May 8, 1998
For many, the 1998 summer movie season will always be remembered as the comet vs. the asteroid (or the dueling asteroid movies, if they forget that one was a comet). DEEP IMPACT is the first released, the less popular, and the more grown up of the two movies. It’s way less stupid, less hectic, less hateful, and more forgotten by society. But that’s not necessarily undeserved. It’s not all that exciting.
The story begins with high school lovebirds Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood, THE TRUST) and Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski, THE WICKER MAN) enjoying some amateur astronomy when Leo discovers a comet headed for the earth. His teacher sends the evidence to a pro (Charles Martin Smith, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI) who verifies it but is immediately killed in a car accident.
(Summer of ’98 note: Like BLACK DOG it’s a sleepy-truck-driver accident that sets everything up.)
I don’t understand that turn of events. It skips over a year, so for a second I assumed the accident prevented them from finding out about the comet in time, but no. Actually the government found his information and named the comet after him and Leo. What’s the story purpose of killing him off? Not wanting to keep checking back in on a guy that knows about stars and shit? I’m not sure.
Leo and Sarah sit out the rest of the first half of the movie, which follows MSNBC journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni, THE FAMILY MAN) hot on the trail of a scoop about the sudden resignation of the Treasury Secretary (James Cromwell, SPECIES II) being caused by a mistress named Ellie. Confronting him about it gets her surrounded by intimidating government agents, who take her to an empty hotel back room for a talk with the fucking president (Morgan Freeman, BEN-HUR). And I’m not saying she should be able to figure out that the “Ellie” that made him want to spend more time with his family was actually E.L.E. as in Extinction Level Event, but I am saying it takes her unconscionably long to figure out that something else is going on here. That something is that they know the comet might hit earth and kill everybody and they want a little more time before they announce how they’re gonna try to stop it.
Their plan involves astronauts on an American-Russian spacecraft called Messiah trying to bomb the comet. So you get some of your astronaut movie shit in there, including a pre-launch family barbecue straight out of APOLLO 13. Robert Duvall (GONE IN 60 SECONDS) plays a legendary veteran astronaut who the young whippersnappers (including Ron Eldard [Justified], Blair Underwood [SET IT OFF] and Jon Favreau [G-FORCE]) are dicks to at first because they think he’s just there for name recognition and doesn’t know what he’s doing, and also they want to spend the possible last hours of human existence being babies about some dumb ego bullshit. And then accidents, goodbyes, heroic sacrifice, etc. Please rise and remove your hats for the score by James Horner (WINDTALKERS).
One thing that really struck me about this movie: poor Jenny sucks at her job. I mean yes, she uncovered a huge story, “the biggest story in history,” but only by accident. She had no idea what it was she actually stumbled onto until well after a face-to-face talk with the president about it. When she gets to ask the first question at the press conference she sounds nervous and doesn’t even have a decent question until her third one, which she’s only allowed to ask through some combination of presidential generosity and every other reporter for some reason sitting back and letting her take her time. When she gets to anchor the news she has a long nervous pause after they introduce her! I guess this is supposed to make her relatable or something, but I think it makes her seem like she didn’t deserve that promotion.
(Note to Jenny Lerner: I thought Ronan Farrow sucked too when he got an MSNBC show, but after his got cancelled he went back to print and won a Pulitzer for helping bust Harvey Weinstein. So go get ’em.)
A weird thing: Secret Service dudes intimidate Jenny and take her through a hotel kitchen where she comes face to face with the president. This reminded me of where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. That’s because that’s where they filmed it! What’s that about? That’s a strange thing to do, right? I wonder if they considered Ford’s Theater?
It doesn’t feel as dated as some 20 year old movies. There are floppy disks and an old fashioned can of Jolt Cola (which failed to keep the sleepy truck driver awake). The computer animated space stuff is not up to modern standards, but better than LOST IN SPACE. One thing that accidentally dated well is the use of MSNBC as the network Jenny works for. At the time I had never even seen that channel and it seemed funny, like they couldn’t afford CNN. (In truth, CNN had turned them down, thinking it would be improper.) At the time, Rachel Maddow was 25 and Chris Hayes was 19. Anyway, I laughed at the part where she’s worried they’re gonna kill her and she tries to protect herself by saying “I’m expected back at MSNBC at six.” I don’t know why. It just sounds funny.
At the time this seemed like a response to the popularity of INDEPENDENCE DAY, in that it was another throwback ensemble disaster movie, only with a less dunderheaded approach. But in fact it had been in development since the ’70s when those types of movies were still common. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown had wanted to do a remake of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. In the ’90s they recruited Steven Spielberg to direct, and Bruce Joel Rubin (DEADLY FRIEND, GHOST, JACOB’S LADDER) based his script on both WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and the Arthur C. Clarke book The Hammer of God before Michael Tolkin (GLEAMING THE CUBE, THE PLAYER, DEEP COVER) ditched all that shit in his draft. But Spielberg wanted to do AMISTAD first, and the producers got wind of ARMAGEDDON coming, so they got Mimi Leder, who had done episodes of L.A. Law, Crime Story, E.R. etc. as well as THE PEACEMAKER starring George Clooney.
It was the most expensive movie directed by a woman up until that point, and that’s important because it’s the rare big ol’ disaster movie with a genuine female perspective. The main character is a woman, her boss is a woman, MSNBC is progressive enough to have on-site daycare for the boss’s kid. Leder focuses not on destroying landmarks, but on characters facing things like wanting to die on their own terms, yearning to repair relationships before they die, wanting to be with their loved ones. The president’s backup plan involves choosing VIPs and lottery winners to take shelter inside mines with the brightest scientists, an ark’s worth of animals and the treasures of civilization, so young Leo (being chosen because of his discovery) has to figure out if he can get his girlfriend’s family a pass, and if not, if he should stay with them rather than try to survive. And it makes sense but it’s a real kick in the nuts to hear that unless they’re one of the experts, no one over 55 will be admitted. Sorry, moms and dads. You’re too much of a drain.
I think a cool ending would be if most of the comet ended up breaking off and not killing everybody, but did cause the mines to collapse and kill all of the world’s brightest elites and destroy our cherished artwork and history and everything. Whoops!
In 1998 it was a cool, progressive move to cast Freeman as the president (something Leder had to fight for). I think most of us didn’t really think we’d have a black president in our lifetime. Of course Freeman has the gravitas and eloquence for the role. You absolutely believe that he’s in charge and has the best possible plan and the best people working on it. And he’s comforting. His “let’s all be grownups about this” approach (and gray hair) do, in retrospect, seem a little Obama-esque. And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that seeing him in this role may have helped move things along a little by painting a picture for us dumb whites, allowing us to see what it would be like, that it would work, that it could be great.
To me, these types of movies started to feel scarier during the Bush administration. After Katrina you couldn’t really take it for granted that the government would make a reasonable effort to help out in these sorts of disasters. And now of course it’s terrifying to think about because we know 100% there is no fucking way that Trump would have any idea what to do or how to get sane or competent people on it. He would definitely keep ELE a secret, then accidentally blurt it out, then blame it on Obama and/or Hillary, then say it’s FAKE NEWS and deny he ever said it, etc. Of course he would never be able to build the underground shelter, but if he did, he would use it as a self-dealing scam, and put his name on some shoddy bullshit made by subcontractors who he stiffed, and he would only allow the super rich who bribed him to live there, with first dibs for Nazis, rapists and the flagrantly corrupt. And once they got inside they would all hate each other and would be relieved when it collapsed on them because of all the shortcuts and poor planning in the construction. Or he would’ve forgot to bring water or something.
DEEP IMPACT made $349 which is alot, but alot less than the summer’s other movie about astronauts flying up to do a thing to stop a thing from hitting the earth and wrecking shit. And I think it’s fair to say it was forgotten faster too. Although DEEP IMPACT didn’t exactly have a deep impact on the cultural consciousness (you see that, because of the movie is called DEEP IMPACT is why I chose the phrase “deep impact” there, that’s just one of the little extra things I do for you all to make your day bright), it was kind of a stepping stone for a few cast members. It was only Sobieski’s second movie, after JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE, so it was sort of the launch of her period of stardom which included the Joan of Arc mini-series, EYES WIDE SHUT and JOY RIDE. Wood was well established as a child star, but this was his first event movie, and just a few years later he was starring in LORD OF THE RINGS. Favreau had been established in small roles like “Assistant” in BATMAN FOREVER, but two years earlier had written and starred in SWINGERS. So he’s doing that thing where you cash in on your indie success by allowing your presence to add indie cachet to a big studio movie.
I can’t say this is one of the great summer movies, but I’ve watched it a couple times over the years and I at least respect it for trying to be a little less dumb than others of its type, and for mining real human drama more than giant waves and crumbling earth. You could do worse, and you certainly did in the summer of ’98.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.