Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep Impact (1998) - Less Disaster, More Drama

After seeing the excessively silly 2012 with its extravagant scenes of destruction, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Deep Impact (1998) which, in comparison, plays like a dead serious drama about fate, self-sacrifice, and the importance of family, with less than three minutes of disaster.

Like the 1997 hit Titanic, Deep Impact develops touchingly-portrayed characters we care about before it kills many of them in a diasaster: in this case, a massive comet on a collision course with Earth.

Téa Leoni heads the cast as Jenny Lerner, a fledgling TV reporter thrust to the forefront when she uncovers a White House leak suggesting an illicit affair in high places. This leads to a well-written, dramatic scene in which she is secretly brought before the president – played with convincing gravity by Morgan Freeman – in a hotel kitchen. She thinks he’s covering up an affair; he thinks she knows it’s all about the threatening comet. All she has is a name – Ele. What follows is my favorite Internet-search montage (an ubiquitous cliché of computer-age thrillers) in which she discovers that… click… E.L.E. stands for Extinction Level Event. Ooh-ah! Now I’m gripped!

Morgan Freeman’s president is a thoughtful man with a commanding tone. He is the nation’s solid guide throughout the crisis, and his articulate explanations of the attempts to destroy the comet and of the Noah’s Ark caves, designed to save people chosen by lottery, impart information in a suspenseful manner.

But the strong cast doesn’t stop there. In her brief scenes, Vanessa Redgrave develops a wonderful character as Jenny’s bitter, divorced, art-loving mother. Robert Duvall makes astronaut Spurgeon Tanner a folksy American hero, reading Moby Dick to a blinded crewmember, and realizing that the only way to destroy the comet is to make the supreme sacrifice. Elijah Wood, in his pre-Frodo days, is earnest in his role as a teenager who helped discover the comet, and his marriage to his teenaged sweetheart (Leelee Sobieski), designed to save her family, is shown in a heart-rending montage intercut with Jenny’s mother tastefully choosing an outfit and jewelry as she prepares to commit suicide.

Finally, Maximillian Schell, as Jenny’s estranged father, is memorably touching. In a scene that rivals the most heart-rending moments of Titanic, Jenny and her father are reunited and reconciled on the beach in front of their family beach house. There they embrace each other as the monstrous tsunami rears above them.

2012 delivers multiple scenes of destruction by earthquake, volcanic eruption, and tsunami throughout its overlong length, but the drama in Deep Impact comes in the build-up and the attempts to destroy the comet. There is a gripping scene on the surface of the comet as astronauts try to implant nukes before the sunrise melts them. Morgan Freeman’s addresses to the nation and Jenny Lerner’s coverage of the rescue mission also build suspense as they narrate the failures to stop the comet.

When a smaller chunk of the comet hits the Atlantic, the disaster is brief but visually impressive for its time. Notably, we see a satellite’s view of the impact with the resultant explosion curling under the exosphere while the shock wave radiates outward. As usual in disaster movies, New York goes under. We see the wave toppling the Statue of Liberty, bursting between the towers of the World Trade Center, and hitting Washington Square and Times Square. The destruction is swift, but the images are impressive, even though the state of CGI back then didn’t render water as convincingly as today. (In the clip below, note the old gentleman obliviously reading his newspaper as the wave hits Washington Square. I've always wondered if this was meant to allude to the famous old gentleman who sat reading as the Titanic sank.)

Kept taut by means of intelligent writing, fine performances, expertly edited build-up, and a thrilling James Horner score that taps themes reminiscent of Titanic, Deep Impact is one of the best disaster movies ever made.


Jason Bellamy said...

"Téa Leoni heads the cast..."

That's something you don't hear very often. I haven't seen this film, so I'd like to contribute the only Tea Leoni anecdote I have:

As some people might know, Tea Leoni is (was?) married to David Duchovny. And, as some people might know, in 1999 there was a pop song with chorus lyrics that asked "David Duchovny why won't you love me?"

OK. So a while after the release of the song I saw Duchovny on some talk show and he was asked about the song and what his wife thought about it. He said she was jealous and so the two of them made up their own song called "Tea Leoni why won't you blow me?"

That kills me.

OK. Now back to the regularly scheduled discussion of Deep Impact.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm speechless. Ah, the power of English words to suggest many things.

J.D. said...

Despite the film's many faults (like the TV-like leaden direction), I do enjoy watching this film whenever it's on even despite Téa Leoni's presence who is the acting equivalent of a black hole. Fortunately, she doesn't take up too much screen time and is dispatched by a tsunami.

And plus, you've got Frodo outrunning a tidal wave of water. How can you beat that? It does act as a calmer counterpoint to the chest-beating bravado of ARMAGEDDON which seemed to steal all the thunder between these two competing killer asteroid films.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, J.D. I didn't think Tea was so bad. She's great when she chokes down the martini to be rude in front of her father's new wifey.

Right, Armageddon is the bloated, jingoistic version of the same story - but for all its action and explosions, I'd rather watch Deep Impact.