DEEP IMPACT (1998) – Barely makes a dent

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The following is my contribution to the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, being hosted by Barry at the blog Cinematic Catharsis from June 18-20, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies with the theme of Mother Nature striking back!

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Deep Impact has anything but. The title refers to a fictional meteor that’s set to destroy the Earth within two years, but for all of its state-of-the-art hocus-pocus, the tinny message of this big-budget movie is that there’s nothing like a global disaster to bring us closer together.

Like that other hanky-soaker Titanic, Deep Impact wants to find out how civilized humans would be affected by imminent destruction. But if movies like this one get destroyed in the process, I say bring on the apocalypse.

The movie’s problems begin with a credibility gap that would have shamed Bush Administrations I and II. Here, the President (Morgan Freeman) goes on TV every so often to update us on the impending disaster and what the American and Russian astronauts are doing to thwart the meteor. And he’s straightforward about the whole mess — no hint of a cover-up, or of any American or Russian leaders trying to save their hides.

The President’s contingency plan is unwittingly uncovered by a nosy reporter (“Madam Secretary’s” Tea Leoni) who mistakes “ELE” (the code for an Extinction Level Event) for a White House bimbo named Ellie. And the President never even thinks to check out this cub reporter and find out just how much or how little she really knows. This fictional President might be more noble than the real item, but he sure needs better undercover men.

As in Titanic, the ostensible disaster is really just an excuse to get together a bunch of one-note characters with whom we’re meant to identify. There’s the reporter, who has long discussions with her mother (Vanessa Redgrave!) that would be played for comedy in any other movie but are meant to be gravely serious here. There’s the seasoned astronaut (Robert Duvall) who goes on the meteor-squashing mission despite objections from his younger cohorts. And there’s the teenaged astronomer (Elijah Wood) who could use his newfound clout to run for shelter but decides he’s just gotta stay with his sweetheart. (To make the Titanic connection complete, the teenager’s name is Leo.)

Everything in the movie is strictly functional. Each little scene is reduced to its simplest component and then shunted aside for the next cliche. Even disaster-movie freaks will be disappointed; the “money shot,” with a killer tidal wave knocking the Statue of Liberty around a bowling pin, doesn’t come until about 20 minutes before the end and is surprisingly abrupt.

This was only the second feature from director Mimi Leder (who did The Peacemaker, also for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio like this one), but all she proved with this apocalypse wowser was that she could make big-budget movies as crassly as any male director. And as evidenced here, her work with actors rises and falls with the actors’ stock. The movie’s old pros (Freeman, Duvall, Redgrave) rise far above the material, while Tea Leoni doesn’t convince even as a cyber-reporter. Watch how Leoni wrings her hands whenever she’s doing a live broadcast. Then imagine how you’d feel if this woman were reporting an apocalypse to you.

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