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Deep Impact hits theaters in time for summer; bad omen

Deep Impact
Warning: Spoilers are included in this review... but it doesn't really make much of a difference.

DEEP IMPACT begins the official summer movie season, and it also brings back memories of 1997. Remember when Dante's Peak came out in February? A few months later, Volcano was released. The first film was smart, exhilirating, and one of the best disaster films I had ever seen. The latter film was an incohesive mess that defied logic and wasted talent. Well, it's deja vu all over again as two disaster films go head to head in competition. This time, unfortunately, the first comet flick is so bad that people may shy away from Armageddon, the upcoming comet-disaster to be released the beginning of July.

Of course, the general reaction of the audience was oppposed to mine, and so I am in the minority, as I was when I stood on the side of Dante's Peak. But while watching DEEP IMPACT, I began to wonder how anyone in their right mind could actually like this film. Apparently many did, and it utterly baffles me. To be completely honest, I haven't had this little fun watching a disaster film in my entire life. Volcano had implausibilities up the wazoo, but it was still rather fun to watch. DEEP IMPACT doesn't just have implausibilities, it also contains cheap human drama, incredibly horrible special effects, and a poorly constructed plot. The only thing that gives it a half star above my bottom ranking is a slightly entertaining final fifteen minutes and some good actors making the most of their characters.

DEEP IMPACT begins in an unnamed year (the year varies; advanced technology sets it in the future, but Fire In The Sky is showing on a local movie theater, pushing it back to 1993). A line of students is outside at night, peering through telescopes at the dark sky above. Among these are Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) and Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski). Leo unknowingly discovers a comet, and his teacher sends a photo of the unknown object to an astronomer, who then is able to determine the correct path of this distant comet in about a few seconds. He races off to mail the information, but is killed in a reckless car accident. A year passes, and nothing is heard about it again.

We are then introduced to Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni), a reporter for MSNBC. She gets handed a job to investigate a possible cover-up in the government involving Senator Alan Rittenhouse (James Cromwell). She talks to a woman who mentions that Rittenhouse was having an affair with a girl named Ellie. After talking with Rittenhouse, and unsatisfied with the information she gets, she decides to use the Internet for help. Luckily, she knows exactly how to spell the certain "Ellie" that she is looking for (they spell it ELE in the film... that girl is pretty darn smart for guessing how it was spelled). Before she can use the information, the government decides to push her car off the road. They take her in to meet the President of the United States, President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Beck recommends that Jenny keep the information secret for 48 hours so they can confirm it and then hold a press conference. Naturally, she wants to be compensated, and they offer her a front row seat and the chance for the first question.

And so, yada yada yada, they reveal the comet to the public and their plans: send a massive spacecraft out to destroy it before it can arrive. They announce a plan called "ARK," which is their only hope for survival. A computer will select 800,000 people at random. These people are the ones who will go into a large cave underground so that the impact of the comet won't kill off the entire human race. After two years, the dust will settle (actually, it would take much, much longer) and the humans could come back to the surface and start over. The rest of the plot is your standard disaster film procedures, but there is one subplot worth mentioning. Jenny and her father, Jason (Maximilian Schell), have a very touching relationship that forms out of the impending doom. The final moment involving the two characters is heartfelt and emotional. It's a shame that nothing else is heartfelt. Now, of course, we all know that the comet does impact the surface. The title alone suggests it, and the previews actually show it! By doing this, absoltuely no tension can be drawn from any attempt to stop the comet because we all know that it won't work.

Director Mimi Leder came from her successful tries at direction with episodes of the hit television show "ER." Her major film debut was The Peacemaker, a pathetic and heartless action film. Well, this time Leder outdid herself, creating a film worse than that one. Suggestion to Ms. Leder: Please, stay away from the big screen, or at least the action genre. Much of the blame can be placed on Leder directly, because the pace is disastrously off. Throughout the film we are given subtitles that tell us how much time has passed (it goes from months to weeks to hours). It literally feels like this lapsed time is taking place in real-time--it's that boring. Of course, Leder isn't all to blame for it. Screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin have crafted a simplistic story that only gets worse with time. What starts out promising soon turns deadly (for the audience anyway). Chock full of cheesy one liners and stupid characters, you might think we were back in the 70s again. Only one of the subplots is remotely interesting, while the rest are forgettable and boring. And the main plot is so outrageous that you can't figure out if this film is supposed to be an action, drama, or sci-fi.

To put it simply: the special effects of this film are a hit and miss situation. That's right, 80% miss, and 20% hit. Scenes above the Earth are well done, and the orbiting ship is majestic. But the comet is a huge mistake, making it more laughable than frightening. The concept of even trying to land on a comet is preposterous enough, but that's forgiveable. What isn't forgiveable is actually having humans walk on the surface. Give me a break, will ya? And of course, the much hyped collision of comet and Earth. Well, it is far from spectacular, and it makes Independence Day look brilliant. The water rushing towards the land is effective, but once it hits the continent, the effects turn ridiculous. CGI water is used, and it looks so bad that I heard more laughs from the audience than shrieks. In fact, I may even recommend the film for those who want to see how bad effects can actually get these days. Just when we think visual effects can't be improved, along comes a film to show that they really can and should be.

One thing has struck a wrong note with me concerning Mimi Leder's direction, which also influences the actors. Leder loves to show the actors' faces before and during moments of terror. This reminded me of another action director, Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger). But Harlin succeeds because he shows the faces of the victims in realistic situations. Leder likes to flaunt people's fears via their faces, but instead of coming off as sympathetic, Leder seems more of a Sadist. One moment has an astronaut flying off into space. This should be enough to warrant a response from the audience, but Leder wants to go farther and shows us the person's face while drifting into space. This is one of the cheapest ways to ellicit an emotional response from an audience, and I, for one, am not going to be fooled. On another note, Leder's film only picks up its pace during the last fifteen minutes when the comet actually impacts. The pace does pick up, and some very emotional moments are shown. Then again, when you watch people cry for their loved ones, it's obvious it will be emotional. It's mostly just a big trick to rope viewers into "feeling" for the characters, but it didn't work for me.

But anyway, the actors do as much as they can with what they are given. Téa Leoni (Bad Boys, TV's "The Naked Truth") is the best of the film, and she is given the meatiest role. Her character is made stronger by Leoni's presence, and we grow to care for her. Robert Duvall is energetic and fun to watch, but his character is turned into shreds by the plot. Elijah Wood also comes off rather successfully, but he still hasn't had many good roles (Wood, stick to drama! You are too talented for this stuff). Vanessa Redgrave is barely acknowledgeable, and her performance is only enhanced by her strong presence on screen. Maximilian Schell is distracting, but he does provide some nice humor. Morgan Freeman has been infinitely better than this, and gives one of his most shallow performances to date (which is quite remarkable for him). Leelee Sobieski could have been better, but I think she just suffered from a poorly written character. A special note should go to Ron Eldard and Denise Crosby. Eldard is good in his role, but is limited by the plot. Crosby is special to me personally because she was Tasha Yar from TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Seeing her was one of the highlights of the film. Overall, a very talented cast virtually wasted.

DEEP IMPACT is rated PG-13 for disaster related elements and brief language. This is one of the worst films of the year, and if it is any omen of things to come, this summer could be one of the worst ever. Luckily, The X-Files Movie is coming up, and hopefully Armageddon will be more successful. It's a shame that this film will do so successfully because it just isn't worth much. Costing nearly $75 million, with special effects done by the illustrious ILM (which is a huge shocker), and with a score composed by Oscar-winner James Horner (Titanic), one might have expected this to be more fun to witness and experience. Well, it's not. When the comet does hit the Earth, you almost wish it could just take this film along with it.

*1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews