Published May 1, 1998
Deep Impact, directed by Mimi Leder from a script by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, is one of what I take to be a new breed of Hollywood disaster flicks. Modeled on Independence Day, these are apocalyptic in scale, overburdened with special effects and pitched to a younger teen audience, but they are still essentially the same kind of picture as Airport or Towering Inferno—that is, soap operas with explosions. The new breed, however, seems to be particularly attached to the image of the great monuments of the past on the east coast of the United States being swept away. Independence Day had the Capitol, the White House, the Empire State building being vaporized by an alien death ray; Deep Impact has the Statue of Liberty being decapitated by a thousand foot tidal wave, caused by a comet striking the earth, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center bobbing about like empty milk cartons.
It is an essentially juvenile thrill, closely akin to that experienced by the child who has carefully built up a city of blocks only in order to kick it down. Therefore it makes sense, I suppose, that the film makes such extraordinary efforts to bring the teeny-boppers on board. First of all, the deadly comet is first spotted by a kid called Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood). He himself modestly finds the glory of being named co-discoverer of that which dooms earth to destruction “kind of cool,” but a pimply pal also assures him that “you’re going to have sex a lot more now than anyone else in the class.” These kids are about 15. Then, having been offered a space on “The Ark” being prepared for the survivors in the hills of Missouri, he gets to marry his teeny-bopper girlfriend and rescue her from certain death when she and her parents are stranded in a traffic jam in the path of the tidal wave and to do it on her father’s motorcycle. Talk about kid wish-fulfilment!
As in the old kind of disaster movies which, in the days before computer graphics, had to confine themselves to a somewhat human scale, the problem with this stuff is that there is entirely too much going on. You would think that an E.L.E. or Extinction Level Event would promise drama enough, but the authors are very far from satisfied with a lean tale of cosmic disaster. Instead, they branch out into subsidiary stories about scandal in Washington, a crippled spaceship, young love, a noble and competent president—black, of course—and the career and family problems of a young TV reporter (Téa Leoni), her rising to anchorwoman at the network, her rivalry with another woman reporter, and her relationship with her divorced parents (Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave). Finally, there is the moving story of an old space jockey (Robert Duvall) going up for one last ride surrounded by arrogant youths half his age.
All these stories can only be touched on in the time available, so none is developed beyond the most rudimentary stages. Nor are the characters, which for the most part do not even rise to the level of the familiar types we used to see in the old disaster movies. But perhaps none of this matters very much to the children who will mostly see this film, who feature so prominently in it and who, in more ways than one, obviously rule the world.