Deep Impact (1998) poster

Deep Impact (1998)


USA. 1998.


Director – Mimi Leder, Screenplay – Bruce Joel Rubin & Michael Tolkin, Producers – David Brown & Richard D. Zanuck, Photography – Dietrich Lohmann, Music – James Horner, Visual Effects – Industrial Light and Magic (Supervisors – Scott Farrar & Bill George), Special Effects Supervisor – Michael Lantieri, Production Design – Leslie Dilley. Production Company – Dreamworks SKG/Paramount.


Téa Leoni (Jenny Lerner), Robert Duvall (Captain Spurgeon ‘Fish’ Tanner), Elijah Wood (Leo Beiderman), Morgan Freeman (President Beck), Maximilian Schell (Jason Lerner), Ron Eldard (Oren Monash), Vanessa Redgrave (Robin Lerner), Leelee Sobieski (Sarah Hotchner), Mary McCormack (Andrea Baker), Jon Favreau (Gus Partenza), Dougray Scott (Eric Vennekor), Laura Innes (Beth Stanley), James Cromwell (Alan Rittenhouse), Richard Schiff (Don Beiderman), Gary Werntz (Chuck Hotchner), Blair Underwood (Mark Simon), Charles Martin Smith (Marcus Wolf), Denise Crosby (Mrs Hotchner), Betsy Brantley (Ellen Beiderman)


Junior tv reporter Jenny Lerner investigates what she thinks is a White House sex scandal. In doing so, she unwittingly uncovers government plans to avert a comet the size of New York City that is on a collision course with the Earth. As the comet nears, The President launches a manned NASA mission to detonate nuclear warheads and deflect its path. At the same time, a national lottery is held to select people to be placed in safety in giant underground shelters.

Every year studios seem, either by coincidence or a desire to outdo one another, hit upon a particular theme all at once – in 1997 it was volcano movies – Dante’s Peak (1997) and Volcano (1997); the year before big budget alien invasion films – Independence Day (1996) and Mars Attacks! (1996); and in 1998 it was asteroid/meteor collision films with Deep Impact and Armageddon (1998). Asteroid/meteor collision films have not fared particularly well in the past – remember the flop of Meteor (1979) and the dire Asteroid (tv mini-series, 1997), with only the largely forgotten tv movie A Fire in the Sky (1978) having been in any way watchable. After this point, the asteroid/meteor collision film has become the regular stuff of cheap Syfy Channel disaster movies.

Deep Impact was originally a project to have been directed by Steven Spielberg. However, after Armageddon was announced, Spielberg backed out and turned the project over to Mimi Leder, a director who had previously premiered on his tv series ER (1994–2009) and made one film, the unexceptional The Peacemaker (1997). The script had originally started out intended as a remake of When Worlds Collide (1951) by producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck and had been announced by them as long ago as 1978. The finished version comes from Bruce Joel Rubin, who made two afterlife fantasies Ghost (1990) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990), which both inserted some challengingly new ideas into traditional takes on afterlife themes, and Michael Tolkin, who also wrote an intriguing afterlife drama The Rapture (1991) as well as the great The Player (1992).

US President Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998)
US President Morgan Freeman

Deep Impact starts out giving some hope that it may reverse the meteor-movie trend. The opening promisingly seems intended as a sly dig at the media obsession with Presidential scandal at the time the film came out (even though Deep Impact was well into production before Monica Lewinsky was propelled into a household name) with junior tv reporter Téa Leoni thinking she has uncovered a juicy piece of White House scandal-mongering but instead realising that she has accidentally uncovered plans to try and avert the disaster. This segues into an, if not scientifically believable, at least exciting sequence involving a manned attempt to land on the comet. The climax of the film also has some fine mass disaster effects sequences.

Unfortunately bookended in between them, Deep Impact falls completely apart. The film wants to tell a poignant story about various characters as they meet the impending holocaust but the different dramas it raises – young Elijah Wood’s decision to abandon his place in the survival shelter and go back for his girlfriend; Téa Leoni’s reconciliation with her estranged father after the suicide of her mother; aging shuttle pilot Robert Duvall coming to regard wounded commander Ron Eldard as the son he never had – have a melodramatic insipidity that is infuriating.

Despite Deep Impact‘s two-hour length, the film only ever skates across the surface of these melodramas – one would have expected Elijah Wood’s journey back to his girlfriend to have been one fraught with dramatic perils, for example, but all that one sees is him setting out and then just arriving back home. You get the feeling that you have wandered into a disaster movie that has been made by people who have watched too many Academy Award movies – a disaster movie filled with niceness and nobility and where no untoward sentiment ever encroaches.

Tsunami in Deep Impact (1998)
Tsunamis and assorted mass destruction

The film almost becomes absurd in its saccharine treatment – looting and increased social disorder is mentioned as one of the effects of the impending holocaust but all that one ever sees of any of this is a big traffic jam on the highway; Vanessa Redgrave commits suicide but the film seems to almost deliberately avoid any mention of the actual words, it all takes place off-screen and is only ever alluded to. After the maddening banality of Deep Impact, all that Armageddon needed to do to become the better of 1998’s two asteroid movies was simply to turn up. [Famous last words!!!].

(I don’t know if it is just my perverted mind or what, but for some reason whenever I heard the title of the film it kept making me think more of a 1970s porn film than a mega-budget disaster spectacle. You know:– “She couldn’t find sexual satisfaction until she met Joe and discovered fourteen inches … of Deep Impact.”)

Mimi Leder only went on to make sporadic other films with Pay It Forward (2000) and Thick As Thieves (2009) but has since returned to directing and producing television. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin has also written genre scripts such as Brainstorm (1983), Deadly Friend (1986), Ghost (1990), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Stuart Little 2 (2002), The Last Mimzy (2007) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009).

(No. 5 on the SF, Horror & Fantasy Box-Office Top 10 of 1998 list).

Trailer here

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