June/July 1998


review by Mark Leeper

Nature does not pull its punches, and DEEP IMPACT
pulls far fewer than most similar films, stretching
most of its believability in the last reel. This
is for the most part a very plausible and frightening
film with real characters working out real problems
in the face of a threat of cosmic proportions.
DEEP IMPACT is a very promising film from the new
production company Dreamworks (and from Paramount).
Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)


We have had a long period in which special effects have driven science fiction films rather than characters or ideas. Last year's Contact was a very good science fiction film with three-dimensional characters. Deep Impact is the first of two major theatrical films (along with at least one TV movie) inspired by the Shoemaker-Levy comet's impact on Jupiter and speculation of what if it had been Earth that had been hit. At least in plot and ideas the film is highly reminiscent of George Pal's classic When Worlds Collide. However the emotional texture of the film also has some of On the Beach. For the admittedly small sub-genre of films about celestial impacts on Earth films--not forgetting Meteor--this is likely to remain the best.

Teenager Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) sights a celestial body that just should not be where he sees it. He reports his finding to professional astronomer Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith). Wolf confirms that indeed it is a new comet. But Wolf also discovers it is on a collision course with Earth. A year passes and TV news reporter Jenny Lerner trips on something very secret going on in Washington. There seems to be a serious sex scandal, one sufficient to cause the Secretary of the Treasury to resign. In Washington any sufficiently well kept secret is indistinguishable from a sex scandal. Jenny wants to get the goods on the Secretary of the Treasury and instead stumbles onto what is accurately called the biggest story in world history. The United States and Russia are secretly cooperating on efforts to avert the disaster that is coming our way in the form of Comet Wolf- Biederman. The story moves back and forth among multiple story lines. Morgan Freeman plays a President of the United States whom the script uses mostly just to make major announcements. Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is a crusty ex-Apollo astronaut on a mission to destroy the comet. But he has a strained relationship with younger astronauts on the same mission. Leo Biederman must come to terms with the new fame he has received having his name associated with a deadly menace to his planet. And Jenny Lerner is resolving her relationship with her separated parents.

The chief problem with Deep Impact is that two hours is really about a third of what would be needed to do the story realistically and cover most of the parts that should be told. That seems to imply TV mini-series. But it requires the wide-screen to do justice to the visual aspects of the story. Certainly in the early parts of the film it seems to be rushing through what is just an outline of what the story should be. Much of the story goes by in a very superficial manner. Interesting and some sometimes spectacular scenes are left out that would inevitably take place if a comet were headed for earth. Cooperation is reached between two country's space agencies. Huge projects that dwarf the Manhattan Project occur off-stage. While in the plot there is hope for some people and not others, one would expect great rioting by those less fortunate. This is only hinted at. While human reactions are much more believable than they were in When Worlds Collide, they are still far from convincing. We see only frustratingly sketchy details in a headlong rush to get to still meatier parts of the story.

Still the film has a real credibility that is broken only in the semi-optimistic final reel. The emphasis of the script is on people and not special effects, though when the film calls for effects, they are there in force with some very nice sequences. Deep Impact and Contact are evidence that the science fiction film is not just for thrill-hungry teenagers. It can tell a story on an adult level and convincingly take us places we have never been and in some cases may never again want to go. I give Deep Impact an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.

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