Of course, special effects have made a quantum leap since the Fifties. Computer-generated wizardry can make vivid what once looked, at best, cheesy. But the end-of-the-world effects in Deep Impact don't make an appearance until the last twenty minutes or so, and, thrilling as they are, they're also way too brief. And to get to them you have to slog through a lot of subpar drama about people coping with the certainty that most of them will soon be smithereened.
Most of the film's principals are cardboard. Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) is an unscrupulous TV news reporter -- for MSNBC! -- who finds out about the killer comets before the president (Morgan Freeman) has a chance to brief the nation. She uses the knowledge to advance her career. When she confronts the Secretary of Defense (James Cromwell) about her plans to spill the beans, he shoots back, "I know you're a reporter, but you used to be a person." He has a point. There's a lot of righteous press-bashing in Deep Impact. Parts of it play like a deep-space Absence of Malice. Parts of it also play like an episode of Days of Our Lives with comet dust -- Jenny's father (Maximilian Schell) has dumped his wife (Vanessa Redgrave) for a much younger woman (Rya Kihlstedt), and then gets the heave-ho himself, reuniting father and daughter just before the big kaboom.
Elijah Wood plays Leo, the teen science wiz who accidentally discovers the comet. Although Wood is one of the few child actors to have retained his spark into young adulthood, his role here is all wet. Instead of playing up his braininess, the filmmakers -- director Mimi Leder and screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin -- make Leo a lapdog for love (like, you know, that other Leo, from Titanic). At one point he actually marries his fifteen-year-old high school sweetie (Leelee Sobieski) in order to get her on a superselective list of people shielded from harm's way in limestone caves. (Isn't it illegal to marry that young?)
The folks chosen for that list are either world-class VIPs or randomly selected citizens under the age of 50. In other words, mostly only the young will have a real chance to create a brave new world. But the filmmakers strike a blow against ageism by casting Robert Duvall as the John Glenn-like head of the multiracial/multiethnic astronaut team sent into space to blow up the comets. He proves himself quite useful. Not only does he know how to giddyup in the cosmos, but he also gets to read Moby-Dick to a blinded junior teammate (Ron Eldard). Apparently the guy has never read Melville. "Hey," he explains, "I'm a child of the movies." For those of us who love literature, this is the scariest moment in the movie -- much scarier than the attack of the comets.
With the end of the world nigh, you'd think everyone would be scrambling over each other and acting all apocalyptic. Where are the looters and the comet loonies? Wouldn't corporations be vying for product placement in those limestone caves? The filmmakers will have none of this. They want us to know that we're better than that. (The film's lame ad line reads: "Oceans Rise. Cities Fall. Hope Survives.") Except for a few ill-mannered types, what we see looks no more upsetting than a rush-hour tieup on the freeway. The film is set up to be a ringing endorsement of the human species under pressure, but what comes across is something far less noble. Its message is, We Earthlings may be screwed up, but it's nothing that a great big speeding snowball or two can't fix.
Directed by Mimi Leder. Screenplay by Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin. Starring Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Tea Leoni, Vanessa Redgrave, and Elijah Wood.