Deep Impact (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Another summer, another double-dip of disaster dramas. This time around, instead of volcanoes, it's comets. The films in question, Mimi Leder's Deep Impact and Michael Bay's Armageddon, are separated by two months, so the first should have a chance to run its course before the second reaches the screen. (More likely, the first will get squashed by Godzilla.) The movies, while utilizing similar premises (big piece of space debris on collision course with our beloved planet), have fundamentally different slants. Deep Impact focuses more on the Earth-based sitting ducks than on the would-be astronaut heroes. Armageddon sends Bruce Willis into space to kick asteroid. (Armageddon is not near the top of my "must see" list -- after Mercury Rising, I've had enough of Willis for the year.)

By their very nature, disaster movies tend to be mediocre (at best). Going into Deep Impact, my primary reason for optimism was the recognition that the cast is loaded (Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell). I mean, how bad can a movie be with names like that? Unfortunately, an A-list group of actors doesn't mean a lot when there isn't much of a script. Somewhere within Deep Impact, there's a worthwhile story struggling to get out. Sadly, it never emerges, and what we're saddled with is a poorly concentrated tale that builds "drama" by using an avalanche of clich├ęs.

The film opens with a modicum of promise by detailing the initial discovery of comet Wolf- Biederman by high school student Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), who's at a telescope party with his local astronomy club. One year later, after overeager TV reporter Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) stumbles onto a story about the approach of an E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event), President Beck (Morgan Freeman) is forced to address the nation and reveal that a comet the size of Manhattan is on a collision course with the Earth. The planet is not defenseless, however: a spaceship has been constructed with the sole purpose of landing on the comet, planting nuclear devices, and blowing the "dirty snowball" off course. On board the space ship "Messiah" is the aging veteran of many assignments, Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner (Robert Duvall), who is twice as old as anyone else in the crew. But, even as the "Messiah" mission gets underway, the men and women of the Earth prepare for the worst, which appears increasingly likely to happen.

One of the most obvious problems with Deep Impact is that there are too many characters, each with too little personality. At any given time, there are at least four subplots (the President's response to the situation, the TV reporter's family problems, the astronauts' mission, and a teen romance) vying for screen time. Consequently, none of the characters are given the opportunity to become real or important to us. In Titanic, which is essentially a disaster movie with a romance tacked on, James Cameron had the right idea: focus on a few, select individuals. Had Deep Impact taken this approach, it might have been more gripping. As it is, the viewer sits patiently in his or her seat, enduring all sorts of perfunctory, "character building" moments while waiting for the special effects show to begin.

Since this is a disaster movie, some sort of cataclysm is expected, and, in that, Deep Impact does not disappoint. While the special effects sequences are not eye-popping, they generate a certain visceral satisfaction. And, although a huge tidal wave bearing down on the United States' east coast looks computer generated, it's impressive nonetheless. Still, the catastrophe passes a little too quickly, and it fails to generate the kind of awe that the film makers were striving for. The science in Deep Impact is adequate for a big-budget summer flick, but hardly flawless.

This is director Mimi Leder's follow-up to The Peacemaker, and it's not a great deal more successful. The same basic problem is evident: she has the actors, the visual effects, the camerawork, and the technical know-how, but all of that can't cover up the fundamental weakness of a flawed, inadequate screenplay. At times, I felt like I was watching a stripped-down version of Independence Day, minus the aliens and the charm of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Deep Impact has a bushel of good actors, but they're all on hand to pick up paychecks. In fact, several key players -- namely Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and James Cromwell -- are seriously underused. The emotional cornerstone of the film is intended to be Tea Leoni (Flirting with Disaster), but, as perky and appealing as the actress can be, her character is so sketchily developed that it's difficult to identify with her.

In the end, it all comes down to caring about the characters and their circumstances, and I didn't. Also, while the film teases us with some dramatically-rich ideas (How would men and women react if they knew that the end of the world was imminent?), it doesn't follow through. We're given glimpses of possibilities, but nothing is developed, and that makes it all the more frustrating. It all turns into background noise in the lives of about a dozen two-dimensional, stock characters. Needless to say, the movie isn't as profound as the title suggests. In fact, when considering the impact of Leder's film, the word "shallow" leaps to mind far more readily than "deep."

Deep Impact (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1