Deep Impact (1998)

Dir. Mimi Leder. Starring Téa Leoni, Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman

Hi, everyone. My name is Tim. In my spare time I like to write about movies. I have never been so confused by a movie as I was by Deep Impact, a picture long known to me as being the weird twin of Armageddon. I was not a fan of Armageddon, to put it lightly, and I hoped I would find Deep Impact more engaging. I did! But not in the way anyone hoped!

To help me unravel my thoughts about this movie, I asked someone if he’d come on the blog to give me a sounding board. His name is Deep Timpact. I’ll pose my questions in bold, and he’ll answer in regular type.

Let’s get right to it. At the beginning of the movie, Leo (Elijah Wood) discovers this comet, which will eventually, in part, bear his name. He’s outside with a bunch of other young people looking at the stars and all, including Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), who turns out to be sort of an important figure in the movie. 

I’m impressed you didn’t start this question off by yelling CHILD BRIDE the way you did while you were watching.

I’m trying to take this one thing at a time, but you’re right. That’s what I’m asking about. As I was watching the movie, I audibly wondered how old those two were supposed to be. It seemed like a college thing at first, because everyone in that group seemed very confident about what they were seeing. And then about ten, fifteen minutes later, there’s a little picture that says they’re a high school astronomy club, and they’ve got that scene with the assembly and that one kid who talks about sex and is going to be really moved by Fight Club in a year or so. 

I think it’s an interesting choice to make them high schoolers. Deep Impact is a very lurid about the end of the world, very clear scientifically about how everything is going to play out, which is something I think we’ll get to. But it’s very scared to show us any kids who might die, let alone golden retrievers.

This is also the only romantic pairing of the movie, too. 

Unless you count Maximilian Schell and whoever it is he’s getting married to at the beginning of the movie, or the regular married folks. Which we don’t. No one could love Richard Schiff. In the actual spirit of what you said, though, you’re right that these are the only two people who have a romance which is burgeoning at the beginning of the movie.

Bangs and astronomy, a classic aphrodisiac pairing. As far as things that really kind of weirded me out about Deep Impact go, I’d start here. The movie is definitely aimed at teens in that way, right? That’s why Leo and Sarah are high schoolers and college students, that’s why they keep the movie PG-13, etc. Even though so much of the movie is acting like science class  and explaining how everything works and dropping terminology, etc., it’s still working on a level which is meant to be understandable to this high school set that will also root for Leo and Sarah. 

I think when you read those crotchety interviews with the directors who had made their bones in the ’70s, like Altman and Friedkin, who were looking at the popular cinema of the ’90s and despairing…this is what they’re talking about. They’re lamenting the fact that you can’t see a movie made for adults in theaters anymore, and that you certainly can’t expect that kind of movie to make money. Whether or not they’re lamenting the death of American cinema or they’re lamenting that they aren’t the names they used to be is its own thing—

It’s both, with the caveat that Altman had a great ’90s and a good ’00s before his ’00s ended a little early.

Yep. And of course to suggest that everyone was only going to the good movies in the ’70s is bupkis, anyway, but they had a point. A movie like Deep Impact just feels so empty, and at your cineplex there must have been so little else available for people to watch. I actually like the idea of this amateur astronomer kid just happening upon this comet, but the idea that he needs to have a girlfriend is a little weird.


Is it time to talk about this.

It is a time to talk about it.

I guess you should start.

I just want to summarize what happens in this scene, if I could, because…woof. 

Yes, yes, fine.

When it becomes clear that there’s going to be a lottery, essentially, for people to get to go to the caves (“in the limestone of Missouri,” just a Lincolnesque phrase from President Morgan Freeman), that’s presumably the end of the line for Sarah’s family. Leo’s family is getting in because Leo is famous, and he decides to try to pull one more string. Sarah’s family wouldn’t be allowed into the caves, but: if he marries her, then they’d be allowed to come. This raises a whole number of interesting questions about an extraordinarily exploitable system which incentivizes some profoundly questionable behavior in the face of danger, but I digress. Leo and Sarah get married. In a glossy little ceremony with James Horner music. Even though they are clearly teenagers.

You didn’t even say your favorite part.

My favorite part, Deep Timpact, is that Sarah, the child who has recently been married, refuses to go with her child husband! And then he ends up finding her in the great traffic jam and flees with her and her little sister to higher ground. In other words, there is no reason for them to get married! This is only a necessary choice for the movie (and I use “necessary” very loosely) insofar as you believe at least one of the two following things. First, that there’s something romantic or touching about this adolescent matrimony, and second, that there’s something gripping about the scene where Sarah chooses to stay with her family and probable death instead of going with Leo. But Deep Impact, as we’ve gone over already, is this PG-13 story which doesn’t have the guts to kill anyone who hasn’t had something resembling a full life. It’s not going to kill Elijah Wood’s little girlfriend at any point, and it’s just searching for the histrionics of Leelee Sobieski.

Not her strong suit anyway, as far as I can tell. No, you’re right. I want to say that this is the weakest subplot of the movie, but that’s probably giving a lot more credit to the other subplots than they deserve. Bad emotional pulls, a Yocheved-esque baby delivery from Denise Crosby to Sobieski right there at the end, CHILD BRIDE, an absolutely queasy performance from Wood…it’s the only subplot that I think is totally irredeemable.

Here’s a good question. What’s the strongest subplot of Deep Impact?

Here’s my counter to that question. Is Deep Impact a melodrama first and foremost?

I think the last movie I watched that was this soapy was Peyton Place. And then immediately after watching this movie, I watched The Perfect Storm, which is similar in its own way.

If Deep Impact really is a soapy picture, then I think it’s worth questioning why the movie is set up so heavily that way. It’s much the same dilemma that I think The Perfect Storm has too, although that movie is mostly more adroit.

Mark Wahlberg, in the open ocean, practicing telepathy.

“More adroit.” Though if they’d changed the ending and the Andrea Gail had come home, that movie might have won Best Picture.

It’s that dilemma of putting a lot of human drama, albeit very forced human drama, into a movie which might otherwise be derided as a special effects movie. Aside from the tawdry little romance…I mean, it really is just Jenny’s (Leoni) life and the last-second cavalry charge that Fish (Duvall) leads there at the end.

Though they really do put a lot into Jenny, don’t they. The relationship with her mom (Vanessa Redgrave) and the very different one with her dad (Schell), and of course her career taking off as a news anchor at MSNBC, which happens at Beth’s (Laura Innes) expense. 

She is pretty much the main character of this movie, which is quite something, because Leoni is not good in this movie either. (I am close to saying that no one is good in this movie, but that’s not necessarily true. I think there are some people in supporting parts, like Innes and Redgrave, who have limited opportunities to be good but hardly have the responsibility or screentime to push that further.)

I think I got them all. This is one of those bad movies with a really striking number of Oscar winners: Duvall and Schell for Best Actor, Freeman for Supporting Actor, and Redgrave for Supporting Actress.

Maybe this is a failure of writing as much as anything else, but the Leoni character is never more than a type. I think if this were a movie about her, then we would have a better sense of what went badly between her parents and what else is fostering the resentment she has towards her father, but this just happens to be a movie that collides with her, as it were, while she’s a person of interest to the plot. For me, the worst non-Leo subplot is the one where she’s refusing to work it out with her father but ends up holding onto him when that hilariously enormous tidal wave obliterates their beach, mostly for those reasons. It’s like coming into a movie halfway.

I want to come back to that idea of forced human drama in disaster movies, and why they do tend to be so soapy, and so insistent on these serious personal stakes which seem really washed out compared to the whole Extinction Level Event business that’s hanging around near them.

The first one is that filmmakers are playing to the lowest common denominator. This is a cynical supposition and I don’t necessarily want to hammer this too hard, but there is the possibility that they’re only doing this in order to get a rush out of people in as many ways as possible and assume they’ll be too stupid to pick up on the emotional stakes unless the emotional stakes are just screaming at them. I don’t think Deep Impact is doing that, though I do think it is terrified that people won’t get what’s happening at every moment. I hate that scene where Wolf (Charles Martin Smith) is driving on this twisty road and not quite staying in his lane, and then there’s the semi drive who’s not paying attention either, and it takes so long to build dread about what’s going to happen to this poor distracted astronomer that  Or, here’s an example which is a bigger problem for more a movie, turning the president of the United States into the strangest combination of apocalyptic fanfiction and plot exposition I think you’ll ever come across.

Morgan Freeman, and I mean this quite literally, too, has so much explaining to do.


Deep Timpact. 

Seriously, you just hear him say stuff, like that one bit about martial law, and it’s like you can feel the people writing this straining to give it this dose of realism by predicting what our government would do in this scenario. But it’s much harder to make those elements hold up to the scientifically likely elements that they honestly do a decent job with, not like that’s necessary to make a “blow up the comet” movie that people will flock to.

Second is that they’re doing something practical, because as fun as it would be to watch the world get obliterated by a comet, they have to do something with people, and since they’re giving over the final act to ELE, they don’t really have time to manufacture drama. That’s related to the problem they have with Téa Leoni that I referenced above. There’s an awful lot going on with “Fish isn’t ever going to see his kids again and his wife is dead,” too, and for as pointless a gesture as it is, you wonder why it’s even in the movie. I am sure that Fish would love to see his sons again, but at the same time the movie seems to undercut that with their backgrounds. Fish went to the Naval Academy. His sons did the same and are on active duty. If anyone is going to be able to temper their grief with “My dad destroyed an enormous comet in space to save as much of humanity as he could,” it’s going to be those two. This storytelling is also not a problem that’s limited to Deep Impact among end of the world movies. Zombieland comes to mind first for me, where the Woody Harrelson character is jacked up because he lost his son, and that’s a perfectly adequate motivation for a zombie movie, but I think that’s also meant to be the most moving part of the entire picture, and they do it with a montage we’ve seen before, but the first time it had a dog, so…that’s a real shortcut.

Third is that they feel like they’re shooting for this pseudo-Oscar patina, which is why your comment about Oscar winners feels noteworthy. Freeman hadn’t won his yet when Deep Impact came out, but he’d been nominated plenty of times and he brings some gravitas to the role. There’s no reason you need three, later four, Oscar winners in your cast for this kind of movie, but Deep Impact really does seem to believe in itself as this drama which just happens to end with the world getting the shaft by a celestial body.

Like Melancholia.

Shut up. Fourth, and this is probably the right answer even if it’s the most boring one is the “how else would we find perspectives for this?”

This is probably the right answer.

I mean, the story has to be about somebody, right? And so they choose a teenager with an astronomy hobby and a desire to get married at an earlier age than anyone has in his family since 1620, an MSNBC reporter who’s got family problems, and the old-timer astronaut who accidentally takes charge of a suicide mission to blow up the comet. Only the last one feels like a necessity to the movie, but if I had to order who I thought this movie was really focused on, I would put Fish last. In this reading of the writing process, the heavy-handed drama is almost incidental. It’s like these people have to be meaningful aside from their roles in the story, so they lay it on thick with backstory and hope we’ll connect.

This was helpful, and I daresay not even as stilted as the movie we’ve just talked about.

I’m glad we can be a little less corny than “the limestone of Missouri.” It’s all I ever wanted.

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