Man, disaster movies in the 90’s were pretty weird… Well, no – that’s slightly unfair. What I’m trying to say is that the circumstances that 90’s disaster movies where made were frequently odd as Hollywood scrambled to find new ways to weaponize mother earth thanks to the CGI revolution that was sweeping cinema ever since that Brachiosaur from Jurassic Park reared up on her hind legs and made Sam Neill go weak at the knees.
As both Twister and Independence Day hit big (two films from 1996 that came to the disaster movie from very different angles), a new age of ecologically worst case scenarios started flying across the desks of studio heads which led to us getting dueling volcano movies in 1997 and then led to us getting multiple meteor movies in 1998. Essentially pitting super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer against the then fledgling studio of DreamWorks, both attempts once again approached the idea of earth getting twatted by a big rock from completely different angles – but whose was superior?
One night during astronomy class, bug-eyed nerd Leo Biederman spots a brand new glowing dot in the sky and dutifully reports it; a year later, ambitious reporter Jenny Lerner stumbles across what she thinks is a juicy scandal involving someone high up in government having liaisons with mystery woman named Ellie. What links these two apparently random occurrences is that that little light in the heavens is a rather hefty meteor that’s roughly the size of New York City and if it manages to rear end earth it will easily cause an extinction level event – or “E.L.E.” – dun dun duuhhhn!
Realising she’s stumbled into some pretty heavy shit, Jenny’s efforts manage to make President Tom Beck decide to go public with the news the government has been preparing for this and that numerous measures have been taken to ensure humanities survival. Plan A involves sending astronauts in a rocket up to the asteroid in order to blow it up from the inside (without a single oil driller in sight, I might add…) and if that fails then special bunkers will protect a lucky 800,000 civilians who will be picked by a lottery.
As the brave crew labour to achieve their task in time, we follow various people back on earth as they make their various moves to prepare for the end – Leo, who gets a golden ticket to the bunkers due to discovering the rock in the first place, strives to marry his childhood sweetheart Sarah in order to increase her families chances of survival, Jenny tries to reconnect with her estranged father and everyone in the audience wonders why everybody else on the planet is being so eerily calm about this whole thing. As the space mission looks like it’s going to be a bust, the world girds it’s loins as the universe prepare to play an apocalyptic game of conkers with our home planet.
I don’t know about you, but whenever anyone seems to mention Deep Impact these days, it’s usually to wonder what that other asteroid movie was that wasn’t the one with Ben Affleck in it fucking around with animal crackers. However, to give the film it’s due, it’s a reassuringly solid epic with a nice message and a good cast telling a mostly sensible story about mankind sensibly trying to preserve/save it’s very existence by making smart and logical decisions – which is nice and all, but when it comes to the destruction of all life on earth, I gotta be honest; when compared to the gonzo idiocy of Michael Bay’s rival Armageddon, Deep Impact starts to look a little dull.
It’s not a bad film per say, it’s just chalk and cheese when compared to it’s cocaine fuelled competitor and it takes the end of the world (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) far too seriously to be a satisfying example of a sci-fi tinged disaster movie.
The characters, from Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski’s loved-up teens, to Robert Duvall’s Twain quoting astronaut, to Morgan Freeman’s silken voiced President, every character is so straight laced and controlled that you long for some overt far fetched stuff to break up all the good behaviour.
Director Mimi Leder keeps all the balls in the air nicely and all the big effects stuff still looks pretty decent considering it’s emerged from the 90’s but the real lingering problem for me is a far more personal thing than plot and characters…
The problem with Deep Impact is that it’s the humourless square of asteroid movies compared to the leather jacket wearing, motorcycle riding, toothpick spitting badboy that Bay’s Armageddon ended up being – yes, Deep Impact is arguably the “better” movie as it tries to level a modicum of common sense at it’s concept, but in it’s aim to be smarter it hobbles some of the excitement. For example, while the other guy scatters numerous devastating meteorite showers throughout the entire movie while dedicating it’s main focus on it’s idiotic story of rock drillers in space, it’s by far the more entertaining film even though it’s sillier than a Monty Python sketch being redone by actual pythons.
There’s also the issue that Deep Impact, in all of it’s earnestness, is just too nice to suggest that the world’s population wouldn’t do any more than loot in the face of total extermination when the last couple of years have plainly proven otherwise. Maybe 1996 (i.e. pre 9/11) was a much more nicer time than I remember or maybe the American public are just simply being lulled into an accepting state of zen thanks to the soothing tones of Morgan Freeman’s voice that washes over than a soothing Horlicks favoured xanax – either way, both classic and more modern examples of disaster films usually have a scene involving a humanity-free mob or at least one person selfishly hurling women and children aside in order to save their own skins and the fact that no one acts up during the whole movie just feels a little naive.
So while a perfectly fine example of the genre, Deep Impact’s mission to sell the steak means it terminally neglects the sizzle and ends up leaving the finished movie dangerously close to bland. However some ernest performances and some legitimately gripping space sequences keep the imminent heat death of the entire planet ticking alone nicely.
Too much deep, not enough impact…