In 1998 we were treated to two big disaster movies, both involving a comet heading for Earth, and while many people took great joy in poking fun at Michael Bay’s Armageddon, I’d be the first to agree that it was utterly stupid if fun film, but as dumb as it was it never took itself seriously, while Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact tried to pass itself off as a realistic look at the same type of disaster only with a little family drama added to help us swallow all that bad science and obvious plot holes. Well, I’m forced to throw a flag on that play because even though it’s not as preposterously idiotic as Michael Bay’s film that still doesn’t make it a good film, just a better film, and that my friends is faint praise indeed.
The film starts with an amateur astrology group scanning the heavens and it’s while doing this that Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) discovers a new comet, which really impresses his girlfriend Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski). They quickly notify a local professional astronomer Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith), who with just this one spotting can miraculously predict that it’s going to hit the Earth, which is not how celestial tracking works, but let’s move on to one of my favourite bits of plot ineptitude. Unable to contact any authorities by phone or email Dr. Wolf decides to jump into his jeep and head down the mountain to do it in person, which leads to him being killed by one of the worst telegraphed car crashes in film history.
What is truly annoying here is the fact that his death serves no real purpose to the plot as we jump ahead a year and find that the government has been working all this time on what to do about the approaching catastrophe. Apparently, they found the disk in the wreck and named the comet Wolf-Beiderman, after the two discoverers, which is kind of strange for them to believe Beiderman died in the crash as well, but we are assured that the death of Marcus Wolf didn’t delay the government in finding the comet or have any effect whatsoever. So what was the point of all this? It was just filler and has no bearing on later events and other than to introduce our young protagonists it did nothing to further the story.
A year later, hungry up-and-coming journalist Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) accidentally uncovers the comet story while investigating what she believes to be a political scandal surrounding Secretary of the Treasury Alan Rittenhouse (Jame Cromwell) and who she believes to be a mistress named “Ellie” but it turns out that the “ELE” in question actually stands for “Extinction Level Event” and is a comet that will most likely wipe out all life on Earth. Like any good journalist, she uses this information to blackmail the President (Morgan Freeman) into getting a better position at the press briefing. The world may be ending but at least her career is on track. It should be noted that Jenny is one of the film’s key protagonists and making her this callous about the situation at hand was not a good idea as it tends to make her character a little unlikable. I’d have been fine if the President had tossed her into a Black Site for safekeeping.
Now on to the plan. We learn that the United States and Russia have been constructing the spacecraft called the Messiah in orbit, which will transport a team of heroic astronauts to plant a nuke on the comet and hopefully knock it off course. The crew of the Messiah consists of Captain Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duvall), Commander Oren Monash (Ron Elder), spacecraft pilot Andrea “Andy” Baker (Mary McCormack), navigator Mark Simon (Blair Underwood), medical officer Dr. Gus Partenza (Jon Favreau) and Russian nuclear specialist Colonel Michail Tulchinsky (Aleksandr Baluev). The film depicts the surface of the tail of the comet as this debris-filled hellscape, luckily, Andy has the pilot skills of Han Solo. Now, as far-fetched as this plan was, and it is pretty ludicrous, the one scene that really bothered me was when the young hotshot astronauts give Captain Spurgeon a hard time for being too old and only being on board as a publicity stunt, and I can’t believe for a minute that real astronauts would show this kind of disrespect to somebody who had actually landed on the Moon. Needless to say, things go wrong and the comet is just broken into two pieces with both still heading for Earth.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the President moves right onto their backup plan, which involves moving a crapload of people underground to ensure that mankind survives, kind of an underground Noah’s Ark, with the selection being handled via a lottery and due to Leo being one of the discoverers of the comet he and his family have been pre-selected for a spot, unfortunately, his girlfriend and her family were not so lucky. So what does our stalwart astronomer do? He marries her so that she and her whole family can come along, but on the fateful day when the army buses come to pick them up Sarah’s name is on the list but not her family’s. She refuses to get on the bus, being a noble selfless teen, and watches as her true love rides off into the sunset. This scene is almost more idiotic than the one with the disrespectful astronauts, could you for a minute believe any parent would let their kid stay behind and face sudden death? Later when Elijah Wood returns riding a dirt bike, where he finds Sarah and her family stuck in a traffic jam, she tearfully hops on behind him and leaves her parents in the dust. What changed, did she somehow grow a brain in the past 24 hours?
Back in space, our heroic astronauts have come up with a new plan, which is basically their own form of noble sacrifice by flying the ship into the interior of the comet and blowing it up with their remaining nukes. Sadly, this will only take care of the big piece while the little one will continue on its merry way so that it can kill all the stupid humans running around on Earth, which includes Jenny meeting up with her estranged father (Maximilian Schell) so that they can die together in the worst case of Father/Daughter bonding I’ve ever seen, this occurs when the remaining comet piece splashes down with more kinetic energy than all the world’s nuclear bombs combined and this sends a mile hile waves crashing along the coast and killing millions.
While Deep Impact was generally well-received and regarded by most as one of the more scientifically accurate disaster movies, there are still some fairly large inaccuracies in the film, so here are a few of them I’d like to point out.
- Size of the Comet: In the movie, the comet is depicted as being 7 miles (11.2 km) wide. However, most comets that have been observed by astronomers are much smaller, typically measuring only a few miles in diameter. A comet as large as the one depicted in this movie would likely have been detected much earlier and been the subject of intense scientific study making a cover-up impossible.
- Speed of the Comet: The comet in the movie is depicted as travelling at a speed of 35,000 miles per hour (56,327 km/h). While this is an impressive speed, it is actually slower than the average speed of most comets, which travel at speeds of up to 150,000 miles per hour (241,402 km/h).
- Time to Impact: The movie suggests that the comet is discovered only a year before it is due to collide with Earth. In reality, astronomers are constantly monitoring the skies for potentially hazardous objects, and a comet of this size and speed would likely have been detected much earlier, giving scientists more time to prepare.
- Effects of the Impact: The movie shows the impact of the comet causing a massive tidal wave that wipes out much of the East Coast of the United States. While a comet’s impact would certainly be devastating, the actual effects would depend on a number of factors, such as the angle of impact, the location of the impact, and the composition of the comet itself.
- The Solution: In the movie, the astronauts are sent to the comet to try to destroy it with nuclear weapons. While this makes for a dramatic storyline, it is unlikely to be an effective solution. Blowing up a comet could potentially create even more smaller, but still dangerous fragments, and it would be difficult to accurately target the explosion.
It’s this smaller piece that prevents us from being completely cheated out of the carnage we paid our ten bucks to see as the impact of this comet, which lands somewhere in the Atlantic, causes a huge wave that heads for the shores of North America and gleefully wipes out countless millions. I won’t belabour the fact that the people in the traffic jam would have been flash-fried as the comet streaked overhead, why start being scientifically accurate now, nor will I state the obvious effects that many tons of water would actually have on the New York skyline, it all looks cool and who am I quibble about the science of things when we’ve sat through two hours of dramatic drivel for some damn cataclysmic destruction.
Being a huge fan of disaster films I will admit that despite the uneven pacing, with long stretches of exposition that bog down the action, characters though well-acted were not always well-written, and dialogue that was both cliched and contrived in a film that attempted to tackle serious themes can feel heavy-handed at times, but that all said, despite these flaws, both dramatic and scientific, Deep Impact remains a solid disaster movie and is a worthwhile watch for fans of the genre.
Deep Impact (1998) - Review
Despite its flaws, Deep Impact remains a solid entry in the disaster movie genre, one that is well worth watching for fans of the genre or anyone looking for an engaging and thought-provoking experience, and while it may not be a perfect film it is one that manages to rise above the average fare of the genre and delivers a memorable and impactful viewing experience.