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DEEP IMPACT

by: Michael Dequina

Before even seeing a single frame of the film, it would be easy to snicker at Deep Impact, in which a comet on a collision course with Earth threatens the existence of all life on the planet. It is the latest entry in this decade's dubious revival of the '70s disaster film, and the first of two "the sky is falling" flicks to hit screens this year (the other being this coming July's Armageddon, in which an asteroid is the threat). Its tagline, "Oceans Rise. Cities fall. Hope survives" is not as cornball as that of the utterly ridiculous collapsing tunnel thriller Daylight ("They came in alone... the only way out... is together"), but it's every bit as treacly.

The opening moments of Deep Impact offer more to snicker at. The cheesiness is not confined to the disaster movie conventions, such as the usual opening "roll call," in which all the major characters and their personal problems are introduced. The most prominent of the "personal" stories is that of ambitious TV news reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), who is distraught that her father (Maximilian Schell) left her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) for a younger woman (Rya Kihlstedt). What is just as snicker-worthy is how this co-venture between Paramount and DreamWorks SKG aggressively pushes another high-profile corporate collaboration, Microsoft and NBC's cable news network MSNBC, which employs Jenny, who is the film's ostensible main character. In the vision of America presented here, MSNBC is the television news source of choice in every home, when in reality it only reaches a fraction of the country.

The initial signs point toward something along the lines of a Volcano or Dante's Peak, but there's one thing about Deep Impact I underestimated: the skills of director Mimi Leder. She won an Emmy for her helming work on NBC's smash ER, which is essentially a weekly disaster movie, each episode featuring a new set of guest stars with their own personal and medical crises. The challenge presented by this format to the director is twofold: (1) to make the audience care for these guest characters, regardless of how briefly seen or thinly written they are, and (2) powerfully tug at the emotions without being heavy-handed or overly melodramatic. Having passed the "ER challenge" in numerous episodes and showed a flair for creating suspense in The Peacemaker, Leder could not be a better fit to bring Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin's rather formulaic disaster screenplay to screen.

As the countdown to impact progresses, the ominous feeling of doom is palpable, leading the final act to take on a surprisingly convincing and affecting emotional dimension. There's nothing here that will profoundly move anyone, but the fact that anything manages to touch the heart is high achievement in a genre generally more concerned with effects. Situations that initially feel contrived, such as Jenny's familial crisis and the teenage romance between Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski) and comet discoverer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), achieve some poignance; and even the more vaguely drawn characters, including U.S. President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), astronaut Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner (Robert Duvall), and his rather faceless crew (Ron Eldard, Jon Favreau, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood, and Alexander Baluev) aboard the comet-bombing spacecraft Messiah, have their share of touching moments. The latter fact owes a debt to the actors, who all do a solid job and are well-cast, with the possible exception of Leoni; she delivers a decent performance, but her trademark unconventional speech rhythms and line delivery make her somewhat hard to buy as a star news broadcaster.

Although its catastrophic theme and impressive special effects work (the giant ocean waves are particularly spectacular) place Deep Impact in the same category as the likes of Twister

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