Blame it on El Niño, but the meteorological disaster films are arriving a little late this year. Last year, Dante's Peak started pouring lava all over us in February, followed by Volcano in July. This week, Deep Impact finally kicks off the 1998 summer movie season, to be followed by Armageddon in July. Deep Impact and Armageddon are less meteorological disaster films than astronomical disaster films; both involve comets hurtling toward Spaceship Earth. But the effects promise to be the same: really crappy weather and astronomical box office. "It is pleasant, when the sea runs high, to view from land the distress of another," Lucretius wrote 2000 years ago. What the Roman poet was trying to say is that Deep Impact was almost guaranteed an opening-weekend gross of $25 million. In fact, it raked in $41.9 million. It'll need it, with Godzilla arriving in town next Wednesday. Directed by The Peacemaker's Mimi Leder, Deep Impact may not have the muscle to play with the big boys. Compare the disasteroid titles: Deep Impact and Armageddon. If you were a freshly scrubbed teenager into world annihilation, which would you see? Both, of course. But, according to my calculations, Deep Impact will put those freshly scrubbed teenagers to sleep for about an hour and a half. Emphasizing the local dimension of global disaster, live people over dead people, the movie's for us freshly scrubbed adults--a disaster flick for those who hate disaster flicks. Personally, I love disaster flicks. So I spent most of Deep Impact whispering to the screen, "Would you please kill somebody?" The movie opens with a Spielbergian pan from a night sky full of stars to a pair of high school astronomers: Leo (Elijah Wood) and his girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Sobieski). Leo's telescope has just zeroed in on a star that appears to be lost in space. Actually, it's a comet, and it's headed straight toward us. But the government has managed to keep it a secret thus far and may keep it a secret even longer if not for an MSNBC reporter named Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni). A power-pack of blond ambition, Jenny has found the means to jump-start her career: a scoop about the secretary of the treasury resigning from the Cabinet because of a woman named Elly. What Jenny doesn't know (yet) is that the secretary's not leaving Washington because of someone named Elly but because of something called E.L.E.: an Extinction Level Event. In other words, the sky is falling (again). But Leder and scriptwriters Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin take a long, long time before letting us know that. Instead, they introduce us to Jenny's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and father (Maximilian Schell), the latter having recently left the former for a much younger woman. Now, it's always sad when a marriage dissolves, but, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, that doesn't amount to a hill of beans compared to the Mount Everest-sized comet heading toward North America. Disaster flicks have always used heavyweight actors like Redgrave and Schell. (Airport made a big deal out of the fact that its cast included 23 Oscar winners.) But Deep Impact may be the first disaster flick that asked its heavyweight actors to, you know, act. Eventually, the president of the United States (Morgan Freeman) holds a press conference in which he reveals the killer comet; and I wish I could say that, with the world facing imminent doom, all hell breaks loose. Instead, everybody behaves like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, partly because doom isn't all that imminent (impact is a whole year away) and partly because the government has a plan: the Messiah Project. A team of astronauts led by Robert Duvall's Spurgeon Tanner will land on the comet, implant nuclear devices in its core and either blast it into smithereens or deflect it off its course. The thing is, they only have seven hours, once they've touched down, to plant the nukes. After that, the sun will come over the comet's horizon, raising the temperature inside the astronauts' spacesuits by 350 degrees. One year, seven hours--the time frames don't exactly inspire fear in the hearts of disaster-flick aficionados. Nor do the filmmakers seem interested in the dark clouds of dread that hung over, say, 1959's On the Beach, another film in which the world was given only months to live. "What drew me to this story," Leder says in the movie's press material, "are the choices we would have to make in our lives when faced with a death sentence." But what choices are there? Suicide? Does even the end of the world have to contribute to the strengthening of our characters? In focusing on the human bonds between daughter and mother, daughter and father, boyfriend and girlfriend, Deep Impact neglects the inhuman bond between creation and utter destruction--i.e., what we've all just paid $6.50 to see. With about a half hour to go, Leder finally opens the sluice gates and gives us what we've been waiting for--a cataclysmic drenching. It seems the astronauts, despite having learned how to respect one another's differences, succeeded only in splitting the comet in two. The smaller piece hits the Atlantic Ocean, which sends a mile-high, 1,100-mph tidal wave crashing over the entire Eastern Seaboard. And the larger piece should land in western Canada, kicking up a cloud of dust and debris that will make the planet all but uninhabitable for years. Luckily, the government has been carving a network of caves (called Arks) out of the soft-limestone cliffs of Missouri. There's enough room and supplies in there for one million Americans (foreigners be damned) and two of every other species to survive for two years.
Between the Messiah Project and the Arks, American civilization appears to be in pretty good hands. But, just to make sure, Freeman's president goes on national television and professes his belief in God. That clinches it, I thought. Now, nobody's gonna get killed. How wrong I was...and how sweet it is when New York City, that heathen haven, becomes Surf City, U.S.A. Skyscrapers topple and Lady Liberty looks for her nose plug as the Biggest Kahuna of them all extends the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Tennessee Valley. The special-effects sequence in Deep Impact is spectacular, if a little fakey--not unlike Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. I only wish the movie had gotten around to it sooner. What's the use of destroying the world if you're not going to have some fun doing it?