Release: 1998, DreamWorks/Paramount
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Morgan Freeman, Leelee Sobieski, James Cromwell, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood
Director: Mimi Leder
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] language, violence
When the government reveals that two comets are on a direct collision course for earth, humanity prepares for mass destruction and possible extinction. A team of astronauts plans to vaporize the comets with nuclear weapons; meanwhile, society constructs a vast underground civilization capable of supporting one million people, the hope being that humanity can salvage a remnant of itself and repopulate the earth after the comets wipe out everything on the surface.
Hollywood has, for the most part, managed to stay away from the killer space debris slant on the disaster film...until now. And suddenly we get two of them thrown at us by major studios: Deep Impact and Armageddon. My first impression was that both of these were going to join the list of giant, brainless, disaster-filled blockbusters along with the likes of Independence Day and Twister. While the jury is still out on the storyboard merits of Armageddon, due for release later this year, I'm happy to say I was wrong about the DreamWorks/Paramount release Deep Impact.
Imagine, if you will, a movie as ambitious as Independence Day, but one in which there's a well written story, characters you actually give a damn about, and a resolution far more plausible than taking out alien warships with a hokey computer virus uploaded with an Apple Macintosh notebook. You'd be taking the strengths of such a blockbuster and retooling all of its abject failures, and you might be left with something like Deep Impact.
Deep Impact examines the individual lives of everyday people and how they are affected by the news of the comets, much as ID4 followed around a handful of characters. The only difference is that the people in Deep Impact go beyond boring stereotypes and wind up being alive to us. Add to the equation the dilemma that only one million people on earth can be saved, and you suddenly have an examination of human behavior. Everything from selfishness to selflessness is seen, and the resiliency of the human spirit is emphasized much as it has been in the best of the Star Trek films. Chaos, disaster, hope, and fear all collide, just as it would if the situation were real. Of the one million spots available in the underground shelter, 200,000 are allocated to scientists and the like, while the remaining 800,000 are distributed in a random lottery. Such a system, being devoid of all emotion, forces everyone involved to re-examine their lives, their worth, and their own place in the grand scheme of society.
I won't reveal the ending, as it is a major credit to the creators of this film, and may not be expected by most of you. I'll just say that by the film's end, emotions are running high, and there is a deep vein of sentiment. Touching, bittersweet moments stand out in stark contrast to the cold, unyielding destruction of the comets. Strong performances from the main cast, especially Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, and, surprisingly, Tea Leoni, who I didn't have much faith in based on the television roles she has been handed in the past. All in all, Deep Impact is a strong, pleasant surprise.
Despite all of its good points, there is a strong spectre of Hollywood that looms over the film, giving its production a subtle, formulaic feel that manifests itself consistently, but in small doses. Things like the kid being the one who notices the comets at the opening, and the ensemble feel of the main characters (similar in feel to the apocalyptic miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand) are elements that seem required in major motion pictures of this type. Still, though, this is all just picking nits, and it's really nothing to avoid the film over.