Deep Impact (The Cornfield #51)

More near-misses lately in the world of asteroids and their relationship to Earth, prompting a visit to a review of the non-Armageddon from 1998. As it turned out, I was wrong about Armageddon not being just as much a soap opera as Deep Impact; read about the grisly results here. And MSNBC is still around, despite my skepticism.

The opening reels of Deep Impact are gripping enough to explain why Steven Spielberg got excited about this end-of-the-world property. A teenage amateur astronomer (Elijah Wood) spots a curious comet in the night sky, and sends a query to a pro (Charles Martin Smith), who takes a peek at the unidentified cosmic smear. (Sign of the times: Smith doesn’t look through a telescope, but at a computer screen.) It’s kind of like the cropduster scene from North by Northwest: the slow-dawning realization that the flying thing isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and that it’s heading straight for you. Except in this case it isn’t a cropduster, it’s an asteroid that will destroy all life on the planet Earth.

A year later, an enterprising MSNBC reporter (Tea Leoni) thinks she’s uncovered a White House scandal. (Will viewers in the future see this film and wonder if MSNBC was one of those made-up companies invented for dramatic purposes?) Actually, she’s stumbled across something only the president (Morgan Freeman) and his top advisors know: the asteroid is coming, and it’s a year away from impact. When the impending disaster goes public, the prez assures the populace that a space shuttle mission can plant some nuclear bombs on the surface of the asteroid before it gets to Earth.

The script, credited to Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, then veers into Apollo 13 territory, as we follow the progress of the space mission. This is a very nearly separate movie, with all sorts of forced tensions between Robert Duvall, the old-fashioned NASA pilot, and his younger crew (they include Ron Eldard, Blair Underwood, and Swingers guy Jon Favreau). There’s some suspense as the spaceship intersects the flying rock, and Duvall has his share of nice moments, but the real story is down on Earth. This shuttle material simply provides the hardware in a movie that is actually closer to The Day the Earth Stood Still than Independence Day.

On Earth, everybody prepares for the worst-case scenario. Caves have been dug in Missouri, with room for a million people to survive a couple of years, or until the heaviest part of the apocalypse is over. After the really important people are chosen, the Dr. Strangeloves of this world, there will be a lottery for the remaining 800,000 slots. The film focuses on two family units divided by this system. Leoni, chosen to be a survivor, tries to come to terms with her estranged parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell). And Elijah Wood, chosen because he discovered the asteroid, faces the prospect of survival without his girlfriend.

This whole aspect of the film — that a disaster movie might also be what they used to call a “woman’s picture” — is worth exploring, but Deep Impact hedges its bets too much; the shuttle mission and the climactic effects distract from the (generally well-written) human drama. Spielberg, on board only as a producer, hands the directing reins to Mimi Leder, but there are flourishes that seem to be pure Spielberg: the asteroid caught in the reflection of a car window just before impact, for instance. But Leder, who made a fumbled job of The Peacemaker, does far more confidant work here, as the movie summons up its share of shivery moments. She can’t knit the different parts of the screenplay together, and the grand finale doesn’t really come off, despite some awesome effects work. Because Deep Impact wants to rise above the cheesy fun of an Independence Day, we can’t enjoy the giant tidal wave or the sight of the Statue of Liberty in smithereens; Leder and Spielberg don’t want us to cheer the disasters. Instead, the film aims for the somber sci-fi of Contact, and falls similarly short of its target.

End-of-the-world movies are a delicate business. Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach was able to work up some dark-night ruefulness, but that was largely because the disaster was our own fault (a nuclear winter). Perhaps it’s best if these kinds of things stick to the pulp of The Omega Man and its ilk. The notion of an asteroid hitting the earth is intrinsically goofy (though not at all impossible, as we now know), and doesn’t lend itself to sober soap opera. By all accounts, the upcoming asteroid movie Armageddon doesn’t make the same mistake.