It says something for millennial-angst programming that Hollywood was able to churn out not one but two not-very-good apocalyptic-dread movies in 1998, both of which were hits. Deep Impact came first – screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin suggests Disney surreptitiously swiped his pitch – and can boast a screenplay from Hollywood’s resident quasi-spiritual comfort-food sellers Michael Tolkin and Rubin. Both have, individually, come up with a few decent ideas during their time in Tinseltown, even if the finished articles have tended to be mixed. Deep Impact has ample opportunity for metaphysical rumination yet settles for pat sentimentality and indomitable-human-spirit affirmations. Its more earnest intent than Armageddon is written all over its welled-up face, but if it brandishes a clutch of more interesting threads to work with – and pulls fewer punches – it’s ultimate less satisfying (or more dissatisfying).
Rubin: I was working on Deep Impact, and I had lunch with a president of Disney – someone who had produced another movie I had worked on. we’re having lunch in the Disney commissary, and he starts asking me about Deep Impact. I just started talking freely and openly. I had no idea he was planning Armageddon. He was taking notes on everything I was saying. I wasn’t really literally giving him my script, but I was talking to him enough about it that he could pick up the genre, the tone, the character-driven aspect of it. that was really clever, I thought. He was figuring out how to do a movie in juxtaposition to the movie that I was in the process of writing. He was getting all of my ideas. It was really fascinating that there was a kind of subterfuge that was happening with this major studio. When I found out that Disney was doing Armageddon, I went, “Wow, that’s interesting”.
Mimi Leder had got herself noticed as a director on Amblin-produced ER, before being chaperoned into big-leagues movies with DreamWorks’ first production, flaccid actioner The Peacemaker (about one of the most evergreen big lies*, nukes: stolen ones). It did so-so business, not an outright flop but not exactly a hit either. Deep Impact had been earmarked for Spielberg, but he was deep in exactly-a-flop Amistad (DreamWorks’ second release). So, because a delay would mean Armageddon got there first, Leder took the reins, and the battle of doom-laden objects from space began.
She wasn’t the first to come a cropper with the transition to demands of the big screen, having been (and continuing to be) entirely proficient on the small. Others would include Rob Bowman and Alan Taylor. Everything about this production is journeyman, style-less, rigorously competent and unremarkable, from staging and pacing to performance and tone. It’s also visibly cheaper than Armageddon (and doubtless cheaper than if the Berg had helmed it), which may mean that, while it made $150m or so less at the box office, it made more of a profit.
Spielberg was in favour of an adaptation of respected science-fiction author and alleged paedophile Arthur C Clarke’s The Hammer of God over a remake of When Worlds Collide (deep impacts both). Rubin, who’d won an Oscar for Ghost and had various mortal ruminations on his filmography (Brainstorm, Jacob’s Ladder, My Life) furnished the script, before Michael Tolkin did a rewrite (The Rapture and The New Age as writer-director, The Player and Deep Cover as writer). What they whittle this down to is the best way to die, rather than anything approaching a philosophical treatise on what death means. Of course, they were working within the rigid strictures of a false paradigm, so expecting wonders in that regard would have been a fool’s errand.
There’s no guarantee disaster will sell, of course. Hollywood had tried a number of more localised natural blasts that decade with fortunes both pronounced (Twister) and less so (competing eruption flicks Dante’s Peak and Volcano, Hard Rain). The last extinction-level-event movie that wasn’t aliens had been the monster-bomb Meteor two decades earlier, however, landing several years too late to ride the crest of the ’70s disaster wave and looking like hoary old cheese in the bright new world of – yes – Spielberg. Nukes being what they are (non-existent*) and objects threatening the Earth from space being what they are (non-existent), it’s perhaps unsurprising that an interface between the two was also the envisaged solution in that picture too. The WTC falls foul in all three movies, including Armageddon – although it’s more a case of severe flooding here, likely impacting its structural integrity, particularly if a plane should later hit it, or explosive charges damage its credibility – perhaps both because it’s (simply) a big object and recognisable predictive programming (Deep Impact makes more hay from a decapitated Statue of Liberty, while Armageddon gets its yuks from the Chrysler Building toppling onto the camera). It also has numerous of splinter fragments causing mayhem. Deep Impact has a really big one.
Rubin and Tolkin have more ambition than Michael Bay and co but also less time to play with. Deep Impact is half an hour shorter than Armageddon, but it feels half an hour longer. Armageddon focuses on the mission, but the mission feels half-baked in Deep Impact; the lift-off is a fait accompli, dealt with in a couple of montage shots. The largest spaceship ever built, the subtly named The Messiah (docked by Atlantis), sets off to our comet (the size of NYC, 7 miles long and larger than Mt Everest) to plant some nukes.
So, like Armageddon, then, and none of this has much to brag about in the way of twists and turns, with only sunlight striking the comet and its temperature rising 350 degrees in 15 minutes throwing a spanner in the works; “My eyes!” exclaims mission commander Oren, who made the error of mocking the mission’s veteran Captain Fish Tanner (Robert Duvall), the last man to walk on the Moon, so an inveterate veteran of telling porkies. The Messiah is powered by “A nuclear reactor in space?” (designed by the Chernobyl people); if you’re going to lie, stack them on top of each other. Also on the flight are Mary McCormack and a thin Favs, the thinnest he’s been, which doesn’t stop him being first to bite the big one.
When the detonation splits the comet in two, one a tsunami instigator and the other an extinction level event, it’s time to roll out the Titan nuclear missiles, only useable when the comet is a few miles away. So, like Meteor, then. But they’re a stiff, so a jolly good thing for the self-martyring Messiah crew, flying the remaining nukes into the bigger chunk. What hurts these scenes is that they’re no more dramatically charged than any other part of the movie, be it first comet spotter Elijah Wood’s teen quest for Leelee Sobieski (he’s in with the chosen few being whisked to survival sites, she’s out). Or Téa Leoni resisting patching things up with estranged dad Maximilian Schell. Indeed, there’s a positively torturous sequence that is sure to banish any thoughts that their loss is ours too, in which the astronauts spend precious minutes saying their farewells to loved ones before plunging into the icy nuclear tornado.
In the meantime, we gain an insight into tactical elite activities, Dr. Strangelove-style. Like When Worlds Collide, there’s a survival lottery (in the latter, it’s for a spaceship, natch: an idea used again for Don’t Look Up). Morgan Freeman – whom you believe because he has that voice – informs us “we’ve been preparing a network of immense caves… And we can put a million people in them”. Which is rather disingenuous, given the multitude of DUMBs already in existence, stuffed full of kids and aliens, and all the tunnel systems full of inner earth groups and Draco and reptoids. We’ll see the like again with Greenland, although more grimdark. This is all prime primer, of course, for planned depopulation. “Other countries are preparing similar caves”, which means, however many there are, the results will probably be well under a fifth of the Georgia Guidestones’ ideal 500,000. A more effective stratagem than faking a pandemic and vaccinating as many as you can to death.
With all this transpiring, the inherently presidential Morgan Freeman – except when it comes to family matters; I wonder if he secured his step-granddaughter a special place – has to step things up in that sure, honest way of his. He mentions God a lot, and following an initial hiccups (Charles Martin Smith dies hurriedly on his way to impart the discovery in 1998, aware of just how unreliable email was back then), he announces he’s freezing all wages and prices in 1999. It’s only when the initial mission target bombs that he declares martial law and a curfew.
This is far from No Blade of Grass, though, such that there’s a very orderly breakdown of society. People die nobly, sacrifice themselves with dignity. Rubin and Tolkin bring out the best in them. Elijah outrides a tidal wave up a mountain with Leelee and a baby on board. Téa, having lost mom Vanessa Redgrave, lets ER star Laura Innes have her place; not-to-be Wolverine Dougray Scott is askance. This may secretly be because Leoni knows she doesn’t have such a great newsreader look, when all is said and done – like she’s sucking on a lemon (moviechat.org has whole threads devoted to the lemon suckage of her performance). So she goes to reconcile with dad on a lovely peaceful shore as the tsunami’s about to hit. Actually, this is far and away the best scene in the movie.
Accordingly, Deep Impact is ultimately about acquiescing to the dictated paradigm; you will believe in the world you’re told about, in the prescribed manner, of random isolated balls of rock tumbling through a big, empty universe, indiscriminately wiping you out at a moment’s notice. Of course, if such a universe exists as stated and such things happen, then yeah, sure, all hail noble sacrifice, blah blah. Morgan sagely warns, natural-history-programme style, that the larger extinction level fragment will hit in western Canada, the skies will stay dark for years, all plant life will be dead within four weeks, and all animals in a few months. The situation’s grim.
The thing is, however, as inconceivable as such events are, the trace-matter truth within them is of a worldwide destruction event, and the knowledge such a thing can happen, just not in the form depicted; the 1700 event wiped out 75 percent of the population through flooding, and the tidal wave here piques a trace memory of that in the collective consciousness. That event may not have been actively encouraged by the Dark Forces (although actively allowed on the second pass), and a repeat of it would not be a preferred option (just too damn messy), but they evidently conceived of other means to achieve similar ends.
Hollywood (invented stories) and astronomy (invented stories) are natural bedfellows, so the reports that asteroid (35396) 1997 XF11, a kilometre-sized object, might, possibly, maybe, hit Earth in 2028 was, as advanced publicity for the movie goes, quite propitious. Alas, it was called out as a no-show on 11/3/98, two months prior to Deep Impact’s release (although it was clear by 23/12/97 that this was the case). Perhaps there was no sweetener forthcoming that might have delayed the announcement until afterwards. NASA was all on board for Armageddon, after all. As for movie meteors, Don’t Look Up is only the most recent testament that not being much cop is no impediment to either bums on seats or critical approval.
*Addendum 24/06/23: So, I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with this one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).