Film Discussion

Throwback 20: Deep Impact

The summer of 1998 was an eventful one for movies, with much that was good and an equal amount that was not-so-good; and by not so good, what one really means is: awful. The year had given us its biggest money-maker at the start of the year with James Cameron’s Titanic and its record-breaking box office performance and domination at the Academy Awards, which meant the summer (usually where the biggest money makers were to be found) was already in the shadow of the year’s biggest box office draw.

It was the summer that saw the big screen debut of Mulder and Scully with their eagerly awaited big-screen spin-off The X-Files: Fight the Future. Thankfully, while it was a worthy big screen version of the massively successful cult television series, the same could not have been said of Lost in Space, or the epic disaster that was The Avengers, based on the cult 60’s television series and not the Marvel comics characters.

While there were some interesting curiosities such as City of Angels, an example of late 90’s star power with the combination of Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan bringing in audiences, the headline story was the release of two big-budget thrillers centred around the destruction of Earth by asteroids. As the history of film has shown us, it’s not uncommon for two separate Hollywood studios to put into production two competing movies with the same idea at its heart.

The previous year had seen Pierce Brosnan and Tommy Lee Jones compete for audience favour by battling competing volcanos (Dante’s Peak over Volcano any day, personally speaking), while 1998 also, bizarrely, saw two competing animated movies about insects, with Disney-Pixar going up against Dreamworks for audience affections with A Bug’s Life fighting Antz for box office dominance (let’s just call it A Bug’s Life and be done with it).

Amazingly when it came to the battle of the asteroid movies, it was once again Disney against Dreamworks, with Disney releasing Armageddon through Touchstone Pictures, their sadly long gone PG-13 and R-rated division, and Dreamworks giving the world Deep Impact.

Make no mistake, Armageddon has the best visual effects of the two movies, but since it’s produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Michael Bay and boasts around five credited writers on its screenplay, with nine writers actually having written worked on it at one point or another, it is a mess that has not aged well, or at least loses all respect the older you get.

Deep Impact is a much better proposition, boasting Mimi Leder direction, a script co-written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, a brilliantly epic and moving score from James Horner and an all-star cast that included Morgan Freeman, Tea Leoni, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Elijah Wood,  with smaller roles throughout played by Richard Schiff, Mary McCormack, Dougray Scott and Laura Innes.

It also does not feature oil drillers in space and instead opts to centre its story around actual astronauts trying to save the world, along with a realistic depiction of the social fallout of what would happen if such an event was about to befall the human race. It also featured an African-American President a good four years before 24 gave us one on a regular basis and ten years before it became a reality in the real world.

With a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it only ranks 10% higher than Armageddon, but upon recently rewatching the movie, one is immediately taken with the film’s sense of emotional scale and realism. If filters its story not through so-called “manly men” or phoned-in performances from the likes of Bruce Willis or Ben Affleck selling out any semblance of independent movie credibility he had gained through his work with Kevin Smith or Good Will Hunting, but instead focuses on families, politics, newsrooms and NASA. In fact, many of its scenes take place in the Oval Office, NBC’s news division, NASA Mission Control and within the confines of a space shuttle populated by actual astronauts and filters its story through its characters.

Yes, it’s cheesy at times, it can be emotionally manipulative and James Horner’s score really goes for your tear ducts, but it works so well. Maybe because this reviewer was fourteen when first viewed, but the movie goes straight for your heart and gets there.

In all honesty, as a 14-year-old, I also really enjoyed Armageddon, and I probably had Don’t Want to Miss a Thing by Aerosmith taped off the radio somewhere, but time can be amazing, especially one gets older, and Deep Impact is a wonderful movie. The effects look dated, but then again, they weren’t really that special at the time, especially compared to the bombast delivered by Bay and Bruckheimer. But it’s the heart where Deep Impact wants to strike; and it really, really does.

Yes, Tea Leoni and Maximilian Schell’s characters could have escaped easily and probably survived, but this is about drama as well as about realism. It’s no surprise that emotional resonance and a deathly undercurrent haunt the movie throughout; Leder cut her teeth brilliantly directing episodes of E/R, an action movie disguised as a medical drama if there ever was one, while co-screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin had made a career scripting intensely emotional dramas that weren’t afraid to put death and loss front and centre (My Life, GhostJacob’s Ladder).

Deep Impact had originally started off as a potential adaptation of the Arthur C Clarke novel The Hammer of God, with Steven Spielberg set to direct, but his commitment to Amistad led Dreamworks to seek out Leder who had directed the previous year’s The Peacemaker for the studio. In the end, the narrative ended up being different enough from the novel that no credit for Clarke was required, something that actually rankled Clarke greatly.

Armageddon may have brought the bombast and gained more in the way of box office gross, the resulting impact (excuse the pun) comes from Leder’s movie. It isn’t dumb, its sense of scale is legitimate (a sequence depicting a traffic jam on a freeway was, at the time, the largest put to film), James Horner anchors the movie with his gorgeous music score, and every actor has their chance to shine, not least Freeman who brings dignity and gravitas as President Beck.

All this without an Aerosmith theme song in sight.

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