Deep Impact at 20 Years

Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Deep Impact has all the makings of a cinematic masterpiece but falls just a tad bit short of joining the all-time classics.

The film starts out with Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) discovering an unknown object at a party. This is later revealed to be a comet heading towards a collision course with Earth. They send the photo to Dr. Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith). He realizes what the object his but dies in route while attempting to tell authorities. This leads to one of the biggest plot holes. He dies in a fiery crash with his belongings–how did the envelope survive?!?

A year later, MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) digs into the details of why Treasury Secretary Alan Rittenhouse (James Cromwell) resigned. She believes it to be a woman named Ellie. After the FBI takes her to meet with President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), she learns that the situation is far more serious. All would be revealed at a White House press conference where Lerner would get the first question.

The comet, named Wolf-Biederman, is said to be the size of Manhattan and as big as Mount Everest. So how do you stop this juggernaut from causing an extinction-level event? The Americans and Russia have quietly been building the Messiah, a huge spacecraft, just on the outskirts of the Earth’s atmosphere. Commander Oren Monash (Ron Eldard) leads the team, which includes a former man on the moon, Captain Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duvall). Among the crew members are Gus Partenza (Jon Favreau), Andrea “Andy” Baker (Mary McCormick), Mark Simon (Blair Underwood), and Russian Colonel Michail Tulchinsky (Aleksandr Baluev).

The future of humanity rests on 800,000 Americans under age 50 winning a lottery to join 200,000 pre-selected individuals sent to live in an Missouri structure. Among those pre-selected are the Biederman family. Naturally, Leo proposes to his girlfriend, Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski), in order to save her life. Even though they marry each other, she stubbornly stays with her family!

Speaking of the president, Morgan Freeman’s Tom Beck is one of the best fictional presidents of all time. He’s easily top ten material, right up there with Dave. Beck gets some key opportunities for a stirring speech, both before the asteroid hits and after the world started to rebuild.

When one looks back at the film, you can see how much cable news has changed in two decades. If you make this movie today, Lerner would not even give the president a chance. She would have broken the news before the White House has an opportunity to get in front of it. Yet when it comes to saving her life, she gives up everything to be there with her father, Jason Lerner (Maximilian Schell), when the moment arrives.

A tidal wave hits New York City in Deep Impact.
A tidal wave hits New York City in Deep Impact. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

I’m not going to question the science behind the film but Deep Impact brings a more realistic feeling. Because of all the landmarks, it makes sense to show the tsunami battering New York. In spite of the disaster that got butts in seats, Leder’s film focuses on the human emotion at hand. This is what makes the film able to stand apart from the other asteroid film of 1998. That being said, the bonus docs show how test screenings led to cutting much of the love story between Leo Biederman and Sarah Hotchner. It’s a shame but it is what it is. There were three test screenings in general. Ultimately though, the film ends up showing more of a focus on the adults in its storytelling.

In another universe, Steven Spielberg might be the director of Deep Impact. The broken family trope runs through many Spielberg films and even though he executive produces this one, you can still see it here. Not surprisingly, the studio would rush the film into theaters in hopes of arriving before Armageddon. Budget constraints would prevent the film from showing the impact in other countries. Regardless, Mimi Leder’s work is brilliant for the disaster thriller. Interestingly enough, this was her first time directing a sci-fi film. Outside of On the Beach, she didn’t watch any of them going into the film.

While there are things here that one would assume are entirely VFX, it might surprise you that they actually got a stretch of land to create the traffic jam. Similarly, they do a solid job in building the surface of a comet at Paramount’s Stage 15. Mind you, this is the late 1990s where digital effects could do a lot but still nowhere close to what they can do today. And yet, it’s entirely believable. Even on the newsroom side of things, the film still show’s the importance of everyone wanting to break a story rather than focus on the national security impact. Nobody could blame Secretary Alan Rittenhouse for wanting to spend more time with his family. Would you not want to do the same thing in the months leading up to an extinction-level event?

Deep Impact manages to provide a lot of drama and is driven through emotion. This includes a father-daughter storyline that will tug at your heart. Why does this sound so familiar to audiences?!? Oh right. It bares repeating that the film was the first of two films about asteroids colliding with Earth during the summer of 1998.The other film being the campier Armageddon.  It does have you wonder if Deep Impact was first pitched to Disney. It’s eerie just how crazy the two films are so similar.

DIRECTOR:  Mimi Leder
SCREENWRITERS:  Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
CAST:  Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and Morgan Freeman

Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures released Deep Impact in theaters on May 8, 1998. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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