Deep Impact
Director: Mimi Leder. Cast: Téa Leoni, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Morgan Freeman, Maximilian Schell, Ron Eldard, Vanessa Redgrave, Leelee Sobieski, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood, Laura Innes, Jon Favreau, James Cromwell. Screenplay: Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin.

An "asteroid picture" that actually cares what an asteroid is and how its arrival might be felt by a population that knows it's coming, Deep Impact is a summer blockbuster with enough brawn to be exciting but, more notably, enough brain to involve you on many levels. That seems like an outrageous assertion about early May's big popcorn flick, but consider that the collaborators on this script have between them produced the New Age-ish meditation/satires The Rapture and The New Age; the less New Age-ish but more brilliantly satirical The Player; and the similarly metaphysical commercial picture Ghost. What would be remarkable is not a scenario in which Tolkin and Rubin produce a gently introspective, genuinely enervated picture about real disaster, but if they had churned out a standard-issue, uninflected commerical for Kicking Ass, like Armageddon.

The central thread of Deep Impact is that an MSNBC reporter played by Téa Leoni has discovered that senior White House officials have conspired to cover up the president's affair with a woman known only in the context of the journalist's tip-off as "Ellie." Leoni is way too low on the newsroom totem pole to hope for any access to President Beck, played by Morgan Freeman in essentially a cameo, though with more majestic authority than Harrison Ford conjured up in Air Force One. She does, however, confront recently-resigned staff member James Cromwell to ask him about Ellie, though he warns her sharply against pursuing the issue—you can see the actor's face fall sadly as he recognizes the futility of his pleas.

You know that Leoni is just waiting to pop a champagne bottle and declare her arrival as a top-notch newshound when an armada of limousines blockade her on the drive home and take her to a basement room where the president himself appears. From this encounter and from her own surprisingly shrewd internet research, Leoni discovers that Ellie is not an adulterous companion at all, and her name is not even Ellie: she is ELE, an acronym for Extinction Level Event. Earth is about to be pounded by a comet that cannot be stopped.

Deep Impact's focus extends far beyond Leoni's character to an impressively large survey of Americans, all suddenly living in the shadow (eventually a literal one) of the imminent catastrophe. In addition to Leoni's troubled family, Rubin and Tolkin show us a pair of adolescent flirts, a trained group of astronauts, and a group of Chicago emergency-room doctors as they both learn about the crisis and adopt their own strategies for fighting it. Oh wait, scratch that last demographic!—it's just that with both Laura "Dr. Weaver" Innes and Ron "Shep" Eldard in the cast of this movie, not to mention Leoni (star of the now-defunct sitcom The Naked Truth), you sometimes can't shake the sensation that the comet has personally targeted the cast of NBC's Must See TV. (As those ads get more and more obnoxious, and as we are afflicted with trash like Jesse and Suddenly Susan, it doesn't sound like such a bad concept for another space-disaster movie, since inevitably a third will follow.)

But anyway: almost all that follows these embarking events is both craftily portrayed and movingly played. People complain all the time that action movies get dumber all the time, so kudos to the makers of Deep Impact for actually answering that call and smartening up their product. Also praise to actors like Téa Leoni, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, and newcomer Leelee Sobieski for contributing earnest portrayals that don't pretend we're not watching a summer blockbuster—I am wary of overstating the picture's emphasis on ideas and feeling, since it does deliver the adrenalized goods, I promise—but still connect with a human essence in each of their characters, whether they be the reporter sharing the news of disaster with her audience, the aging astronaut put back into duty against the threat, or a barely-adolescent girl upon whom maturity and adulthood are forced much earlier than anyone should ever expect. (I should note that I found Sobieski and Elijah Wood's teeny romance to be easily the least compelling of Deep Impact's threads, but hers is an interesting and exciting film presence that I am eager to behold in Merchant Ivory's upcoming A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.)

Perhaps because the arrival of the comet is so different from what Leoni's Jenny actually thinks she is uncovering, there is a true and terrible shock at the news of what the film is going to show us. Humanity (albeit of a homogenized Hollywood type) gets shaken pretty severely in Deep Impact, and several of the people you expect to see survive are obliterated with gross ease by the monumental power of what's coming. Yes, the tsunami special-effects and other moments in the picture could have used a little more post-production tweaking, but all in all the impact of Mimi Leder's picture is indeed suprisingly deep. Translation: I cried. Who knew? And Jerry Bruckheimer, are you listening? B

Permalink Home 1998 ABC Blog E-Mail