July 2020

Deep Impact (1998)

DIRECTOR: Mimi Leder


Téa Leoni, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Morgan Freeman, Leelee Sobieski, Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, James Cromwell, Ron Eldard, Jon Favreau, Laura Innes, Mary McCormack, Richard Schiff, Blair Underwood, Dougray Scott, Betsy Brantley, Denise Crosby, Mike O’Malley, Kurtwood Smith, Charles Martin Smith


An asteroid on a collision course with Earth, threatening the very existence of mankind. Any number of movies have examined this theme, most of them forgettable. Deep Impact, director Mimi Leder’s take on this scenario and a product of Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures, came out almost back-to-back with Armageddon, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s action flick. The basic premises were similar- humanity launches a desperate mission to destroy an approaching asteroid large enough to wipe out all life on Earth- but the filmmakers’ ways of approaching it were not. Armageddon was, like many of Bay and Bruckheimer’s films, a silly forgettable action flick, all shiny Hollywood gloss, zero depth, big, loud, and dumb. Deep Impact is not a great film either, but by focusing more on the human story and less on flashy pyrotechnics, it has more brains and depth than many of its fellow disaster flicks. Deep Impact did less successively at the box office and received mostly negative critical reviews. Why? Sure it might not have a heartthrob like Ben Affleck in a lead role, but it does have a high-powered cast including established reliable screen veterans like Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Maximilian Schell, and Vanessa Redgrave, and up-and-comers like a pre-Frodo Elijah Wood, and the script, while sometimes contrived, at least makes an attempt to examine the ‘ordinary people’, the reactions of not only the shuttle crew, but also some of the people back home they are setting out to defend, which Armageddon almost totally ignored in favor of a more action-packed but also more shallow and less interesting plotline. I have the uncomfortable suspicion that all-too-many theatergoers only want to see death and destruction in a disaster movie, and anything deeper is regarded as dull and a waste of their time. Such people would probably find Deep Impact pretty boring.

When an unexplained star is spotted in the telescopes of astronomy students Leo (Elijah Wood) and Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), the location of the ‘star’ is sent to astrologer Dr. Wolf (Charles Martin Smith), who discovers it is actually an asteroid set on a collision course with Earth. Wolf rushes news of the asteroid to the authorities, but in one of those movie scenes where both drivers happen to look down at the exact same moment, he is killed in a car accident. We jump ahead one year, when Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), an ambitious reporter carrying around loads of emotional baggage from the divorce of her parents (Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave) and her estrangement from her father, thinks she’s rooted out a juicy scandal involving a senior Washington official (James Cromwell) and his affair with a woman named Ellie, but turns out to have stumbled onto something much bigger: the mysterious Ellie mentioned in cryptic White House phone conversations is not Ellie but E.L.E., Extinction Level Event, an ominous reference to the massive asteroid which is set to strike Earth within another year. The President (Morgan Freeman) has dispatched an elite shuttle crew led by veteran astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) with the perilous mission of intercepting Wolf-Beiderman in space and planting explosives inside to blow it into harmlessly small pieces. In the worst case scenario of their failure, the President has also arranged for thousands of pre-selected, talented individuals to be sheltered within a sprawling underground cave complex, where they will wait out the aftermath of the asteroid’s catastrophic impact. Jenny is pre-selected, as is Leo Beiderman (although exactly what particular importance either of them has to the grand scheme of things isn’t really clear, and we get the somewhat shaky explanation that famous reporter Jenny gets in because people need continuity, and because Leo was the first to spot the deadly asteroid and has the dubious honor of having it named after him), but the pre-selections come with the stipulation that no one over fifty will get picked, which leaves out Jenny’s parents. Leo’s girlfriend Sarah also looks to be left high and dry (or low and wet), but he thinks he can get her in. Meanwhile, Spurgeon Tanner is aware that the younger crewmembers (which include Mary McCormack, Ron Eldard, Jon Favreau, and Blair Underwood) consider him a has-bin, but these cocky young-uns gradually learn to respect his old-timey know-how.

A generic car crash and explosion within the first fifteen minutes- it seems to be a rule in Hollywood that whenever a car crashes, it must explode- doesn’t get the film off to the most promising start, but once the main characters are introduced and the ball gets rolling, Deep Impact consistently places more emphasis on the characters than the pyrotechnics. It’s also noteworthy that the film seems to take an optimistic view of people in desperate situations. There is mention and brief news footage of looting and riots, but that’s the most we see of it, and all of the principal characters ultimately behave nobly. The shuttle crew is a selfless bunch, Jenny Lerner eventually realizes that this is no time to leave things unsaid with her father, and Leo Beiderman is a good-hearted lad who leaves the relative safety of the cave to go back for his girlfriend. A number of characters sacrifice themselves for the good of others. It might be a little idealistic, but it makes everyone sympathetic and it’s refreshing in a way to see a movie that has some faith in humanity. We like to think we would behave similarly. No disaster movie would be complete without the scenes of mayhem and destruction as thousands of fleeing citizens are taken out by a massive tidal wave. But what might surprise some viewers is how many of the casualties are significant characters. People die in Deep Impact, not just random extras we glimpse for two seconds, but familiar faces we have seen the entire movie. There is a seriousness and maturity here which was conspicuously lacking from the video game fun of Armageddon. And if Deep Impact wanders into sappy melodrama- in how many films does a character run desperately to the back of a bus as it takes him away from a loved one?- it at least tries to reach a little deeper than most of its competition. And despite many negative critical reviews- or maybe I just have a soft spot for these kinds of tearjerker disaster movies- more works than doesn’t work. The film’s final twenty-five or thirty minutes are compelling and a number of the climactic scenes pluck the emotional strings.

Disaster movies are not actor’s movies, and while the likes of Duvall, Freeman, Redgrave, and Schell don’t have anything terribly challenging here, these distinguished thespians get to do a little more than react to special effects. Robert Duvall plays the old astronaut Spurgeon Tanner with a sense of gentle wisdom. Téa Leoni was picked on a little unfairly, I thought, by critics. Her performance is fine, but her halting speech mannerisms make her somewhat difficult to accept as a prominent reporter; she doesn’t have the smoothly monotone voice. Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell take the smaller roles of her parents and make them vulnerable and poignant figures. Unsurprisingly, as the President, Morgan Freeman projects strength, dignity, and humanity in every scene. He has exactly the kind of calm, authoritative presence Americans would want to look to for reassurance in a time of crisis, and like Duvall, Freeman can suggest deep feelings without hardly even seeming to act. At the time, an African-American President may have seemed a little unlikely, but it’s difficult to think of an actor who seems more presidential. Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski are fine, and are appealing enough that we don’t root for them to get swept away by a giant tidal wave, but their characters stay more two-dimensional (due more to limitations in the writing than the acting). We don’t learn too much about Leo and Sarah, and they have little romantic or sexual chemistry; they’re acceptable as friends but a passionless couple (the movie’s half-hearted development of their relationship doesn’t help; according to both Wood and Sobieski, the original cut was 3 1/2 hours, and poor test screenings led to much editing, with their material in particular being drastically reduced). Respected actors James Cromwell and Charles Martin Smith have welcome cameos, and of the shuttle crew, Ron Eldard in particular has a couple of affecting scenes, particularly near the end.

The movie is at times shamelessly emotionally manipulative; a number of scenes are obviously set up to produce as many moist eyes in the theater as possible, and as the film nears it climax Leder hands them out in a relentless string of tearjerker sequences as if to ensure that she will break us down at some point. The actors manage to sell some of these scenes, but I can’t deny that Deep Impact goes for the melodrama. The special effects are adequate, but some shots are too obviously animated. However, a large set of the asteroid’s surface is convincing, and there is a certain sadistic thrill in the sight of massive movie destruction (although the Twin Towers being toppled as inevitably lost some of that after 9/11, which the movie was of course made years before). It’s no great movie, but Deep Impact is entertaining, well-acted, and sometimes moving, and a cut above Armageddon or many other disaster flicks.