Directed by Mimi Leder. Starring Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Morgan Freeman. (1998, PG-13, 123 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 8, 1998
The first of this summer's dueling comet films, Leder's Deep Impact takes the high road and offers up more tearful reunions than actual fireballs and more egregious, sappy dialogue than you can shake a tsunami at. How does the world end? Not with a bang, but with a sniffle. Leder brackets the earth's demise around three sets of characters: Wood's 14-year-old Leo Beiderman, who first sights the offending celestial object while out star-spotting with his high school astronomy club; Leoni's Jenny Lerner, an ambitious MSNBC journalist with plenty of familial issues; and Duvall's Spurgeon Tanner, the old-guard astronaut picked to head up a U.S.-Russian team sent to intercept and possibly destroy the comet before it wipes out the summer blockbuster season as we know it. Leder (and co-screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin) move things along at a stately pace -- we're 30 minutes into the film before the world is alerted to the impending crisis, but even then, there are still 10 months left before impact. Deep Impact uses the time to set up a “what if?” scenario that includes everything from the building of massive, underground bunkers that will preserve 200,000 of the best and brightest Americans (alongside an 800,000-strong lottery drawing) to the media's reaction to the largest story of all time, and from young love blooming in the face of overwhelming catastrophe to estranged families returning to the nest as the Eastern seaboard is engulfed in a 2,000-mile-per-hour tidal wave that makes James Cameron's Abyss wave look positively tedious. Still, this is a film about people (James Horner's lush, painfully obvious score keeps reminding you of that), and as it moves from one crisis to the next (i.e., Will Leo's newfound girlfriend make the lottery? Will Jenny forgive her philandering father?), the sheer weight of all the Melrose-esque storylines threatens to crush the forward momentum of the action saga at the heart of the tale. By far and away the slowest-moving disaster film since Irwin Allen's passing, Leder here trains her lens perhaps too closely on her characters in lieu of the action. It doesn't help matters that despite the close, personal attention to characterization, there's virtually no character development, or none that you wouldn't find outside of a TV Movie of the Week. Somber and reflective, the film seems leaden and moribund. Even Freeman's stilted, Jesse Jackson-esque speechifying (“life… will go on”) is comically trite, evoking more chuckles than tears. So weighty, so serious, so very deadly dull, Deep Impact is a panacea for all those who complained about too many damn explosions in their summer action diet. Now you know: Be careful what you wish for.