"Deep Impact", the latest tentpole production from Dreamworks SKG (following up their previous efforts "The Peacemaker" and "Mousehunt"), spent a lot of time in the eighties and early Nineties in development hell, as producing team Richard Zanuck and David Brown shopped it around the various studios. After fifteen years of going nowhere, the duo finally struck gold when Steven Spielberg picked it up for his new production/distribution company. Like last year's coincidental greenlighting of two competing volcano pics, "Deep Impact" is the first of two 'watch out for falling rocks' movies, with Michael Bay's "Armageddon" on its way in July.
Work will go on... you will pay your taxes. I can promise you this: life will go on... we will prevail.
The question that "Deep Impact" ponders on is 'what would you do if you knew the world was going to end in one year?', which is not unlike the question posed in "Titanic" and the grim nuclear holocaust tearjerker "On the Beach". The story begins with the discovery of a new comet, Wolf-Biederman, that is on a collision course with the Earth. One year later, Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni), an ambitious reporter with the MSNBC news network, while investigating a possible sex scandal in the upper echelons of the White House, learns that the government has been covering up the existence of the comet and its impending collision with the Earth. Because of Jenny's discovery, the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman of "Amistad") holds a press conference to inform the public of the threat to Earth and unveils an ambitious plan to divert the comet's trajectory. Despite Jenny's career-making news story, she is troubled by the implications of the possibility of an 'extinction level event' in her lifetime, and this is further exacerbated by the re-marriage of her father (Maximilian Schell) to a younger woman (Rya Kihlstedt), leaving her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) to spend what are probably her last days alone.
You're here because the powers-that-be need a friendly face on this mission.
Despite the bad news, all eyes are focused on Messiah, the name of the joint American-Russian mission to plant nuclear bombs inside the comet, hopefully diverting it away from Earth. The crew includes retired astronaut 'Fish' Tanner (Robert Duvall of "The Apostle"), who is seen by his fellow crew members as a mere mascot, satiating the public's need for an icon on a mission that some skeptics believe is futile. Meanwhile, young astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood of "The Ice Storm") is basking in his new found fame arising from the biggest news story in the world, which he hopes will bring him closer to his high school sweetheart (Leelee Sobieski). But not everything goes as planned, and as the clock ticks down the final hours of the planet, each of the characters finds a sense of purpose and closure in their lives, while clinging to the faint hope that the world around them will somehow survive.
They're not scared of dying... they're just scared of looking bad on TV.
Unfortunately, "Deep Impact" isn't as deep nor does it have the emotional impact you'd expect in a finding-courage-in-the-face-of-impending-catastrophe type of movie. This is a common problem that plagues the disaster genre when there are too many characters and stories to tell. Within the confines of a two-hour movie, the amount of screen time that can be devoted to each character and their conflict is reduced to a bare minimum, which restricts the ability for the audience to sympathize, or even 'fall in love' with them. "Titanic" had a strong emotional resonance because James Cameron chose to concentrate on Jack and Rose. The emotional resonance is diluted in "Deep Impact" because we are only given quick glimpses of each character at various times, and so when the 'great moment of self-sacrifice and epiphany' comes, the impact is not as resounding, and you are left with what amounts to contrived pathos. Furthermore, exploration of the social and moral implications of such a devastating event are also given the short stick. Other characters are not developed at all, the most notable being the President. Morgan Freeman's scenes are the most interesting aspect of the movie, but there is little development of the struggle he faces, being burdened with the responsibility of deciding who lives and dies, and having to leave behind friends and colleagues who are certain to die.
I believe God hears all prayers... even if the answer is 'No'.
Finally, because of the compressed storyline, "Deep Impact" does not convey the epic scale of a doomsday scenario. Though there are some powerful apocalyptic scenes, such as a highway clogged with traffic, a squadron of helicopters abandoning Washington D.C., and the spectacle of giant tidal waves wiping out entire cities, there are others that are conspicuously absent. Many events are mentioned in the dialogue, but the audience never gets to see it, such as a last-ditch nuclear missile attack on the comet, the rampant civil disobedience engulfing the country, and a vast underground network of caves where two million Americans will hunker down until the Earth is safe for human habitation again.
Despite the limitations of the script, the majority of the cast handles the material well, most notably Freeman and Duvall, in bringing poignancy to their performances on short notice. Unfortunately, Leoni's performance as the main protagonist leaves much to be desired, with her wooden and emotionally-flat line delivery. I wonder what kind of difference it would have made if a stronger actress, such as Jodie Foster ("Contact"), was cast as Jenny Lerner.
If the world does go on, it will not go on for everyone.
Overall, "Deep Impact" is an okay popcorn flick. Though it starts off slowly, there is still enough spectacle and emotion to make it worthwhile, especially in the final act. However, this movie could have benefited from a longer running time, allowing for more exploration of the characters and exposition on the issues posed by the premise-- I only hope that a director's cut that tells a more complete story will come out one day.
Cites fall, but they are rebuilt. Heroes fall, but they are remembered.