Deep Impact: Special Collector's Edition (1998)

Cynthia Fuchs

Mimi Leder's Deep Impact is both less and more than a science fiction-styled disaster melodrama.

Deep Impact: Special Collector's Edition

Director: Mimi Leder
Cast: Téa Leoni, Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Morgan Freeman, Leelee Sobieski, James Cromwell
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: DreamWorks
First date: 1998
US DVD Release Date: 2004-10-05
[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.

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Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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