I don’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by filmmakers who don’t know one of the fundamental laws of moviegoing: We go to different movies for different things, and we adjust our expectations (and sometimes our IQs) accordingly. Someone attending The Lost World expecting a sobering analysis of human nature will be frustrated, as will someone who goes to The Sweet Hereafter expecting a couple of raptors to menace the kids in the schoolbus. Rare indeed is the artist/entertainer who can juggle convincing emotion and convincing CGI effects.
Deep Impact juggles so relentlessly that it seems positively schizo, giving us a little “character development” here and a little mini-disaster there, leading up to the big event — death from above, the tidal waves and mass destruction, the skyscrapers scattering like petals. And good God, does this ever not work. You can feel the audience’s impatience during the obligatory tedious dialogue scenes, the disappointment when the movie finally gets around to those big destruction scenes, which can’t possibly live up to all the build-up and anticipation.
The new apocaflicks have the good fortune of boasting uniformly good casts, as opposed to the old ones back in the ’70s, which mostly had one or two good actors (Gene Hackman or Paul Newman) and a lot of has-beens or TV stars. Here, Téa Leoni is nicely low-key as a reporter who pursues a government cover-up and trips over the biggest story in history: A comet the size of Mount Rushmore has made definite plans to visit us real soon. Morgan Freeman plays the President, whose sad job it is to break this epic bad news to his country, and Freeman has such strong, quiet authority that the noisy opening-night audience shut up whenever he spoke.
President Freeman sends up a crew of brave astronauts, headed by Robert Duvall, to land on the comet and plant nuclear explosives to blow it up into several million Earth-friendly pieces. This doesn’t work; pretty much everything else they try doesn’t work, either. It’s during the walking-on-the-comet sequence that director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker) has her finest moment: Due to a burst of “explosive outgassing” (sounds like Cartman after too many Cheesy Poofs), an astronaut is literally blown sky-high, and we get a view of the rapidly receding ground from his panicked point of view. It’s a chilling, vertiginous moment.
Leder, working with a script credited to Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin, can’t do much with the alleged “human interest” scenes. Téa frets over the divorce of her parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell), young astronomer Elijah Wood frets over his school sweetheart, Duvall frets over his crew, Freeman’s performance is one long fret-fest. A serious movie could be made about characters taking stock of their lives in the face of apocalypse, but this isn’t it. The characterization is TV-quality at best; everyone makes self-defining speeches to each other. A movie like Deep Impact may make you appreciate the no-nonsense sweat of Volcano or Twister, for me the two best recent apocaflicks because they didn’t bother at all with plot — the characters hurtled along, working as a team, racing against the clock, certainly never stopping to muse on the importance of family or paths not taken. Disaster movies are trim and exciting or they’re nothing, and Deep Impact isn’t trim or exciting.