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Does "Deep Impact" rock?

By Ray Pride

MAY 11, 1998:  For a few tingling minutes, "Deep Impact" dares to dabble in forbidden imagery, or at least a kind of imagery seldom seen since the gloomy science fiction of the early 1970s. The deaths of lead characters, coupled with the annihilation of large chunks of the world's population. Ah, who wouldn't give the world for a well-oiled apocalypse!

For a couple of decades, veteran producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown have nurtured a high-concept idea that's one of the best-sounding I've ever heard: Not the old saw, what if you found you only had a year to live? Instead what if the entire world had only twelve months left? That's the set-up of "Deep Impact," a movie they had hoped to make with Steven Spielberg after "Jaws." A complicated series of arcane deals led to a revival of the story idea after the founding of DreamWorks, and Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost," "Brainstorm") was dispatched to create a sweeping, high-tech melodrama. Later, Michael Tolkin ("The Player," "Deep Cover") rewrote Rubin, slashing expensive scenes and adding a dash of his own clear-eyed cynicism.

Several stories are bound together, opening with Elijah Wood, ever the wide-eyed precocious child, scanning the heavens for A.P. credit, flirting with the girl with the cleanest hair and neatest array of teeth in any school anywhere ever. Of course: Spielbergian suburban kids discover the threat to humanity. "I think it's neat," a kid says with a grin. "Nobody on our block ever discovered the world was going to end before." We're in a familiar world - not our own, but of The Movies. Most of "Deep Impact" is a case of smart people being silly. Not condescending, just... silly.

"Deep Impact" also depicts a world where Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell beget... TeÓ Leoni. Leoni even looks hoarse in her role as an MSNBC correspondent trying to break the big story, if she could only find out what it is. She's an odd choice for a heroine, particularly in the unflattering way she's lit and directed, looking like a chain-smoking, painfully skinny, run-ragged, pearls-wearing preppie princess. She winds up being confronted by the president, Morgan Freeman, who tells her the story is not the cabinet scandal or sex cover-up she expected, but is instead a comet "the size of Manhattan," which may be an E.L.E., or "extinction level event." Big jargon to prepare us for big guns to come.

Mimi Leder, once a staff director for "E.R." and now DreamWorks' house hand, hits her marks with dispatch. Many moments pack emotional sting or a modicum of verbal wit, yet there are too many places where we're watching "Cliché Encounters of the Ordinary Kind." The visual style is perfunctory. As with her first feature, "Peacemaker," Leder is a director of Large Objects in the Foreground. She's Spielberg's successor in another way as well, as shown by a collection of close-ups of groups of shiny-shoed mystery men entering rooms.

Time jumps around willy-nilly. The logistical panache demonstrated here and in "Peacemaker" isn't much help amid nauseating Steadicam swirls that define many scenes. Some effects are bracing, yet many are as sleek and shiny as a nice kitchen appliance. That's particularly true of a space expedition, led by Robert Duvall as Spurgeon Tanner, an ancient John Glenn-like astronaut. He's sent to supervise "The Messiah," a mission manned and womaned by a team of callow younger bucks who will land on the comet and try to nuke it into bits. They ride those old-fashioned rockets that roar in deep space. Things blow up. Characters burn to death. Duvall reads aloud from "Moby Dick."

There's a wisp of wit in the script's idea of humanity being an ongoing soap opera in the face of anything, anything at all, including a death sentence of a year. But in the end, the selection of characters is the simplest of shorthand. These are our gods? The thought is as scary as anything in Tolkin's own films: doe-eyed kids, astronauts who shun tradition, anchors for cable television networks that no one watches. Throughout "Deep Impact," the iconic images are the ones that dawdle in the mind, such as a recurring shot showing traffic stilled in Times Square as crowds watch video billboards for news. But there's better to come: the money shots pile up in the last thirty minutes, as a few well-chosen chunks of the U. S. of A. are rent asunder. A few images are as effective as the last shot of "Planet of the Apes," including twin comets as bright points of light above the Capitol Building; the Statue of Liberty destroyed by a tsunami; a man in a bow-tie casually reading a newspaper in Washington Square Park as the stories-high waves fling him skyward, then course up and over the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Despite all the tears, the partings, the comings together, the true heart of "Deep Impact" lies in the shiny stuff, the litany of garble like "Prepare to synchronize the nukes." Next stop: "Armageddon."

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