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Disaster films are of two types: One, a localized event, such as tidal wave, a hurricane, a tornado, an overturned cruise ship, a giant prehistoric beast and so on targets a set number of the population leaving the rest of humanity to endure the catastrophe and rise up again. Or two, it’s lights out for everyone and everything on the planet, no way around it. The end. The second is fairly new and less common (or popular) as it fails to provide the obligatory (a word I may use more than once in this review) happy ending we expect from films of this ilk. Deep Impact is a mix of both as it gleefully heads down path number two pretty consistently before finding a solution to bring it back on track for humanity to survive. You might consider that a spoiler but since the trailers assure us “we will go on” and there are shots of people celebrating, and this is mainstream Hollywood, this should come as no surprise. It’s just a matter of who in the big cast is going to make it and who will face their destiny with obligatory (I told you) wide-eyed sacrifice.
It begins in space, where a massive comet is on a path straight for Earth. First discovered by high schooler Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), who is not entirely sure what it is, his teacher sends the information to an astronomer (Charles Martin Smith) who realizes exactly what it is and when the email server goes down, doesn’t make a call, but rather loads the information on a floppy disk and gets in his car. Of course his car phone has no service and as he looks away, so to does a truck driver coming from the other direction and, well, so ends the only person who knows a massive asteroid is coming this way.
A year later, savvy TV journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) gets suspicious about a possible affair the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury is having with a mysterious woman named Ellie, though after digging a little deeply, gets pulled in by the FBI and earns a meeting with the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman), who informs her that in fact “Ellie” is not a woman but rather “E.L.E.”, for “Extinction-Level Event”, a 7-mile wide asteroid. Because of her investigation, the President decides to tell the world earlier than planned. He announces the coming rock and reports that the United States and Russia have a joint space mission in operation to attempt to alter the comets trajectory using nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the joint mission in space meet with one failure after another. All hope seems lost for Earth and the final days brings chaos, acceptance, heroism, and humanity.
Directed by Mimi Leder, Deep Impact is perhaps best known for its close-proximity release with Armageddon (1998), a competing asteroid disaster film with a similar story and 100% more Bruce Willis. Deep Impact does nothing new for the genre and holds fast to the same old formulas set forth by such classics as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Earthquake (1974), just to name a few. Colorful archetypes are introduced, put in dramatic situations and either die off, sacrifice themselves or save the day. As this film was made in the late 1990s, there is a massive CGI-filled set piece that mostly delivers but is weakened by plot contrivances that selectively allow for specific people to perish or survive depending on their backstory and actor’s pay-scale. But there are also some very fine performances, especially by Freeman, Leoni, and a small role by Vanessa Redgrave. The problems lie with the script and dialog, where the film can’t decide which audience demographic to target. For example, there’s a terribly awkward scene where after the world has been told of the impeding disaster, the school where Biederman attends holds a rally after he becomes famous for the comet’s discovery. A boy in the crowd stands up and celebrates how Biederman will get a lot more sex. Yeah. That eye-roll you just did? It goes double while watching it. There’s also far too much young-versus-old, but worse is the abrupt and shameful ending that feels tacked on and is essentially a cheat that practically ties a little red bow on the whole thing making sure all the loose ends are tied together. Still, like every movie, there is one great moment.
The space mission is called Messiah and it reaches the massive comet with its small crew who land on the surface. With limited time, due to the immense heat of the Sun, they work while in darkness as the comet rotates away from the light. Their plan is to burrow down 100 meters and set nuclear charges. Naturally, one of the “moles”, a drill that carries the bomb down gets caught up and one of the brave astronauts goes down and corrects the situation but not before the comet’s rotation brings it back in the Sun’s rays, which causes superheated geysers to burst from the surface. One man is blown in to space and lost, while the others just make it before they are all killed. But it is all for naught. The explosives detonate but only split the comet and create two incoming asteroids. It’s a total failure.
The President is informed and must address the country. Somberly, he sits in the Oval Office and announces the mission’s loss. He explains the next strategy, which involves firing missiles directly at the rocks, but requires them to be much closer. While he remains confident the strike will be successful, he admits they must plan for the worst. He reveals a course of action that will ensure humanity’s survival. The government has been building a massive networks of caves in the limestone of Missouri where they have been storing food and supplies to last two years. The problem is that only one million people can be housed inside. Two hundred thousand pre-selected scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers and artists have already made the list. A computer will randomly select by lottery the remaining 800,000. He then declares Martial Law, a national curfew, a military presence, stating that punishment for crimes against persons or property will be swift and harsh. He then offers a prayer and advises news stations that the lottery details are being sent.
The moment is crucial as it generates the momentum for the second act, with a shift toward panic and preparation, putting the cast of characters on a new path. Freeman is exceptional and his delivery is eerily authentic, reminiscent of President Kennedy announcing the Cuban missile crisis or President Reagan eulogizing the Challenger disaster. In the film, this moment is the reality, the acceptance all of humanity must face. While everyone believed the Messiah mission would succeed, now comes the hard truth. Billions worldwide are gonna die. But there’s even worse news. The President states that in the U.S., the lottery will not include people over 50 years old. Yikes. Unsurprisingly, this garners the most reaction, and it’s because it is the only segregation on the list. To give that announcement (deep) impact, there is the remarkable Vanessa Redgrave. As that news is presented by the President and perfectly captures the shock, anger, realization, and acceptance. All in only a few seconds. It’s one of those shiver moments. And it’s further made heavy by Leoni’s character, because she is one one the news delivering the message. She plays Redgrave’s daughter. Her slight vocal break as she understands the implications is one of the more effective emotional moments in the movie. Scratch that. It is the most effective emotional moment.
Deep Impact could have been much more than it is, and because it was competing for box office bang with Armageddon, feels rushed and unfinished. What remains are some scattered, genuine moments of greatness lost in film filled with unoriginality trying too hard to be visually impressive rather than emotionally so.
Director: Mimi Leder
Writers: Bruce Joel Rubin, Michael Tolkin
Stars: Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Morgan Freeman