Deep Impact (1998)

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 May (6.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Teatime disaster thrills abound with Deep Impact, a film I caught at the cinema back in 1998 largely on the strength of its TV spots. I’m embedding a fifteen-second  trailer below – it isn’t the one I saw, but it’s essentially the same. Back then, major metropolises being laid low by the CGI-driven power of nature wasn’t the kind of thing you got to see every day and, even now, that shot of the wave towering over Manhattan’s skyscrapers is pretty impressive, isn’t it? As I recall, the TV spot I watched included Miss Liberty’s head floating to the bottom of the newly submerged street, which was an incredibly powerful image in the days before it happened as a matter of course in films and apocalyptic documentaries.

After the sheer thrills promised by the trailer, I was taken aback by the film’s sombre tone, the focus on human interest and the revelation that the entire content of that trailer happened in its closing act. The walk home from Gatley’s Tatton Cinema (gone but not forgotten) was not a happy one. Several months later, Michael Bay’s Armageddon was out. Both films played on real human fears of a massive heavenly body, a comet or an asteroid, crashing into earth and wiping out all life, much as it had the dinosaurs. This subject had been explored previously in 1979’s Meteor, a well budgeted but ill received offering in which disappointingly little happened. The two 1998 films must have done all they could to avoid the same fate, and Armageddon probably emerged with the upper hand. It’s certainly better fun than Deep Impact and it’s been lent a degree of artistic credibility since then thanks to its release on the Criterion label. But looking back, I have come to appreciate the Dreamworks piece more, perhaps because it at least attempts a serious human story over the fireworks and rock music favoured by Bay.

Deep Impact is told from the perspectives of three people. First is young Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), who discovers the comet at his school astronomy club (it ends up being named after him) and then gets swallowed up in the drama of families being picked randomly to enter the vast underground bunkers created by the government to ensure some people survive the impact. Leo’s a celebrity thanks to his discovery so his family is selected for salvation, but that of his girlfriend isn’t. The second strand concerns Tea Leoni’s go-getting journalist. She breaks the story of the ‘Extinction Level Event’ whilst privately trying to cope with her eccentric middle-aged parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell) who’ve separated. Lastly, Robert Duvall plays a veteran astronaut who forms part of the ‘Messiah’ team, piloting a spacecraft that will fire missiles into the comet in the hope of shattering it before it can impact.

The focus is strictly on the people involved. Director Mimi Leder gives each of her characters room to breathe, arguably too much in certain instances but the pay-off comes with the pathos of the impacted world and the logical choices its people make. I especially like the developing relationship between Leoni and Schell, which strikes a definite emotional chord. The impact, when it happens (and it does, unlike in Armageddon) is every bit as spectacular as the trailers suggest. The effects might have dated in the years since the work on Deep Impact was considered cutting edge, but by this point the film has made a noble attempt both to make you care for its characters, and to suggest a human response to the comet threat that flirts with realism. No amount of Aerosmith can compensate for that.

The abiding image for me is that of two people stood on a seashore, watching the water recede for miles before the massive tidal wave looms on the horizon. They’re pinpricks, about to be annihilated, but I cared more for them than I did Willis, Affleck, et al, and that must count for something.

Deep Impact: ***

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