WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Ambitious reporter Jenny Lerner believes she has discovered the love affair behind the resignation of a senior US politician, when in fact she has discovered a far greater secret: a comet is heading directly for Earth, destined to cause an Extinction Level Event. Can the efforts of America’s best save the world from annihilation?
As I said in my review of Armageddon (and that’s the only time it’ll be hyperlinked, so there), it’s almost impossible to assess Mimi Leder’s ‘End of the world as we know it’ movie without comparing it to Michael Bay’s extravaganza of the same year. And although a twenty-word review for both films would be almost identical, in approach and execution they could not be more different.
The differences are immediate: where Armageddon begins with a drunk, wife-berating amateur astronomer finding the meteor, Deep Impact shares the comet find between a (doomed) geek who plays opera in his observatory and little Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), who has a twee romance with fellow student stargazer Sarah (Leelee Sobieski) – no hiding your feet in the bed for these two.
Zoom forward a year and television reporter Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni), in search of a scoop, stumbles across the biggest story in history, bringing her face to face with the President of the USA in the rather cool form of Morgan Freeman. In a film that tries to present a realistic vision of the impact of the impending disaster on the civilian population, Leoni is our point of contact; not only because she is promoted to anchor and brings us the news, but also in her own life, complicated by a lonely mother and newly-married father. It’s a shame that her family is given so much time. Not that the actors don’t do their best, though Leoni doesn’t exactly emit warmth; but the story is too involved, given the bigger picture. ‘Who cares if you’re messed up by your stepmom?’ you want to ask. ‘The whole freakin’ world’s about to end!’
Deep Impact leaves the rescue mission to the professionals, the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis. These astronauts are plausible, professional and frankly a bit dull. Robert Duvall’s experienced, ridiculously-named Spurgeon Tanner has some charisma, but the rest are a colourless bunch, more concerned with getting the jargon right than making themselves interesting. Even when one of them is blinded, he carries the injury stoically.
The first effort to deflect the comet involves the use of drills and countdowns, similar to Armageddon, but Leder fails to inject as much drama into the action sequences as Bay. When the efforts to break the comet apart only cause it to split into two lethal parts, it underlines the tone of the whole film as both realistic and fatalistic. The second effort involves the use of nuclear weapons to try to break up the comet as it approaches the Earth, but the viewer, presumably due to budgetary constraints, doesn’t get to see that.
Back on Earth, contingencies are put in place to protect America’s best, brightest and luckiest via a lottery that will put them in caves known as Arks. This whole section is well thought-out if rather talky, and ends up with Leo refusing to go into the Ark as he goes in search of Sarah and her family, part of the massed ranks of humanity making a futile attempt to escape the coast. He finds them, of course, and this leads on to the bit of the film I really dislike: as Sarah is separated from her parents, she is handed her baby sister. Now, it’s not so much the ‘as adults we are expendable, but for God’s sake suffer the children to live’ theme that nauseates, but the thought that Leo and Sarah are now surrogate parents to the child. Having only just got married in an attempt to save Sarah, the newlyweds are landed an instant family too. It may just be me, but the idea strikes me as distasteful. It just don’t sit right.
It comes as no surprise that the crew of the Atlantis make a decision to spare themselves for the greater good, and the crew are granted brief final messages to their loved ones on Earth. Even this is performed with a nobility that verges on the rigid. Armageddon’s heartstring-pulling is more forthright and perhaps more cynical, but the big screen often demands big emotions. That said, the sense of sacrifice still gets you where it matters.
Deep Impact is undeniably deep, providing a plausible answer to the question posed rather than relying on increasingly improbable action sequences, as Armageddon does. It’s rather starchy and feels negative in comparison with Bay’s work; it also feels cheaper, even if it does impressively do away with New York (the Parisians, damn them, escape this time). Which of the two is better? It’s almost impossible to say, as it depends not only on individual preference but the individual’s mood when watching. There’s an argument to be made that Deep Impact is the better-made film. In terms of popcorn-munching excitement, however, Armageddon is undoubtedly the better movie.