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Metro Pulse Deep Impact's Whimper

Who knew the end of the world would be so polite?

By Coury Turczyn

MAY 18, 1998:  So I hear the world is going to end in less than two years. Yup, the whole shebang: cataclysm, extinction, Armageddon. As soon as Eastern Standard Time hits 12 a.m., January 1, 2000, it's all over. (I'm not sure if Central Time has to wait an hour.) Regardless, we're all going to die. At least, that's what I keep reading about as the next millennium approaches. Everybody's talking about it: Christians, New Agers, cultists, just about any belief system you can name.

Why? Um, er, something to do with the numeral 2000, I guess. Somehow, the universe is aware of our calendar system and is planning our destruction because it seems like a nice, round number. (There'd be so little portent and meaning if the world ended in, say, 2018, or 1952, or 1123). Of course, there's been a lot of talk about world destruction before, with all sorts of prognosticators declaring "This is it!" Thankfully, despite the prophesies, we're still here (more or less). But with all this renewed interest in our impending doom, it's no wonder Hollywood execs are jumping on the bandwagon— "World destruction is hot! What have we got in development?!"

Thus, we see the release of Deep Impact, a project that's apparently been kicking around since the late '70s and was originally intended as a Steven Spielberg pic. Although it's not about Armageddon proper (that's coming out in another couple months), it is about how we're all going to die after a comet "the size of New York City" hits the Earth. More specifically, it shows how people react to the news that civilization as we know it will soon cease to exist.

Now, the question for you the viewer is: Do you really want to see people prepare for their deaths? Are you curious as to what brutal steps the government would have to take to ensure that at least some of us survive? Do you have any particular bent to see families fractured, cities destroyed, parents committing suicide? Personally, it's not the kind of thing I find entertaining. But Deep Impact does handle such weighty, dramatic subjects with a high degree of taste and even some poignancy.

Morgan Freeman stars as the U.S. president who leads our nation through this trial, and I must say that if Freeman were to run in 2000, he'd have my vote. He's the very picture of optimism, compassion, and strength as he announces in a live press conference that we're all going to die very soon unless astronauts can manage to blow up the comet. Then we meet the team of space heroes, who include Robert Duvall, Blair Underwood, and Ron Eldard among others (including that nerdy Swingers guy!). As luck would have it, the U.S. and Russia were able to design and build a giant interplanetary spaceship in under eight months flat. The ship takes off, and then zoom! it arrives at the comet in but a matter of minutes (strangely, it takes the crew about four weeks to travel back to Earth later in the movie).

Meanwhile, we follow the personal stories of MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) as she tries to get her divorced parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell) back together even while reporting on the big story. And then there's 14-year-old Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) who originally discovered the comet and who is trying to save his girlfriend and her family by getting them into a government shelter program.

All these stories intermingle as we watch the astronauts tackle their mission, planting self-drilling nuclear bombs into the giant comet (a little excitement is thrown in when we learn that once the section they're on turns to face the sun, gases will erupt like a minefield). I won't be giving anything away by saying that the mission doesn't entirely succeed (if it did, Deep Impact would be an extremely short movie), and once it's clear that the world is going to end, things actually get more interesting. As a vision of what would happen if we faced global destruction, Deep Impact offers canny observations and reasonable predictions. It is indeed morbidly interesting to see how we struggle to survive as a species and how people react on a personal level. (One nit-pick, though: If the entire population realized there was no tomorrow, I'm thinkin' there'd be mass pillaging or at least large-scale freaking-out. In Deep Impact, everybody seems so orderly.)

But by playing world destruction so straight, so deadly seriously, it makes you wonder what the point of Deep Impact really is—it's not particularly entertaining, nor adventuresome, nor filled with important lessons about life. Why should we want to see it? The filmmakers say they hope it will make audiences "think," and I guess it will—i.e., "I am thankful we haven't been hit by a comet." But after all the tears and meaningful speeches about the human spirit, I'm still at a loss to understand why we need to see our possible extinction dramatized. Maybe it's a callous guy thing, but I'd much rather see the comic book treatment of the same theme in the upcoming Armageddon ("Head's Up") than Deep Impact's would-be meaningfulness.

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