Twenty years ago, my then-fiancee (now current wife) and I took in a new Steven Spielberg produced, Mimi Leder directed (barely) science fiction movie about a comet on a collision course with Earth called “Deep Impact.”
A large cosmic mass in danger of colliding with Earth isn’t exactly the most original idea. There was 1951’s “When Worlds Collide,” 1979’s “Meteor” and that ‘other’ impact movie from 1998, “Armageddon” (more on that one later). More recently, there was an intriguing, very unorthodox collision movie made by Lars von Trier called “Melancholia” (2011).
Of these, “Deep Impact” is my favorite. This is mainly because the film shows the cost of such a catastrophe not just in terms of real estate, but in our collective human psyche. The movie’s heart may be due to the film’s writers Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost,” “Jacob’s Ladder”), Michael Tolkein (“Changing Lanes”) and director Mimi Leder (“Pay It Forward”) being more versed in personal, human-scaled stories rather than orgies of special effects. Despite its cosmic scope, “Deep Impact” never loses focus on its humanity, and that’s part of why I enjoy it so much.
“Deep Impact” puts its characters ahead of its spectacle.
**** COMET-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! ****
Two midwestern teens, Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) and his astronomy club partner/girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Sobieski) detect a previously unknown comet in the night sky. Their findings are sent to an astronomer named Wolf (an uncredited Charles Martin Smith) for confirmation. Wolf finds, to his horror, that the comet the kids discovered is on an orbit that will impact Earth. A distracted Wolf takes his disc-drive data and rushes off to warn the authorities, but is killed en route in an accidental collision with a truck.
A year later, MSNBC journalist Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) is on the trail of what she thinks is another Washington DC sex scandal (how quaint in our current shock-proof age). The US president (Morgan Freeman) personally takes Jenny aside and asks that she sit on the story until he has a chance to hold a White House press briefing. Jenny reluctantly agrees, but only on the condition that she gets the first question in the press room.
She later learns that what she thought was “Ellie” (the assumed name of a senator’s mistress) was actually the acronym of ELE: an Extinction Level Event. The ELE in question is Comet Wolf/Biederman, which will impact Earth in a matter of months (apparently the late Dr. Wolf’s findings were salvaged in the crash wreckage). The impact of Wolf/Biederman is expected to be the most devastating world event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.
Sworn to silence until the press conference, a clearly agitated Jenny has a tense meeting with her divorced father (Maximilian Schell) who is remarrying a much younger woman. Jenny unapologetically tells her father that he needs to reconcile with her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and she abruptly leaves.
At the White House press briefing the president tells all, including two plans to deal with the pending catastrophe. The first is an international manned space mission called “Messiah” that will carry powerful nukes to blow the comet’s core into smaller pieces (still a bad idea, but more on that later). The second plan involves a series of giant underground caves deep in the American heartland that will serve as an ark in case the Messiah fails. The Ark will preserve key specialists, foodstuffs, animals, seeds, cultural artifacts and a random group of citizens drawn from a national lottery. Nations around around the world are preparing similar caves.
The spaceship Messiah crew, a cocky young team of US astronauts with one Russian cosmonaut, reluctantly add a ‘plus one’ to their ranks; an Apollo-era veteran named Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall). Tanner reminds his new crew that he is the only one among them who has ever landed on another body in space, and that skill would be particularly handy on their mission.
Tanner’s inclusion into the crew, much like Freeman’s black US president, foreshadowed actual events. The late veteran astronaut/senator John Glenn would return to space in October of 1998 at age 77, several months after the release of the movie. Glenn’s return also inspired Clint Eastwood’s “Space Cowboys” two years later.
In a matter of weeks, the Messiah spacecraft reaches comet Wolf/Biederman and things go horribly wrong. Unable to land the large Messiah, two specialists from the ship are lowered down to the comet’s unstable surface in order to plant the nukes deep in its core. However, the comet is denser than anticipated. The astronauts are forced to leave the nukes in their current position, unable to go deeper. One of the astronauts, medical officer/specialist Gus Partenza (Jon Favreau) is killed by high-speed debris during the ship’s escape, and the mission’s young commander Oren Monash (Ron Eldard) is blinded during a sudden, unshielded sunrise on the comet’s surface. Veteran astronaut Tanner is forced to take charge of the mission. The nukes are eventually detonated, but the comet is not vaporized; it is merely split into two smaller chunks that remain on the same trajectory towards Earth.
Plan B with the underground Ark goes into full effect, and the lottery results are announced. The effects of the random lottery are devastating. Young married couples are kept together, but people over a certain age will not be allowed into the Ark. Jenny is selected, but a rival coworker with a newborn baby is not. Leo Biederman and his family are selected (the comet was his discovery, after all), but his girlfriend Sarah and her family are not. It’s “Sophie’s Choice” taken to the 12th power.
As the comet looms ever closer, Jenny’s lonely mother commits suicide and her father’s young fiancee leaves him. Ark selectee Leo decides to marry Sarah so that she can go with him, but her family (including her newborn baby brother) are refused permission. Sarah decides not to go to the Ark with Leo. Jenny similarly surrenders her ticket to the Ark in favor of her rival coworker with the newborn baby.
The Messiah team decides on one final course of action: they will impact the Messiah spacecraft on the largest of the two chunks of inbound comet, using the craft’s own nuclear-powered Orion propulsion system in hopes of vaporizing the larger fragment. Most of the crew are given chances to say their tearful goodbyes to their spouses and loved ones in Mission Control before they commit to their suicide course with comet Wolf-Biederman. The plan works. The larger cometary chunk is vaporized, and the Messiah is destroyed in the process. But the smaller chunk of the comet is still on a collision course with Earth. It is expected to impact offshore in the Atlantic, near the eastern seaboard of the United States.
A heartsick Leo leaves his Ark-bound bus, steals a dirt bike, and finds Sarah’s family hopelessly gridlocked in traffic as people flee in blind panic. Sarah’s mother (Denise Crosby) gives Sarah her baby brother and tells Leo to take care of her children. Leo takes his young wife Sarah and the baby on the bike as they head for higher ground.
In one of the most heart-wrenching and almost physically painful moments in the entire movie, Jenny reunites with her estranged father on the very beach where they once played when she was five years old. The comet hits the Atlantic. A giant, freakishly large tsunami is about to crash upon the shoreline. Jenny, her voice trembling, clutches her father closely, and says with the vulnerability of a frightened little girl, “Daddy…?”
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
(*composes self *)
… okay, moving on.
The comet fragment’s oceanic impact sees Washington D.C. and New York City underwater, as submerged landmarks and skyscrapers break off and float away. In a moment of grim foreshadowing, we see the pre-9/11 destruction of the twin towers (a destruction also depicted in 1979’s “Meteor”). Flooding from the impact reaches deep inland. Untold millions of people are killed. Eventually, the waters recede, and a small measure of balance is restored. Leo and Sarah survive. Many other characters do not.
We then see a coda with the White House and the Capitol being rebuilt, as President Morgan Freeman gives an inspiring speech.
What I love about “Deep Impact.”
* Terrific cast.
The sprawling and talented ensemble reminds me of some of the better-intentioned Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 1970s; such as “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) or “Towering Inferno” (1974).
“Deep Impact” has veteran pros such as Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman, Maximilian Schell and Robert Duvall as well as TV veterans such as Tea Leoni (“Madame Secretary” “Naked Truth”) and Ron Eldard (“ER”). The teenaged sweethearts Leo and Sarah are well-played by Elijah Wood (“Lord of the Rings”) and Leelee Sobieski (“Joy Ride”). Actor and film director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man” “Chef”) has a small but memorable role as an ill-fated astronaut named Gus (not unlike the ill-fated Gus Grissom of Apollo I).
James Cromwell (warp drive inventor ‘Zefram Cochrane’ of “Star Trek: First Contact”) has a small but significant role early on as a resigning US senator. Oh, and speaking of Star Trek, “The Next Generation”’s Denise Crosby (“Tasha Yar”) plays Sarah’s mother.
Redgrave as Jenny’s divorced mother has a poignant and tragic suicide scene that gives the character a grand exit. Robert Duvall’s comforting, fatherly presence to his younger crew members aboard the Messiah is very moving, especially as he patiently reads “Moby Dick” to his young, blinded ex-commander. Morgan Freeman projects wisdom, warmth and humanity as the very president we could want during such a crisis (and sadly lack now).
When Sarah is handed her crying baby brother, actress Leelee Sobieski’s reaction is a perfect combination of grief and shock at the imminent loss of her parents as well as the horror of becoming a premature parent herself.
* A respect for science and real-life spaceflight.
Unlike its 1998 rival “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact” really tries to get the science as right as possible. Despite the few inevitable liberties taken, such as sound in space (a necessary dramatic cheat for most space films), the movie tries to depict its manned mission to a comet as accurately as possible.
The fact that low gravity makes a landing extremely problematic is addressed, as we see the astronauts use pitons and other equipment to anchor themselves in place during the drilling into the comet’s core. The violent outgassing as the comet rotates into sunlight is depicted with only minor dramatic license.
Nuclear powered spaceflight is also handled in a interesting manner, using a nuclear propulsion system called “Orion.” “Orion” was also the name of a British Interplanetary Society study in the 1950s for a large, unmanned nuclear-fission powered interstellar spacecraft. It’s also the name of NASA’s current space capsule, which underwent automated testing a few years ago and is expected to be rated for manned flight in a few years.
* “Deep Impact” kicks “Armageddon”’s ass-teroid.
What really separates “Deep Impact” from other entries in the space disaster movie club is that human characters are fully developed human beings. “Armageddon” had a group of overacting cartoon characters who were little more than walking, talking cliches and punchlines. I felt nothing for any of them. Bruce Willis as a creepy, vaguely incestuous father chasing his daughter’s boyfriend around his oil rig with a shotgun is supposed to be funny somehow. The rest of Willis’ crew of oil rigging asshats are neurotic, deeply unfunny simpletons who shouldn’t be trusted to safely tie their shoes, let alone save the planet.
Even when Willis’ crew try to refuel their modified space shuttle from a Russian space station (with a fuel that looks suspiciously like ordinary gasoline) they blow up the whole damned space station.
“Armageddon” seems self-consciously designed as an anti-intellectual, ‘blue collar’ space epic. But in reality it mocks blue collar workers (and all they contribute) far more than it ‘honors’ them. It’s also a monumental waste of the talents of actors Steve Buscemi (“Fargo” “Ghost World”), Owen Wilson (“Midnight in Paris”), the late Michael Clarke Duncan (“Green Mile”) and Ben Affleck (“Chasing Amy”).
Perhaps “Deep Impact”’s unflinchingly dark perspective is one of the reasons why its dumbed-down, less-challenging, arguably more entertaining rival “Armageddon” did better at the box office.
Minor nits of “Deep Impact”:
While the science is “Deep Impact” is far more accurate than that of its ridiculous rival, there are still a few issues:
How exactly did the US and Russian forces build the massive “Messiah” nuclear spacecraft in Earth orbit completely unobserved by ground radar, or even civilian backyard telescopes? The current International Space Station is sometimes visible to the naked eye under the right conditions. Not to mention the excessive number of heavy payload rocket launches to build Messiah would’ve raised some suspicion at their respective launch sites (presumably Florida and Kazakhstan).
One problem with blowing up approaching asteroids or comets is the object’s trajectory. Even if one succeeds in blowing the cosmic threats to bits, there is still the matter of the object’s mass remaining on that same path.
The way around this would be to explode nukes near the comet in order to alter the comet’s flight path (even a few degrees of arc might be enough to make it just a very close shave). Or even using the gravitational influences of a sufficiently massive spaceship (like Messiah) near the comet might be enough to gently nudge it off its trajectory, if the object were far enough away from the Earth.
Granted, the Messiah had less time for such gentle gravitational nudging, but blowing the comet up wouldn’t work either. The entire mass of the object would remain on the same trajectory. Devastation spread over an entire planet versus a large (equally devastating) impact in one spot.
There’s more bad news…historically, the odds of such an impact make it more of an eventuality than a possibility.
The character of Jenny Lerner.
No offense to Tea Leoni, as she plays material she’s given as well as possible, but the character of Jenny Lerner isn’t terribly sympathetic for much of the movie. Yes, her pain and anger at her parent’s divorce and father’s new fiancee are understandable. However, such pre-loaded antagonism makes it difficult to warm up to her as a person, let alone accept her as the country’s number one broadcast news anchor during the crisis.
That said, Leoni really pours it on by the end of the film, especially in her reunion with her father on the beach. But up until that point, the Jenny Lerner character is a bit more problematic as an audience surrogate. But I’m willing to overlook this minor nit of the character in favor of that powerful beach reunion scene.
The movie is not an easy pill to swallow.
With its unflinching and honest depiction of the potential loss of most life on Earth, “Deep Impact” is not exactly a feel-good movie. I own it on DVD, and while I enjoy it very much, I usually don’t reach for it when I’m in the mood for a rollicking good time. Then again, I don’t usually reach for “The Exorcist” when I want a good laugh, either. But that doesn’t mean that “The Exorcist” is a bad film in any way. You have to be in the mood for certain movies, but sometimes they’re worth their tears.
Summing it up.
“Deep Impact” is appropriately heavy and full of portent. The pacing is measured, thoughtful, but never languid. It feels about as close to the real thing (uncannily so, at times) as a movie like this can get and still qualify as a piece of popcorn entertainment.
The human angle, as delivered through the talented cast, is what also helps to separate this one from similar end-of-the-world epics. We come to know, empathize and truly care about these characters in a way we never quite do with other similar asteroid/comet disaster movies.
While it was beaten at the box office 20 years ago by its rival “Armageddon”, I still believe that “Deep Impact” was (and is) the superior film.