Deep Impact (1998)

D: Mimi Leder
S: Tea Leoni, Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall

Boring and mawkish disaster melodrama, the kind of bottom of the barrel big budget effluent inevitable after a series of successful and at least relatively entertaining examples of the genre (Independence Day, Twister) have run their course and sent studio execs scrambling over one another to find a suitable package with which to cash in. With names like Richard Zanuck, David Brown and Steven Spielberg in the production arena, and Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin as scriptwriters, it was quintessentially sound on paper. Hiring hotshot TV director Mimi Leder for a second time may have seemed like a good idea too, on a certain level (though a long, close look at The Peacemaker should really have been arranged at some point), and then adding to the list names as dependable as Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave in the front end of the picture would probably seem to be lining up the Dreamworks breakthrough we're all still expecting.

A comet streams towards the earth and is set to impact. This gives pause for various human beings to reassess their relationships and their attitudes to life and death, careers and family. Reporter Tea Leoni unwittingly uncovers a conspiracy to keep the crucial information from the general public, but U.S. President Freeman then intervenes quickly and spills the beans (introducing a series of fascistic controls to ensure there is no panic). Meanwhile a rocket ship is dispatched (a nominally joint U.S./Russian venture, although only one of the crew is actually Russian) to intercept the comet by detonating nuclear devices (and the film is not shy to point out how symbolic this is of man's ability to triumph in time of crisis by adapting weapons of mass know the drill).

Even given the expected character potpourri of the genre, this film is woefully short on believable people acting in interesting ways. Even a good stereotype or two provides more ammunition for popular entertainment, as it did in Independence Day. The half realised and universally weak characters who populate this film inspire neither interest nor pity. Their stories are fragmented and superficial, their emotions transparent and motivated only by the demands of the next weepie close up. There is not a single moment of fear or apprehension for their lives, and as the histrionics increase and tearful goodbyes multiply towards the end of the film, it becomes almost unbearable, certainly unwatchable.

The irony of it is that, quite consciously, this is a disaster film which focuses on character to the virtual exclusion of action in an attempt to highlight the 'human' drama. There are little to no 'disaster' scenes until minutes from the end, and even these are singularly uninspiring. The clumsy overlay of an almost completely separate sci-fi drama featuring Duvall and his astronauts with the earthbound soap opera does little to alleviate the boredom of watching these people struggle with their lower lips in an attempt to wring emotional response from the audience. These characters ultimately exist simply to win sympathy they don't deserve though base emotional manipulation, and all of the huffing and puffing about their relationships adds up to a less than real drama. The idea is to give us a sense of just what we are as a people and what it is we must fight to preserve. But there are moments in the last half hour when you will find yourself willing the comet to hit and be done with it, so we need spend no more time in the company of these disconcerting simulacra.

On the performance side, the film is further handicapped by Leoni's expressionless rendition of a clichéd power girl, Duvall seems embarrassed and eager to collect his cheque so he can work on The Apostle , Redgrave seems to be in a daze until her character abruptly disappears, and Freeman works strictly on autopilot. The special effects are serviceable enough for the sci-fi sequences (though there are some transparent spacemen at one point), but curiously devoid of power during the mass destruction, when it finally comes. Of course this may be more to do with the fact that all interest in the outcome has dissipated at this point. But even so, the tidal wave lacks the terror of the one featured in The Abyss and the New York which it destroys is all too plastic and artificial (and I'm talking literally here...)

Leder seems to know what she's supposed to be doing here. She seems to have a bookish and theoretical grasp of which buttons to push. But she pushes them with too much vehemence and a lack of natural rhythm. Like The Peacemaker, the film is all too obviously a studio programmer, but one directed with less than the polished professionalism exhibited by some of the great 'hack' directors of the past and present. We are too aware that its makers expect us to be stupid and disinterested, and that munching popcorn will keep our brains so occupied that we don't need to actually have a good film to watch. It is insultingly formulaic, ridiculously exaggerated and melodramatic. In the final analysis, this film does not deserve a response any more sophisticated than the one it presumes. It is trash; humourless and crass, pulp without character, entertainment by inference. The Peacemaker was a strong contender for the title of worst film of 1997 (in a tough year all round), and Deep Impact looks set to sink just as low in 1998. Avoid at all costs.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.