Deep Impact: Special Collector’s Edition (1998)

[Steven Spielberg] said, “I’ve got this movie for you. It’s called Deep Impact.” I said, “Whoa, that sounds like a porno movie. I can’t do a porno movie.”
— Mimi Leder, commentary track, Deep Impact: Special Collector’s Edition

I always thought the truth was in the nation’s best interest.
— Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), Deep Impact

The end of the world is surely a scary concept. It’s also increasingly familiar, as much in political rhetoric (WMDs, evildoers, global warming) as in summer action movies (asteroids, aliens, global warming). Deep Impact, peers into the difficulties of conceiving such enormity. An obvious and also strange amalgamation of elements from Independence Day, Twister, Contact, and Apollo 13, Mimi Leder’s film is both less and more than a science fiction-styled disaster melodrama.

Focused on the efforts of MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) to discover, break, then absorb the utterly devastating story of a comet about to crash into earth, the movie is less concerned with the “action” than with its effects. Looking back now, after Armageddon also opened in 1998, Deep Impact appears thoughtful, almost intellectual, as it struggles to comprehend global devastation, to make it comprehensible for a Cineplex audience. Its peculiarities make it a mostly lousy action movie but at times, a provocative anti-action movie.

Deep Impact comes with impressive strange-moviemaker credentials. It’s written by Michael Tolkin (who wrote and directed The Rapture) and Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote Jacob’s Ladder), and directed by Mimi Leder. (She also made The Peacemaker, an action movie quite obviously undone by generic constraints, as Nicole Kidman and George Clooney endeavored to run and jump and beat back cold warrish evil.) While it offers a regular catastrophic premise (experts predict an Extinction Level Event when the comet hits the planet) and typical situations (some driving and bike-riding away from a mammoth tidal wave, thrilling annihilations of NYC and DC), the details spin into other cultural and emotional territories.

Newly released on a “Collector’s Edition” DVD, with a helpful commentary track by Leder and Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar, the film looks slightly less silly than it did back in 1998, if only because the connections between domestic and international fears are so much more pronounced now. The DVD includes several featurettes (all overwhelmed by James Horner’s music, which similarly pummels the film proper): “Preparing for the End” (in which science expert talking heads [lifted from 1994 footage], producer Bruce Joel Rubin, and writer Michael Tolkin discussing the real possibility of a comet hitting the earth); “Making an Impact” (Tolkin calls Leder “a good general,” as she goes on to describe the difficulties of shooting in DC and her appreciation for her incredible effects crew), and “Creating the Perfect Traffic Jam” (lots of extras, lots of cars, lots of hours).

Such background is much less compelling than the film’s own disarray. The story of the comet emerges when Jenny discovers just a bit of it. As she tries to track down its meaning, she visits with a scientist Alan Rittenhouse (James Cromwell), who advises her that she’s got hold of something she doesn’t understand. “Look,” he says wearily and not a little patronizingly, “I know you’re just a reporter, but you used to be a person, right?” Offended but also discomfited by the truth of his insinuation that journalists, even way back in 1998, are at heart sensationalists, Jenny also assumes the worst of “officials,” assuming Rittenhouse is part of a cover-up.

Jenny’s meeting with President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) is appropriately daunting, as she’s ushered through underground passages to a hotel kitchen (the place where Robert Kennedy was killed, observes Leder). Deep inside, they stand surrounded by ooky stainless steel appliances, dim light and harsh shadows, and gray walls. As he impresses on her the importance of holding her story until she “gets” the full extent of her discovery, Jenny looks aptly distraught (Leder says here that she wanted to “make Téa feel uncomfortable”).

Her distress approximates (or presumes) that of the film viewers, as Jenny tries to take in the fact that she’s trying to cut a deal with the president (she wants to be able to ask the “first question” at the press conference during which he’ll announce the comet’s approach and the space program’s effort to stop it, suggesting that she still believes she’ll have a career in years to come, or maybe she just wants to achieve this ultimate reporter’s “dream,” before she’s done).

An ambitious, emotionally stunted MSNBC reporter, Jenny has family issues, including lingering resentment against both her divorced parents, Jason (Maximilian Schell) and the combination fragile-steely Robin (Vanessa Redgrave). Like the Jodie Foster character in Contact, Jenny has serious father hangups, but hers remain refreshingly un-romanticized until the last possible second. When she meets with Jason and his “exotic” new bride Chloe (Rya Kihlstedt), Jenny is quite undone by her news, which she is yet unable to tell anyone. When Chloe suggests that she get over their marriage because “life goes on,” Jenny bursts into laughter and instructs her father to “get back together with mom.” I know you think I’m a bad person, I’m really not,” she says abruptly, as she leaves. Dad will never get it.

Jenny’s rise to superstardom because of her stumbling across the comet story (she thinks it’s a White House sex scandal) is unbelievably fortuitous though believably awkward (she’s very sincere on air, if awkward). At work, she runs into conflicts with her boss Beth (Laura Inness), whose young daughter seems attached to her hip, the apparent point being that Beth is professionally and personally successful, while Jenny appears alone and filled with doubts about both parts of her life. Jenny may be the only action movie hero whose psychological difficulties aren’t reframed as violent and preposterously redemptive outbursts.

Jenny’s life story eventually gives way to the comet story, which, for all its efforts to assert its science and real possibility, is still more effective as a metaphor for human frailties. The increasing emphasis on “realism” in action and other films accommodates more sophisticated audiences with plots that turn and twist, such that protagonists can die and movies might seem less predictable. But even given this background, the anger, grief, obnoxiousness, anxiety and downright stupidity displayed by characters in this movie are surprising, perverse and sometimes vaguely satisfying. In this context, the film’s investment in family and career concerns is unnerving: how do you make choices between them, what’s most important and how do you define “important” anyway? That is, the comet, so raucous and loud as a notion, is what it is, and not so interesting; the action/effects scenes are mostly tedious, laced with reaction shots and blue screen business.

People in charge come up with two plans, one to destroy the comet, and the other to store a lottery-selected population (with appropriate animals) underground for two years. The first involves a huge spaceship, its captain Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) and his multiculti crew, complete with white guys Oren [Ron Eldard] and Gus [Jon Favreau]), white girl Andrea (Mary McCormack), black guy Mark (Blair Underwood), and Russian guy Mikhail (Alexander Baluev). The backup plan devolves into terrible choices and mostly admirable behaviors by these stalwart types. Meanwhile, back on earth, the president worries and somberly addresses the tv audience (“Hello America”) with increasingly bad news. Included in his viewership are a couple of youngsters, representing “the future,” Leo Beiderman (16-year-old Elijah Wood), the amiable Midwestern high school astronomy student who first spots the deadly comet, and his unspunky girlfriend, Sarah (14-year-old Leelee Sobieski).

If all this is ordinary, what is strange about Deep Impact is its twisted handling of formulaic elements and in particular, character relationships. Some of these seem designed to be depressing (the imminent end of the world makes several key players suicidal, sometimes nobly, sometimes hysterically: perhaps they all want to be Randy Quaid, the emphatically redeemed alcoholic and alien abductee in ID4).

The comet comes. Leder is not an especially deft action director (which you could see as being to her credit). Deep Impact is uneven in its pace and uninspired in its tensions. But if it doesn’t deliver roller coaster-style stimulations or conventionally developed characters, its messiness is often satisfying.