Deep Impact (1998)


If you look at the movie poster for Deep Impact it shows a meteor colliding with the earth, sending giant ocean waves crashing into New York City.  So we know it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time.

In most films, the movie poster will show an event that happens roughly 1/3 of the way into the film.  The image often visualizes what the characters will have to deal with and adapt to.  In Deep Impact it’s just something that the characters fail to stop.  It’d be like the movie poster for Empire Strikes Back showing Luke Skywalker with one hand.

There are plenty of movies based on real-life stories in which we know the outcome, however.  Sully for example isn’t about whether or not Captain Sullenberger lands the plane because we know he does.  They have to come up with a new dramatic question: Did he do the right thing by landing the plane on the Hudson?

Similarly, since we know the meteor will hit the earth, the dramatic question can’t be “does the meteor hit the earth?”  So what is it?

This movie follows a big cast of characters: teenagers, a MSNBC news anchor, the astronauts sent to blow up the meteor, the President, and people who are close to each of those characters.

Midway through the film everyone is watching the news as they update the Messiah’s mission to destroy the meteor.  We cut back and forth between Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) as the news anchor, the people watching on tv and the astronauts.  The drama is meant to be whether or not they will destroy the meteor.  Of course they won’t.

In the process, however, they do split it into two pieces and lose one of their own.  This only works if we care about the characters who are killed (in this case Jon Favreau), but it’s hard because the movie bounces around among so many people we’re supposed to care deeply about.

That’s the main problem.  We only spend a limited amount of time with each important character, and because of that we only get a surface-level glimpse into each of them.  There are no interesting character moments, just plot mechanisms.  Each character is a composite of things we’ve seen before in movies.

Elijah Wood plays Leo Biederman, a teenager who first discovers the meteor.  Beyond that, however, his character serves no point to the bulk of the story.  He’s in love with his classmate and neighbor, and his story is isolated from the story of what the movie is about.  We don’t need to follow Leo and his teenage angst.  The movie is about stopping the meteor.  But it’s not because, as has been established, we know it’s going to impact the earth deeply.  Further, apparently the final cut of the film cut out more scenes following Leo because the audience wasn’t receptive.

So that’s where the movie fails, I believe.  It doesn’t know what it wants to be about.  If it’s about whether or not the meteor will hit the earth, then it should only be about the astronauts and anyone connected to their characters.  If we know it’s going to hit the earth, then it should spend more time with the people on earth and how they are going to cope.  Instead, the movie bounces back and forth between them.  There are just too many characters and no real insights into character or the world.

It makes sense, then, that the movie chooses a compromised ending between A) meteor misses earth or is destroyed and B) there is an Extinction Level Event (E.L.E.) suggested in Act 1.  The smaller meteor hits earth causing some destruction, but the other meteor is destroyed on a suicide mission by the Messiah crew.

Look, if it was always an option that the astronauts could sacrifice themselves to save earth, I think it would have been brought up and discussed earlier.  No one at NASA would be thinking “we can’t ask them to give their lives like that” because you absolutely can.  When it comes to a handful of astronauts or the entire world plus the handful of astronauts, it’s clear: You kill the damn astronauts.  They decided to sacrifice themselves at the end like an “aha!” moment.  It should’ve been option C the whole time.

Let me rewind a bit.  After kid Elijah Wood discovers the meteor, we move forward a year and follow Jenny Lerner, a Washington reporter.  She has it on good authority that the Secretary of the Treasury is having an affair so she pursues a lead on this story.  I was wondering why the hell this could be important to a movie about a meteor crushing the earth.

Then she is unnecessarily harassed by the Secret Service.  They box her in on the freeway, even rear-ending her when they could have just slowed down to make her stop.  They bring her to a kitchen (apparently filmed in the same kitchen in which Robert Kennedy was shot), and they bring out President Morgan Freeman.

He asks Jenny to hold off on going public.  It seems there is something bigger going on, and Jenny is way off base.  No one is having an affair with a mysterious “Ellie.”  In reality, they’re referring to ELE (extinction level event).

Soon President Freeman gives the first of a series of Ted Talks about what is a meteor that he copied from Wikipedia.

First of all, these speeches are amazing.  Second, the President would never be this open about what’s going on.  He says they’ve known for a year and, and they have a plan.  The plan is for the Messiah to bring the astronauts into space and plant a series of nukes deep in the meteor.  When this doesn’t work, President Freeman returns to address the nation.  He says they’ve also been building caves in the middle of the country just in case they couldn’t stop the meteor.  For these caves they will select 800,000 people through a lottery.

So then the rest of the movie unfolds the way you might guess, with people saying goodbye and then giving their cave-ticket to someone else, thus sacrificing themselves.

But I have to return to President Morgan Freeman.  He’s fantastic.  He gives the nation lectures on science throughout the film when really it’d make more sense to have an actual scientist up there. He even wheels out a small tv to demonstrate how the meteor will impact the earth.

After the meteor plunges into our planet, we return to President Freeman giving yet another speech, this time in front of the Washington Capital as they try to rebuild.

All those people in attendance would’ve been wiped out if they lived there.  So that must mean they came from further in the middle of the country where they could survive, but the roads and all means of transportation would have been destroyed.  And I think when your entire life has been upended, you don’t think “let’s go watch the president speak.”  Then we hear the crowd clapping and cheering at the end, but if you look at them, they’re hardly moving.

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