Directed By: Mimi Leder
Starring: Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood
Tag line: "Oceans rise. Cities fall. Hope survives"
Trivia: The scene where Jenny Lerner first meets the President was filmed in the actual kitchen where Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968
I know a good number of people think they’re idiotic, but I have a soft spot for the string of disaster films released in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Movies like Armageddon, Volcano, Twister, Independence Day and Dante’s Peak didn’t challenge your mind or teach you anything about the human condition, but when it came to mass destruction, sometimes on a global scale, these films delivered the goods. 1998’s Deep Impact fits neatly into this group as well, but also offers a little more besides, making it one of that decade’s better disaster flicks.
Looking to make a name for herself, MSNBC cub reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) delves into a recent story concerning the resignation of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Rittenhouse (James Cromwell). She believes he’s stepping down due to an illicit affair with a woman named “Elle”, but realizes she’s on to something much bigger when the President himself (Morgan Freeman) brings her in for a chat. As it turns out, “Elle” is actually “E.L.E.”, or “Extinction level Event”, and what has the government all in a tizzy is the fact that a comet the size of Mount Everest is heading our way.
Discovered months earlier by high school student Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) and now-deceased scientist Dr. Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith), the comet (designated “Wolf-Biederman”, for obvious reasons) is on a path to collide with earth in less than a year’s time. In the hopes of pushing it off-course, the U.S. and Russia have put together a team of scientists who will land on the comet’s surface, dig 100 meters down, and plant a nuclear device, which, when detonated, should be strong enough to either destroy or divert the comet. This group, which includes Commander Oren Monash (Ron Eldard) and astronauts Andrea Baker (Mary McCormack), Mark Simon (Blair Underwood) and Gus Partenza (Jon Favreau) as well as Cosmonaut Michail Tulchinsky (Aleksandr Bailuev), is primed and ready to go. Joining them on this most important undertaking is Capt. Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duvall), who has flown several space missions and was the last American to walk on the moon.
Packing themselves into a high-tech spaceship named The Messiah, the crew successfully lands on the comet and completes their mission. Alas, the bomb doesn’t cause as much damage as originally hoped, and the comet’s course remains unchanged. With few options left, the world prepares for what looks to be the inevitable. In an effort to preserve our way of life, the U.S. Government holds a lottery, during which 800,000 Americans are selected at random to live in an underground bunker alongside 200,000 pre-selected scientists, officials, and artists. They'll have to remain underground for at least two years (at which point the dust should settle and the earth will be habitable once again), but as the world readies itself for doomsday, a plan is put in motion that just might save our planet after all.
Though it comes standard in this sort of movie, the “oh shit” scene in Deep Impact (that moment when a character, in this case Dr. Marcus Wolf, first discovers the gravity of the situation) is handled well, and ends with a bit of a twist that puts the audience even further on-edge. And extra points to the filmmakers for electing Morgan Freeman President on the United States. Seriously, if he were to run for the office, I would vote for him, if for no other reason than to listen to his speeches. While he only has a few scenes, Freeman makes the most of them all, and I put him right up there with Bill Pullman in Independence Day as one of the coolest world leaders ever to appear in a disaster film.
Then, of course, there are the side stories and superfluous characters; along with reporting on the end of the world, Jenny Lerner is having parental issues. Her mother, Robin (Vanessa Redgrave), is depressed that her longtime husband (and Jenny’s father) Jason (Maximillian Schell) left her to marry a younger woman (Rya Kihlstedt). High school student Leo Biederman, thrust into the limelight thanks to his role in identifying the threat, is having some romantic tangles with girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Socieski), who refuses to join him in the bunker unless her parents (Gary Werntz and Denise Crosby) can tag along as well. Even the astronauts don’t escape the drama, starting with the fact they don’t want old-timer Spurgeon, who they see as a PR ploy and nothing else, getting in their way during the mission. Thanks to its wonderful cast, these extra stories have some weight to them (especially Jenny Lerner’s), and don’t detract from the severity of the situation.
As with most movies of this ilk, Deep Impact has its eye-rolling moments, and scenes that have you asking questions the filmmakers would rather you just forget (like how did Robert Duvall pilot that ship through the enormous rocks and debris flying towards him at top-speed; and, later on, how did a character find that one specific car he’s searching for on a highway filled with thousands of automobiles?). But with its cool special effects (including a late scene featuring a fast-moving wall of water) and nail-biting sequences (the time the astronauts spend on the comet’s surface will have you on the edge of your seat), coupled with its effective human stories, Deep Impact stands a little taller than the other disaster films of its era.