Deep Impact

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 16th, 2018 at 10:29 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “Deep Impact”

  1. Crushinator Jones

    May 16th, 2018 at 10:43 am

    Small correction, Vern: you say that “DEEP IMPACT made $349 which is alot” but I think you meant to put an M after 349, otherwise I must challenge the assertion that 349 dollars is a lot of money for a blockbuster!

  2. Quick thoughts

    – I hate Armageddon.
    – Speaking of star driven movies they don’t make anymore, I think The Peacemaker is top notch.

  3. I’ve been meaning to rewatch this for a while. The last and only time I saw it was when it came out on VHS. Wasn’t really a fan of it. In fact, the only scene that stuck with me, was the death of the one astronaut, who first got badly blinded/sunburnt and then pushed into outer space, because that’s one of my top 3 “I would hate to die like THAT” moments in movies. (Although it’s mostly the blindness part. Floating in space seems like a pretty cool and peaceful death to me.)

  4. I remember enjoying Deep Impact more than Armageddon, but I also remember it being kind of bland. I never felt the need to revisit it.

    I’ve always wondered what happened to Leelee Sobieski? I always thought she was on her way to becoming a bigger star. These days she probably has too much of a passing resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence for a major career breakthrough.

  5. Yay! I got this on DVD for a dollar at some point and wound up watching it a few more times than probably the average amount of times. So while the impact was still not deep, it was deepER. When I think about it in 2018, it now seems strange to have a movie President doing his best to explain exactly what the limits of his power are: he’s put the best people on it, and they can’t solve it, they can only save some. Humility. And there was more of a sadness to this movie than say your INDEPENDENCE DAYs for me.

  6. Sternshein – I’m a big The Peacemaker fan as well! Clooney is great in it, I like the globe trotting vibe and the villain is surprisingly textured for a movie like this.

  7. RBatty, Leelee retired from acting. I think she paints now. I recall seeing a story about a gallery opening she had.

    Wow, Vern, I never put it together that sleepy truck drivers were a trend for summer ’98. And I know the mother of all sleepy truck drivers should becoming this week!

    I don’t think I’ve seen Deep Impact since the theaters. I remember feeling like it was a good way to begin the summer, fully expecting bigger, more spectacular movies to come soon. Funny how this ends up being the strongest blockbuster type movie of the season.

    Vern, the way you deconstruct the cliche movie critic puns makes me so happy. I live for that kind of meta commentary about our job and our less self-aware colleagues.

  8. CJ- not to rain on your peaceful death in space parade, but when you think about it, you’re actually just going to die of asphyxiation or dehydration, depending on whether your air or your water runs out first. It is for this reason that floating off into space actually seems like a terrifying way to go. I might just choose to pop the helmet off and make it relatively quick instead at that point.

    Anyway, this was another one I have fondish memories of but haven’t returned to since that summer when I was 15. I do think this was the first time I’d seen Elijah Wood in anything, because I remember thinking “oh word, the kid from Deep Impact?” when the Lord of the Rings trailers started coming out a few years later.

  9. I hate ARMAGEDDON too. It was my first awareness of Michael Bay and the horrors to come. I have not paid for a Bay movie since. While THE ROCK does have some of Bay’s hallmarks, it must have been written by somebody else. Imdb says this is indeed the case but also that ARMAGEDDON was written by a bunch of people including J J Abrams. Weird. Whatever, it has all of Bay’s detachment from reality and his TV commercial level of character interactions. It sucks.

    DEEP IMPACT has a pretty good, almost great first half or so (up until Morgan Freeman’s press conference) and then I honestly can’t remember much of what happens after that. I remember Tea Leone dying with her mom on the beach, a shot basically stolen in ROGUE ONE. That’s about it.

    They are apparently making a SEVENEVES movie, which hopefully will be good but they are gonna have to rewrite the last hundred pages of the book.

  10. My friend who was bored by this called it Sleep Impact. That was funny.

  11. I’m just gonna agree with Sternshein. ARMAGEDDON is, to me, such a pile of trash that it actually made me stop listening to Aerosmith for well over a decade. THE PEACEMAKER, on the other hand, is a solid ’90s action/thriller that did well in showcasing both Clooney and Nicole Kidman. I was always expecting Mimi Leder to do more big movies, but I guess that never happened…?

    (Or maybe it did and I was too busy hating on Aerosmith, ARMAGEDDON and Michael Bay to notice)

  12. Kurgan, I’m no asphyxiation expert, but I was always under the impression that when the air in your spacesuit runs out, you slowly get tired and fall asleep instead of not being able to breathe anymore from one second to the other. Also how much air do these suits have? Probably just a few hours. I don’t think they are made for weeklong space walks, so I think the water supply isn’t a problem. (Do they even have something to drink in there? I can imagine they have, but not even GRAVITY mentioned it.)

    Anyway, until further notice, I stay with my “space floating is peaceful-ish” theory.

  13. I fucking loved SEVENEVES, best story about the world ending ever.

  14. Zombo, Leder’s next movie Pay it Forward bombed so she went back to TV including big stuff like The Leftovers, Shameless and ER. Apparently she directed one other feature in 2009, Thick as Thieves with Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas. Wonder if it’s worth a look.

  15. For some reason I always thought that PAY IT FORWARD was directed by Lasse Halström. Man, that movie was Haley Joel Osment’s follow up to SIXTH SENSE! Poor kid. (I enjoy his current semi-career resurgence, btw.)

  16. Yes, fat, ugly redneck Haley Joel Osmet is the best.

  17. Pay It Forward certainly deserved to bomb, but the thing is male directors are allowed to fail and a single failure is held against women. Even Osment and Spacey bounced back with more starring vehicles.

  18. By the way thank you Vern for the old school political rant. It seems you have been biting your tongue for the last year or more and I can’t blame you (the Fake News Media is doing a good enough job ranting lately) but sometimes you gotta let it out. Nobody does a solid heartfelt rant like Vern.

  19. I don’t like DEEP IMPACT, or ARMAGEDDON, that much, but I’m glad you touched on the contrasting styles of both movies, because I do think it’s interesting the way that Bay’s movie focuses on blowing things up and the tough guys saving everyone, and DEEP IMPACT is focused more on people coming to grips with their situation on earth, and the fact that some people aren’t going to make it through. It’s more empathetic than a lot of blockbuster movies, and is an example of why I wish that we could see more of this type of movie directed by women. But yeah, I wish it was better too.

    I think I was in 8th grade when this came out, and I didn’t watch it until years later, because a girl I had a crush on then wouldn’t stop talking about how much she loved Elijah Wood after she saw the movie. When I did watch it, I understood. He really is like the nicest dude ever in this.

  20. it was clear without opening commenting section that people are bashing Armageddon. For me Armageddon is perfect popcorn movie with some exciting moments, compared to boredom like Deep Impact.

  21. I want to get onboard the “DEEP IMPACT is a more dramatic strain of blockbuster” train, except I don’t think very much of the drama works. A lot of it feels contrived or just kinda “Huh?” Like everybody thinking Wood was dead for no reason, or the dumb-as-fuck part where Sobieski’s parents don’t smack the shit out of her and force her on that bus, or Wood riding his bike to save her even though, like, what’s the second part of that plan? You find her and then…? And his parents letting him go! Or Leoni throwing her life away to bond with her irredeemable shitheel of a father, or the decision for the astronauts to sacrifice themselves taking like two seconds and then there’s a bad CGI shot of a screensaver and then I guess they saved the day or something. These should be powerful moments of drama and empathy, but they’re so contrived and vague that they don’t have much (deep) impact.

    I like the stuff with Freeman as the president best. I like that he brings a slightly sinister edge to his persona here. After all, I don’t care how cool you think the president is, he’s still had people killed. By definition, he is armed and dangerous. You meet the president in a situation like Leoni does here, all backdoors and shadowy, you should be scared out of your mind. This motherfucker can make you disappear anytime he wants.

  22. Whereas ARMAGEDDON’s drama is more stupid and contrived and on-the-nose, but I think a lot of it works for the kind of cheeseball emotional manipulation they’re going for. DEEP IMPACT goes for something a bit more subtle and doesn’t quite pull it off.

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