Screenplay : Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Robert Duvall (Spurgeon Tanner), Téa Leoni (Jenny Lerner), Elijah Wood (Leo Biederman), Vanessa Redgrave (Robin Lerner), Maximilian Schell (Jason Lerner), Morgan Freeman (President Beck), Leelee Sobieski (Sarah Hotchner), James Cromwell (Alan Rittenhouse)
Last year it was the battle of the dueling volcano movies, "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano." This year, history repeats itself, except volcanoes have been replaced with giant meteors on collision courses for Earth. Michael Bay's "Armageddon" isn't due until July, but for those who just can't wait to see Earth destroyed by fire from the heavens, the Steven Spielberg-produced "Deep Impact" has arrived.
All those involved with "Deep Impact" have sworn up and down for the last couple of weeks that their film is drastically different than "Armageddon" will be. They insist that "Deep Impact" is really a drama, with the emphasis being on realism and how various characters react to the knowledge that their death is imminent. Maybe the deep impact of the title isn't meant to evoke the physical collision of the meteor with the Earth's surface, but rather the psychological and spiritual impact the impending disaster has on the many members of the human race.
Or maybe not. Let's get real here.
"Deep Impact" -- unlike 1983's "Testament" which honestly and effectively explored the dramatic reality of a nuclear war without ever showing the war -- is not a drama. Like all disaster movies dating to the beginning of the cinema, "Deep Impact" is about the vicarious thrill of watching things destroyed. It's a vicious, cruel-hearted thrill when you really boil it down, but audiences seem to love it. No matter how much strained drama is inserted into the first hour and forty-five minutes, it's the grand climax the people are coming to see. Just think how ticked the throngs of moviegoers would be if the meteor was thwarted in the end and never hit? But then again, what fun is it going to a summer movie where the entire human race is wiped out?
Screenwriters Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost," "Jacob's Ladder") and Michael Tolkin ("The Player") are actually quite creative in solving this dilemma. They have astronauts break the comet into two pieces while attempting to change it's course. This way, we can still have the smaller piece hit the earth and cause enough destruction to satiate the viewers expecting another "Independence Day," while keeping the chances of the larger chunk hitting the earth questionable. Plenty of death and destruction, but not so much that it's morbid.
The majority of the movie plays out in the standard disaster movie formula, tracing several sub-plots concerning a variety of characters. First off, we have Téa Leoni as Jenny Lerner, an ambitious MSNBC reporter (CNN apparently got too much flak for its omnipresence in last summer's "Contact," so they declined to lend their letters to this film). Jenny stumbles across the government's knowledge of the approaching meteor while investigating what she thinks is a sex scandal, which the President (Morgan Freeman) may know about. Jenny then spends most of the movie trying to reconcile her feelings about her father (Maximilian Schell) leaving her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) for a woman half his age.
We also have Elijah Wood as Leo Biederman, an aspiring teenage astronomer who is the first to actually discover the meteor. When the President announces that the government has built an immense system of underground caves to protect one million people in a worst case scenario, Leo marries his sweetheart, Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), so they can be saved together. Of course, 800,000 of the people to be saved are selected by a random lottery, and Sarah's parents aren't selected, thus forcing her to choose between leaving her parents to live or dying with them.
Last, but not least, there is the all-important American-Russian team of astronauts who go into space in an attempt to stop the meteor with nuclear missiles. The team is led by crusty-but-likable Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall), an aging astronaut resented by his younger comrades. Their first attempt to deflect the comet results in its breaking into two pieces and the near deaths of all those involved. But don't count them out until the end ...
Strictly speaking, "Deep Impact" is a by-the-numbers movie. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown ("Jaws") first came up with the idea back in the heyday of disaster movies, the seventies. The script has been through numerous re-writes, with writers ranging from "A Clockwork Orange" novelist Anthony Burgess to executive producer Steven Spielberg. The script is still the weakest link in the film, but director Mimi Leder ("The Peacemaker") delivers all she can: tons of tear-jerking melodrama, lots of pseudo-scientific explanations about what's going on, and a slam-bang finale that involves gigantic tidal waves destroying New York and Washington among other places.
"Deep Impact" is definitely a cut above most disaster epics, although that's not saying much. On a tight schedule that involved finishing special effects shots less than two weeks before theatrical release, Leder managed to get some fantastic shots, including a highway jam-packed with escaping cars for endless miles, and the aforementioned tidal waves, which were created in convincing detail by the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic.
But because the story is divided up into several sub-plots, it's hard to get involved with the characters. You can feel that the filmmakers were striving for the same kind of emotional effect evoked in James Cameron's "Titanic," and in some instances it succeeds. There are a few moments of genuine emotion, especially the last scene between Jenny and her father. However, "Titanic" has the benefit of being derived from a historic event that already carries emotional weight; "Deep Impact," on the other hand, will always be a movie about a giant meteor heading for Earth. Somehow, it's just not the same.
©1998 James Kendrick