Remember how critics and the Academy shat all over James Cameron when the former group claimed he couldn’t write his way out of a dime novel and the latter declined to honor him with an Oscar nomination for scripting Titanic? Well, barely six months after the fateful voyage of the big T, a pair of “real” screenwriters, Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and Michael Tolkin (The Player), have hashed out a disaster movie screenplay so full of undisguised hokum and drivel that it makes Titanic look like Casablanca.
In the context of the current spate of disaster flicks, Deep Impact is just another movie about the end of the world, ho-hum. A comet the size of Mount Everest is discovered on a direct collision course with planet earth. A spacecraft has been built by the U.S. and Russia to try and head off catastrophe, but if the comet can’t be knocked off course by nukes, it will almost certainly spell the end of civilization.
Deep Impact nods toward the inevitable apocalyptic panic now and again, but mostly it’s interested in putting a bunch of cardboard characters through their dreary paces, a la any afternoon soap opera. There’s the daughter who’s torn between her estranged parents, there’s a crowd of handsome kids on a mission to save the planet, and there’s even (thank you, Mr. Cameron) a teenage romance. If these cliches were at least spun out with some aplomb, they could be charming. Instead, it’s all deja vu driving a movie that’s predictable, perfunctory and —worst — dull.
Téa Leoni (Flirting With Disaster) can’t carry this mess. After her character, a journalist for MSNBC (huh?) breaks the comet story in improbable fashion, her reward is a spot on the anchor desk. The problem with too many films that strive to be canny where the news media is concerned is a lack of authenticity. Certainly Leoni, with her leisurely drawl and eyes that look like she’s perpetually rising from a deep sleep, resembles no successful news anchor on the face of the planet. (Well, maybe one on MSNBC, but even that’s pushing it.)
Deep Impact doesn’t even try to make her a hero (even though she is, um, the main character). That job falls on the able shoulders of Robert Duvall, playing the spunky old mission commander on what turns out to be a fool’s errand. Hero or no, his part is woefully thin. Morgan Freeman is terrific as the President, but just when he gets up a good head of steam, the camera is liable to cut back to Leoni again, looking tired. Vanessa Redgrave, still a formidable actress when she finds a reason, has no reason for being here. In this context, seeing the very credible James Cromwell on-screen for three minutes, as the Secretary of the Treasury, is reason to cheer. Nobody else, not even Elijah Wood, makes an impression worth commenting on.
The only reason to watch this thing is for the admittedly spectacular special effects footage of New York City being crushed by huge comet-spawned tsunamis. But since New York plays pretty much no part in the rest of the film, the shots of skycrapers being toppled against one another seem completely gratuitous. What’s more, they flit by awfully quickly, like Dreamworks had its collective eye glued to the budget, fearful of overruns. And the final insult is that much of the “cool” stuff has already been featured prominently in trailers and TV spots.
Seasoned TV director Mimi Leder, whose big-screen debut was The Peacemaker, has now made her second perfectly competent but unexciting picture for Dreamworks SKG, the Hollywood start-up helmed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. If The Peacemaker seemed like a pitch for a James Bond movie that didn’t make the cut, Deep Impact plays like a TV miniseries that’s been hacked to the bone. All the most interesting bits —like the arrival at a network of caves being built underneath Missouri to hold a million Americans selected by lottery — are cut short before they can play a part in the story. Where’s the chaos of such an event? Where’s the society in tumult? Featured instead are gooey close-ups of babies’ faces, interminable conversations between people we don’t care about, and shots of couples staring lovingly into each other’s eyes and embracing in their final moments.
If you go, root for the comets.
Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
Cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann
Starring Téa Leoni, Morgan Freeman, and Elijah Wood
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)