When the world comes to an end, the only thing we'll miss are the special effects.
By James DiGiovanna
MAY 18, 1998: THE END OF the world just ain't what it used to be. When I was a teenager, we were assured every day by movies, newspapers and scientific journals that we would all be killed in a fiery nuclear grudge match wherein the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would decide once and for all whether capitalism or communism was the most insipid political philosophy ever devised. The very scientists who had invented the bomb were certain that our days were numbered, and their Journal of Atomic Scientists featured a little clock on the cover of each issue, counting down the days until Armageddon.
Well, ever since communism was defeated by rock music (at least that's the story I get from MTV) there's been a real dearth of good death. Sure, we have our regional conflicts and fears of killer microbes, but an explosive end-of-the-world scenario has become tremendously unlikely.
Hollywood, dismayed by the fact that all the post-nuke thrill films are now passé, has begun to look for other sources of painful death from above, notably the highly unlikely scenario that a meteor will destroy both the fruits our culture and the rock group Hanson. Although we're only about 99.9-percent certain that this won't happen in our lifetime, we can be 100-percent sure that if it did come to pass, it would be a lot less boring than Deep Impact.
The problem with doing a film like this about the end of the world is that you have more than five billion characters to contend with, so it's hard to develop any one of them. Responding to this conundrum, lead Téa Leone just picks one facial expression and sticks with it for the entire film, creating a sort of every-anchorman. Her constant look of newsworthy concern was cloying, and it was hard not to look forward to her eventual incineration.
Also phoning in performances were Morgan Freeman, as the authoritative but concerned president, Robert Duval as the wise old astronaut who must teach these youngsters a thing or two, Ron Eldard as the brash, young astronaut who's got a thing or two to learn, and several dozen other minor TV stars praying that this movie will grant them life after Seinfeld.
Of course, people don't come to summer blockbusters for character development, plot or dialogue--they come for the explosions. Since the impending meteor can only strike at the end of the film, there's a long wait for the big bang, palliated only slightly by some nicely shot scenes of astronauts landing on the comet and attempting to insert nuclear warheads deep, deep into its crust in order to stay it from its appointed rounds.
Unfortunately, director Mimi Leder thought it necessary to bring home the tedium of space travel by having the astronauts make long speeches about their families, their love of country, and their favorite books. And then one of them actually starts to read Moby Dick aloud. Much as I love Moby Dick, reading aloud is not exactly the stuff of exciting cinema.
Back on earth, everyone is saying a tearful good-bye to everyone else, or repairing the damage of childhood trauma, or staring blankly into space. Much of this soul-searching is engendered by the President's decision to save only himself and one million other Americans by preserving the chosen in a giant cave for a couple of years. 200,000 scientists, doctors and cute TV anchorwomen have been pre-selected for survival, and the other 800,000 are picked by lottery.
Elijah Wood, playing the 14-year-old who discovered the comet, is one of the pre-selected. His pals at school have told him that famous people get laid a lot, so he picks up on the cute blond chick he has a crush on with this unbeatable line: "Marry me...it's your only chance for survival!" He's such a geek that she decides to die with the rest of the peons. Astronomy nerds everywhere must have nodded knowingly at the realism of this response.
In spite of the teeny-bopper love story and threat of world-wide extinction, there's not much emotional meat to this story. When Leone's character discovers that the world is going to end--the words "Extinction Level Event" appearing on her computer screen--director Leder thought that it was still necessary to blast ominous and melancholy music to ear-splitting levels, because how else would we know that impending planetary destruction is dramatic? In fact, it really is hard to care about the deaths of these characters, who, even though they are faced with the end of the world, still seem like whiners when they start yapping about their unfulfilled yearnings.
And just why is Leder being handed these massive budgets by DreamWorks? Previously, she brought us Peacemaker, even when we asked her not to; and before that she had only worked for television. Under her direction, Deep Impact lurches from slow-moving tear-jerker to fast-paced action film with the rhythm of a drug-free, all-white reggae band.
Perhaps most distressing is the appearance of Michael Tolkin's name as the writer of this film. This is the same Michael Tolkin who wrote two of the best films of the nineties, The Player and The Rapture. Apparently, under the influence of a $100 million budget, he's fully capable of producing the kind of "high-concept" drek that costs several times what a real anti-comet missile system would cost.
Also slumming here, in bit-but-not-chewed parts, are Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, James Cromwell and Swingers star Jon Favreau, who must have been relieved when his character was jettisoned into space early in the film, saving him from a full hour of hand-wringing.
While all this talent is wasted, the big special effects are pretty fabulous. There was clearly a lot more creativity amongst the effects team than in the scriptwriting and directing departments, and some of the shots are not only convincing, they're clever and inventive. An overhead view of New York City that shows people on rooftops running away from the incoming tidal waves, and some beautiful faux-underwater footage of flooded city streets were particularly nice.
Production companies DreamWorks SKG and Paramount Pictures would probably have done better to save the money they spent on the cast and screenplay and to have just turned the whole thing over to Industrial Light and Magic. Given the success of such short attention span projects as Jerry Springer Too Hot For TV and When Animals Attack, maybe it's time to throw in the towel and just make a 90-minute film of nothing but explosions.
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