Movie Review: Deep Impact

© 1998 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Strong advantages mixes with drawbacks to yield good film.

Synopsis: A comet the size of Mount Everest is discovered heading towards Earth. While precautions are made to avert or destroy it using nuclear weapons sent into space on an enormous "shuttle", alternate plans for the destruction of the world are made. The aversion plan fails, so the people of the world are faced with the end of their existence.

Review: There are some very strong points of this movie, while at the same time, weak execution of some aspects keeps this movie from having the kind of emotional and philosophical impact Contact produced. The interesting philosophical thoughts from the consideration of highly improbably possibilities are an underlying theme to Deep Impact, and is what drives the movie through many of its low points. The biggest challenge for this kind of film is that there are two ways to look at the end of the world: humanity acts nobly and comes together in the face of Armageddon, or total anarchy breaks loose and we end up killing ourselves (literally or figuratively) before the end arrives. What makes or breaks a movie about this topic is how well it convinces you of the filmmaker's vision, despite how you may envision it. Of course, how staunchly you stick to your convictions may determine whether the movie works for you. Deep Impact takes the high road, believing that people will act reasonably for the most part, aside from some disturbances, so that may affect your overall impression of the movie.

Director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker) directs a pretty strong cast, including Robert Duvall, Tia Leoni, Vanessa Redgrave, and Morgan Freeman (along with a host of tiny roles played by very recognizable stars) in essentially four plot lines in an attempt to focus attention more on the human factor and not the special effects of the film. One thread features Leo Biedman, a teenager who discovered the comet, and his girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski, who looks astonishingly like Helen Hunt, but, unfortunately, doesn't act like her). Their relationship is mostly implied, but is never actually developed at all. (That they existed in this movie at all, as well as how they are portrayed, is a dead giveaway that Steven Spielberg had his hand in it. In this case, he's the executive producer.) It would be easy to pass off their relationship as inconsequential to the movie's thrust, but the movie relies way too heavily on them for emotional effect, especially in the end when you're supposed weep for them, so you're left a little dry with these kids.

The next set of characters is Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni), a news reporter for MS-NBC, who stumbles across the story of the comet and its potentially devastating effects while researching a story she thinks is about a sexual impropriety by the President. (It's nice that this is the first movie that isn't using CNN as the primary news organization representing the media, but then again, using MS-NBC makes me think that Bill Gates probably funded the movie by having the kind of visibility the network and the web browser get on the screen.) Jenny is not only dealing with her own personal life and career (not to mention the impending disaster), but her relationship with her divorced parents. She's close to mom (Redgrave), but has estranged her father, who left her mother for a younger woman, who leaves him after news of the disaster comes. This is a very weak thread, but comes together better at the end (though not sufficiently to save it).

Then there's the President (Morgan Freeman) and the astronauts who are all top-notch, respectable, admirable and brave in their handling of the situation. Not once do these people flinch or show signs of breakdown, with the brief exception of a Russian cosmonaut, who is quickly calmed by Robert Duvall's commanding performance. He is the captain of the space mission sent to detonate nuclear devices on the comet in an attempt to break it apart before it hits Earth. Duvall has a family and we see a little bit of this thread, but it doesn't develop well enough to be part of the movie's emotional arsenal. Morgan Freeman's role also doesn't get very deep, since we never see anything but his stoic character, although I found him very effective as the President. (I'd vote for him.) What this all reflects is the biggest drawback of the movie: it spreads itself too thinly trying to capitalize on human interest by following all these characters. The space team, who make a great group, are all superficially represented, where it would have been more effective to develop the core characters and really leave out the fringes. While the team, as well as many superfluous characters in the movie come together well as they get closer and closer to danger and look death in the face, there are just too many and they dilute the humanity effect.

Finally, there's the best part of the movie: the science. Yes, the special effects are great, and I would be hard pressed not to say that the movie is almost worth the bucks to see them. But what's even better is that they are done tastefully and in context with the story line. I never felt that the effects were done for the sake of flexing impressive CPU power or cool software. The science behind the imagery seemed impeccably researched, as were the reasons for the ways things progress, the motivations of the characters, and so forth. It just "makes sense" that all the events that took place as they did, and this left me with a great sense of plausibility about the movie. With this kind of foundation, the imagination can now go wild with speculations about how such an event could occur, how we would react, what we could do about it, and what the result could be like.

Despite the weaker characters or subplots, one underlying aspect to the movie that I enjoyed was the constant stimulation of philosophical thought. I continued to imagine, even contrarily to what the movie professes, what the world would be like in the shadow of its end. We are shown glimpses of anarchy on newsclips, the deterioration of society in some parts of the world, but these are all passed off as isolated events. (Consider, for example, what's going on in Indonesia right now because of the deterioration of their currency, which is a far cry from the devastating effect like the end of the world as we know it.) That the movie had this kind of effect on me is a strong sign of its effectiveness for what it attempted to do.

All in all, the movie is fun and worth seeing, but it's going to be easily and quickly forgotten. The characters didn't stick with me, their situations were unremarkable and the questions the movie poses aren't addressed by the movie very well. (I addressed these questions, and that will stick with me, but not like the effect Contact had on me.)

If the end of the world were to ever come about this way, I hope I'm around long enough to review it.

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