November 18, 2014

DEEP IMPACT: Still Timely After All These Years

Starring Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Tea Lioni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximillian Schell. Directed by Mimi Leder. (1998, 121 min.)

Deep Impact, the first disaster movie with a real message. And a good one, too, which is hammered home in one of the very first scenes. Astronomer Marcus Wolf, upon realizing a giant comet is on a collision course with Earth, rushes from his observatory to warn authorities. Speeding down the mountain in his Jeep, he’s involved in a fatal, fiery accident while fumbling with his cell phone.

Let that be a lesson to all you motherfuckers yakking on your cell phones behind the wheel!

How do we know this is the message? Because this scene has absolutely no impact (deep or otherwise) on the plot. Nowhere is it indicated that Wolf’s untimely death prevents his ominous discovery from being shared with the world. The film simply picks up a year later, when the government is now well-aware the comet is heading towards Earth, and taking steps to make sure we're not globally screwed.

When you realize this, it is obvious at least one of Deep Impact's screenwriters (Bruce Joel Rubin & Michael Tolkin) must have had a recent encounter with a dumbass motorist and decided to vicariously kill them. And I can relate to that, which is why, just ten minutes into the film, although I don't condone road rage but certainly understand it, I knew I was gonna love Deep Impact.

I truly admired this opening sequence. I hate cell phones. As technology advances to the point where you can do almost everything on a tiny screen, cell phones are rendering people dumber, unable to spell or construct complete sentences. And I’m sorry, unless you are the President of the United States of America, you are not so important that people need to reach you 24/7. And before you offer the argument that Wolf’s doomsday discovery is a damned good excuse for phoning while driving, remember this...the time it would have taken him to drive safely into town and find a working phone would have no impact on whether or not the comet was gonna hit.

As it stands, Deep Impact is a story that’s been told before, but not on this scale, with pretty damn good writing and acting for a disaster movie. Earth is given about a year to live unless something can be done to divert the comet, so they send a crew of astronauts into space (led by Robert Duvall) to land on the surface and plant thermonuclear charges which will hopefully change its course. But they only succeed into blowing off one chunk, so now there are two comets hurling toward the Earth ( slips all-around to everybody on the shuttle). But for the viewer, this is actually a good thing, because now we are assured that at least one of them is gonna hit (hey, we pay our hard-earned cash to see cities get pummeled, not watch everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief after a near miss).

Finally put out of their misery,
New York Jets fans rejoice.
Back on Earth, everyone prepares for the worst. A million people are selected by a national lottery to seek refuge in underground caves, where they will have to live for two years before being able to return to the surface to rebuild. Everyone else is pretty much screwed. When the back-up plan of launching Titan missiles into space to destroy the comet fails, for a brief second, one thinks maybeDeep Impact will be every disaster fan’s wet dream, a flick with the balls to kill everybody. After all, each cast member is given ample screen time to give their weepy goodbyes to loved ones, and the consistently somber tone throughout the entire film suggests the end of the world is inevitable.

Alas, the end is not near, but the movie still offers a big payoff when the smaller of the two comets finally hits the Atlantic Ocean. It creates a massive tidal wave that takes out the coast of North America, the raging water flooding inland up to 600 miles. Tens of millions die, but the onscreen mayhem is pretty much restricted to New York City, which is fine, because who really gives a damn about watchingCharleston go down? New York has the tall buildings, giant suspension bridges and the Statue of Liberty, all of which get obliterated by the wave. The special effects are outstanding, and we get a good long look as skyscrapers topple like dominoes and the head of Lady Liberty bobbles through the streets of Manhattan like a bath toy.

It’s also obvious from the get-go that the creators of Deep Impact set out to make a smart disaster smart, I mean that the events at least seem plausible, and the film is extremely well-acted by an good cast (though Tea Leoni is in over her head as a TV anchorperson; she sometimes looks like she’s got something stuck in her eye) playing real people rather than stock disaster movie characters. In a sense, they almost succeed too well. Part of me sort of misses some of those stock characters, whom often make disaster movies so much goofy fun. There aren’t any bad guys ready to put someone else’s life in jeopardy to save their own asses, no idiots who exist to deny anything is wrong, no hordes of extras reacting in blind panic while practicing the time-honored tradition of self-preservation. Still, there’s a lot to appreciate. Morgan Freeman oozes authority as the president, and the film is pretty light on needless subplots - those that remain are more-or-less necessary for us to care whether or not these characters survive. But even if you don’t care about the characters, the climactic comet impact is worth waiting for. Deep Impactis arguably the one of the best disaster movies ever made, certainly better than the cinema suppository released that same year with the same plot, Armageddon.

"How dare you question my authority. I'm
Morgan fucking Freeman."
Still, as good as Deep Impact is, I’m still somewhat troubled by that awesome-but-pointless opening scene, which makes me lament that Rubin & Tolkin didn’t follow-through with their rage and make the astronomer’s death more central to the story. If you are going to take the time and budget to include a scene so obviously-directed at cell-phone abusers, why not go the distance and make the character’s carelessness cause the end of the world? If Wolf’s death prevented live-saving information from getting out to the masses, we could all gasp at the irony of it all. One man is able to save the world, but instead chooses to mess with his phone while driving. Wouldn't it be cool to see a movie where the end of civilization was the result of a single dumbshit?

Such a plot element would probably deliver the screenwriters’ anti-cell phone message with even more (deep) impact. Who knows how many viewers would wonder if the next irrelevant call or text they feel like they just have to make (while driving at 60 mph) could have consequences resulting in the death of billions?

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