The curious hybrid called Deep Impact

When is a disaster movie not a disaster movie (even though it’s a disaster movie)? The answer is when it’s a Mimi Leder directed disaster movie and the usual trappings of the genre are downplayed and others, usually dealt with in an offhand manner, are lingered over.

Deep Impact (1998)

Directed by Mimi Leder

In the movie Deep Impact the Earth is in a fix. An asteroid “as big as Manhattan” is going to crash into it and the devastation caused by the event will be … well, it won’t be good. It means the end of civilization; the end of most life.

How can we survive?

It sounds familiar because at roughly the same time another “hurtling asteroid” disaster movie came out, Armageddon.

While the latter was the more successful film, I’m not sure it was the better one. Deep Impact is not a great movie. Neither of the two movies is particularly good. Of the two, Armageddon seems to have had a bigger budget.

Tea Leoni in Deep Impact.

But I think Deep Impact may be the more interesting. While not as action packed or quickly paced, it takes an approach that’s a bit different than the usual disaster film.

It’s emphasis is placed more on the people than the event. Rather than focusing on how the characters will prevent the catastrophe and save the world, it focuses more on how or if they will survive. It’s fatalistic, in a sense.

This different emphasis is exemplified in the story of its main character, played by Téa Leoni. Her storyline is about discovering the nature of the tragedy that is about to occur (she is a reporter), coming to terms with her parents and her feelings for them, especially her estranged father.

Odd material for a disaster flick.

The character who is dealing with preventing the event is played by Robert Duvall. Normally this would be the heroic action role. In Deep Impact however, Duvall is the senior astronaut (meaning older) sent as part of a team to stop the asteroid. While he and the other astronauts are heroic, it is nothing like the rousing way someone like a Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis character would be. Duvall and the others are very human, and their stories are more centred on who they are than on what they do. (This is true of almost every character in the film.)

Morgan Freeman.

The other “hero” in the film is played by Morgan Freeman. He’s an American President who is overwhelmed by the event, made impotent by its scope, yet has to somehow lead a nation … yet he has nowhere to lead them to. Freeman (as usual) is fantastic in the part, infusing his character with both strength and vulnerability. You wish he actually was the President.

It is a very odd action movie in this sense. It cares less about how strong its characters are than on how vulnerable. In fact, its the emphasis on their vulnerabilities that informs the heroism of their actions.

Admirable as all this is, however, it doesn’t really make for a great action film, or any other kind. Because it’s essentially an action-disaster movie, its structured in a way that doesn’t explore the characters very deeply. If it did, it would be another kind of film. But because it views its characters the way it does, it doesn’t really have the adrenaline quality of good, fast-paced action films, or the quick inter-cutting between multiple (and shallow) storylines. So it ends up being neither a character study nor an action film. It gets lost between what the director finds interesting (characters) and what the genre finds interesting (action).

Scene from Deep Impact.

The end result is a kind of hamstrung hybrid film. It’s really not about saving the world from disaster. It’s about coming to terms with disaster and its consequences.

I like and admire the movie for this reason, but I also think it needs a structure very different than that of action movies to succeed.

Still, it makes for an interesting film. You don’t often see a female lead in a movie like this or, if you do, she’s a woman playing what is essentially a male role (like Sigourney Weaver in Alien). You don’t often see a film with a female lead who has no romantic relationship — not even an allusion to one. (At least, I can’t recall any.) And you don’t often see a film like this give you the ultimate consequences (Téa Leoni’s storyline) so the inevitable happy ending is equivocal, conditioned by the endings of its principal characters.

This is why I like this film, though I can’t argue its is especially good.

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