drop, but don't let that put you off seeing his work. The ICA is screening his 1974 film The Traveller (no cert), a characteristically modest moral fable about a schoolboy who plays truant in order to attend a football match in Teheran. It's a fine example of how truthful cinema can be when it rejects melodrama and empty gesture in order to concentrate on the bare essentials of character and plot. It's sweetly observed, morally coherent, utterly simple and - at only 75 minutes long - fiercely economical. If this movie were a rocket, it could blast the pomposity of Armageddon to smithereens.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.