*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B
starring Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave
screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
directed by Mimi Leder
by Walter Chaw Filthy as it is with TV stars past and present, it comes as no surprise that Deep Impact plays almost exactly like a movie-of-the-week grafted onto one of those stars-gone-to-seed-studded Seventies disaster flicks. Helmed by veteran TV director Mimi Leder in somehow small-screen-friendly Panavision (that she manages to make her panoramic establishing shots look like the stock transitions in any episode of "Hart to Hart" should be included in a textbook somewhere), the picture goes through the motions--from discovery of the peril by naïfs to the involvement of the Internet to the slow-in-coming participation of the powers that be--of a genre most recently (and faithfully) resurrected by The Day After Tomorrow. Both movies finding their way to DVD within a couple weeks of each other (Deep Impact in a freshly-minted "Special Collector's Edition") isn't, I'd wager, serendipity so much as an opportunity on the one side to capitalize on a semi-blockbuster.
What fascinates is that the film is concerned with the role of the media in documenting any disaster. (Note a disturbing garden party in which a little girl takes photographs Rosemary's Baby-style and a camera and boom crew loom over the festivities like some perverse homage to Persona.) Ideas about the aphrodisiacal properties of fame, how a journalist's career can be aided by the covering of great calamity, and how those two complementary phenomena (sex and fortune) find mutual inspiration in the deep misfortune of the human race are the fuel for the film's tepid fire. Released two months prior to the almost identically themed Armageddon, Deep Impact tells us what Armageddon shows: that the end of the world is one hell of a turn-on.
As the hero, fledgling journalist Jenny (Téa Leoni ("The Naked Truth")), is given the dubious honour of anchoring MSNBC's special report on the flyboy space mission to divert a killer comet from mother Earth, it comes clear that the story--told to this point in only the barest sketch of a narrative--is held together thanks to our comfort in this millennium with receiving information through the filter of 24-hour cable news. We may not know the whole story, but we're so accustomed to the ways that our news mechanism compresses and caricatures complex situations that it doesn't much matter. Deep Impact is storytelling in the way that "Dateline NBC" is journalism: slack, populist, nonsensical, and enough of a comment by itself on how undemanding we've become about things like nuance and the intricate ballet of cause and unexpected effect.
Robert Duvall leads the astronaut misfits: Kurtwood Smith ("That '70s Show") on terra firma; Ron Eldard ("E.R.", "Men Behaving Badly"), Jon Favreau ("Friends"), and Blair Underwood ("L.A. Law") in space. Jenny's mother (Vanessa Redgrave ("Nip/Tuck")) and estranged father (Maximilian Schell ("Wiseguy")) squabble over a hot new stepmom (Rya Kihlstedt ("Early Edition")) back on Earth. Meanwhile, Jenny's rival at the station, Beth (Laura Innes ("E.R.")), chews the scenery for her two minutes of screentime, and her hardscrabble boss (Bruce Weitz ("Hill Street Blues")) is reduced to standing around with his hands on his hips, looking concerned. The cast is too big by half, but not so big that it's not dwarfed by the melodrama. And although the film is stretched to breaking at a full 120 minutes, there's barely room in the piece for everyone already mentioned, let alone a young astronomer and his girlfriend (Elijah Wood ("Player$") and Leelee Sobieski ("Charlie's Grace")) and their parents (Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") and Denise Crosby ("Star Trek: The Next Generation").
Neither is there space for the really interesting part of the film that concerns the establishment of a "national lottery" that will deliver certain lucky folks under the age of fifty to the sanctuary of some secret limestone caves to be the "ark" that will buoy mankind into their next iteration. Martial law is declared, God is invoked by the president on national television (we're used to that by now, of course--shame, isn't it?), and a final sequence of stupid events leads to enough Pyrrhic victories and useless sacrifices that it blunts all the relationship bullshit Deep Impact does its best to resolve before the Almighty's hammer drops. Scenes of people rioting and cities burning are compiled in a blithe montage played over a noble score and intercut with President Morgan Freeman sitting in the Oval Office and looking hangdog. (Weird that Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" wasn't the soundtrack cue of choice.) Despicable? No question. But no more or less so than what we're assaulted with every single day of our Oprah Winfrey-ized reality. When Star Jones of that artifact of the nadir of human civilization "The View" comments on the tsunami that laid to waste huge swaths of Asia by offering that she was there a few days before on vacation, every single reason that Deep Impact sucks is given a cultural explanation and ideological wellspring. A lot like a tumor, the film is fascinating through no effort of its own: Malignant and insensate, it's already too far gone for treatment.
Upgraded to anamorphic widescreen for its DVD reissue, Deep Impact's new 2.35:1 video transfer also boasts of slightly deeper colours and clearer detail--every green line of doomed astronomer Charles Martin Smith's computer screens is legible. It's not as glossy as current product from either distributor (DreamWorks or Paramount), but that's actually something that works in the film's favour. Recycled is the previous disc's already-standout Dolby Digital 5.1 mix; an early, fiery car crash is nicely spread across the soundfield and the scenes in space (where no one can hear you scream) are booming. The subwoofer gets a heavy workout, as do the rear channels when a comet-naut's panicked breathing oppressively fills the back of the home theatre. On another track, a full-length commentary from Leder and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar is homespun and warm, if packed with people-spotting ("Oh him, I met him on The Peacemaker and her, her I met on 'E.R.'") and wholly unnecessary plot explication. Further musings on the shooting order, producer Steven Spielberg seeing something in Leder that no one else has ever seen (i.e., potential), and feeling under pressure to bring this behemoth in on time fall out as mere filler. The only thing of possible interest might be that Leder likes to shoot her own inserts. Farrar pretty much sticks to pointing things out that were added and the things that weren't. Big "mehs" all around.
"Preparing for the End" (9 mins.) details the film's basis in fact (case in point, the Shoemaker comet hitting Jupiter) and the genesis of the film (inspired by George Pal's When Worlds Collide) through soundbites from Leder, NASA's Don Savage, screenwriters Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, Dr. Hal Weaver, and Dr. Eugene Shoemaker. Of all the horrors of actual intergalactic apocalypse discussed, the most potent scare is the revelation that Spielberg initially envisioned Deep Impact as a three-hour magnum opus. And though I'm a sometime-admirer of Tolkin, who recounts his process of whittling down the screenplay, it's fairly apparent that he's the one responsible for Deep Impact being a collection of sappy vignettes and pat resolutions. Leder's constant reiteration that she doesn't know anything about sci-fi films (carried over from the commentary) rank high among the least necessary confessions in modern memory.
"Making an Impact" (12 mins.) continues with more footage from the same interview sessions, this time with Leder, Tolkin, and Farrar talking over B-roll and conceptual art of the special effects sequences. Chief revelation of this one is that Leder, clad in a muumuu and sitting on a lawn chair, looks every bit like a Baptist matron at the church picnic nattering over kids playing at a multi-million dollar badminton game. I'll admit this much, though: that tidal wave is neat. "Creating the Perfect Traffic Jam" (6 mins.) is just that--and besides the film itself, it's the most useless thing on this disc. Logistics of organizing a bunch of extras holds the key surprise that all those cars at the end of the picture were actually on set and not the product, as they would be today, of CGI cloning. Assistant Director Alison Rosa and assistant cameraperson Judith Bouley chime in over additional behind-the-scenes video to praise the extras for their desire to be a blip in a mediocre or worse summer movie about--irony--the ugly cost of fame.
"Parting Thoughts" (5 mins.) finds Leder rehashing the test screenings of the film and dropping, again, The Peacemaker brand as though it held any kind of currency. She speaks of how screening audiences dictated the truncation of a lot of the relationship dramas in favour of boom-crash opera; her assertion that "less is more" is particularly laughable in that respect because the less character time you have, the more the balance is made up by F/X. Leder's tribute to the late cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, however, rings the one true note in hours of film and supplementary material. Sixty or so stills comprise a perversely disinteresting Photo Gallery, while a two-minute teaser and the full-length theatrical trailer (both of which are rendered with a depth of clarity that surpasses the film proper) round out the disc. Originally published: January 20, 2005.