Film review: Deep Impact

3 June 2004


You're the emotional centre, so emote, or we'll lose the sponsorship deal! Not a bad spacecraft, but no Orion Give me my heroic death and let me out of here

As so often happens with films, two about large objects hitting the Earth came out in 1998. One of them was the Bruckheimer-Bay Armageddon: Bruce Willis, big bangs and Aerosmith. This was the other, that came out in its shadow.

During much of the film, the story is split between a space mission to stop the comet and Earthside events. Earthside, (MSNBC) we mostly hear (MSNBC) about the personal life (MSNBC) of a reporter (MSNBC) for a major news (MSNBC) channel, the logo (MSNBC) of which is prominently (MSNBC) displayed at every (MSNBC) opportunity; though it's (MSNBC) good to know that an (MSNBC) entirely monotone voice (MSNBC) is just what's (MSNBC) needed for a career as a (MSNBC) news anchor. I'm afraid the subtle appeal of Tea Leoni continues to elude me. This thread is rather chick-flick in style, which is especially unfortunate in a film about (literally) world-shaking events; the people I regard as heroes at the end of the world are the ones who get on with things, not the ones who stand around looking trembling-lippedly decorative, calling on God, and working out their Emotional Issues. Moppet factor is excessive, particularly in later scenes; Spielberg gets an executive producer credit for this Dreamworks SKG film (the fourth released by the company), and unfortunately his influence really shows.

The second Earthbound subplot deals with Elijah Wood, moderately convincing as a teenager (well, he was 17 when this film was released), and the world's least romantic marriage proposal. Wood gets third billing, we're obviously supposed to think of his character as a good guy, and he approaches his bratty maybe-girlfriend (the relationship isn't made at all clear, and they haven't done more than hold hands on-screen before this point) with "if you marry me you can come into the shelter and bring your family, otherwise you're all going to die". That's sick; and he looks as though he's enjoying his power far too much. Or maybe it's just those strangely huge eyeballs... In any case, this whole subplot could have been dropped very easily.

The space mission, I mostly have to file under Bad Science: a ship that's clearly accelerating at more than one g even before they turn on the "Orion" drive (and which does so right past the somewhat fragile-looking space station at which it was docked)? An Orion drive that's basically a reactor-powered torchship, not using individual bombs at all? Conflation of "horizon" and "terminator"? Sudden explosive outgassing the moment part of the surface of the comet comes into sunlight? Retractable landing legs on an unstreamlined spacecraft? A blast wave in space that severely damages the spacecraft even though it was standing off at the planned distance? A mission that only has enough borers for one try at fragmenting the comet, even though there's clearly plenty of room for more (and spare bombs are actually on board)? Oh well. The zero- and microgravity effects aren't too horrible, though there are a few very blatantly composited moments; and Robert Duvall, while this isn't one of his career-defining performances, is at least somewhat credible as a clone of Story Musgrave.

This is a very odd film; it has too many characters and plots to fit comfortably in its running time (120 minutes as released) or to give real development to any of them, but at the same time it doesn't have enough different things going on to qualify as a truly "big" film in the style of Independence Day. Rather surprisingly, several major events are told, rather than shown, even in this supremely visual medium; the nuclear missile strike seems almost an afterthought, put in to justify quibblers who'd complained that it ought to be tried, rather than a significant part of the plot, and one starts to suspect that the budget may have been getting very tight towards the end of shooting. Rather than a more conventional disaster film which would deal mainly with the aftermath, this one saves the actual comet strike (and most of the better special effects) for the last ten minutes.

Overall, I've certainly seen worse films; it's very much of its time (MSNBC). And at least it isn't Armageddon.