Film * Mimi Leder * Comet Apocalypse * 1998
Stories about the sudden end of the world as we know it are popular pretty much all of the time, especially as we march ever onward into an uncertain future. If there was more attention paid to apocalyptic fiction in the late 1990s, it would be relatively easy to point to the dawn of a new millennium as a reason why not one but two big budget apocalypse films debuted in the same year. Deep Impact and Armageddon came out within a couple of months of each other, and both made quite a lot of money. More people came out and saw the latter, presumably because it was July and it was the glorious summer of Ben Affleck and Aerosmith, but regardless of the reason, in the summer of 1998 two movies with variations of the same plot made all kinds of money.
Deep Impact, the thinking man’s comet-falls-from-the-sky-and-smashes-everything-real-good film of 1998, casts a fairly wide net in telling its story. The movie begins with baby Elijah Wood making flirty overtures to his cutie neighbor while they hang out in astronomy club like a couple of dorks. Once the concept of a comet is established, the movie shifts its point of view. This time it’s a go-go 90’s reporter who’s trying to make her bones in the nascent world of cable news. It seems in the dim, distant days of the late 20th century, reporters were still seen as some kind of investigative force. Anyway, she stumbles onto the truth and from there the audience is granted its perspective into the high levels of the United States government. Eventually Robert Duvall shows up as a wise, over-the-hill astronaut who goes on a mission to blow the comet up.
Switching between this varied assortment of characters works pretty well to convey the different effects of the comet upon humanity throughout the film. Some storylines are more fleshed out than others, and yes, the sentimentality is laid on fairly thick towards the end, but what do you want? There’s a fucking comet in the sky and everyone is doomed. I guess we should be allowed a little sappiness when our extinction is imminent.
While Deep Impact does a serviceable job of keeping tabs on various levels of action during the wind-up to impact, there obviously isn’t enough room within the medium to really stretch out and explore why these pre-Apocalyptic stories should resonate. It’s a difficult problem, because it is the largest problem. After a certain point, people can’t conceive of large scale disasters like this. The film posits the comet impact as an E.L.E., or Extinction Level Event. Obviously, that’s a global issue. Because we’re dealing with a film with a constrained running time, there is only so much they are able to focus on. To its credit, Deep Impact does a commendable job of providing plenty of exposition in a relatively painless way while keeping the focus on the human players. However, this is an effects-driven summer movie, so once that’s out of the way the narrative shifts to America’s (and Russia, who are treated super nicely in this movie) valiant effort to stop the end of the world. Once that appears to fail, the secret bunkers are revealed and chaos ensues.
Size, of course, is the foil for these kinds of stories. For the most part, the science holds up (as far as I know. My astronomy is strictly amateur hour, but the Internet seems to be of the opinion that at least they tried for accuracy), but whenever suspension of disbelief is required, it is due to size. First is the underestimation of the effects of a catastrophic event of this magnitude. The movie ends with Morgan Freeman giving an inspirational speech about how the waters receded and you can’t keep humanity (read: AMERICA) down, and how everything is going to be totes cool don’t even worry about it. Papa Freeman got you. Meanwhile, even by his own admission, millions of people are dead. The entire Eastern Seaboard is decimated. I know they show a cool picture of a Capitol Building be rebuilt, but no. That wouldn’t be an option unless they airlifted that thing to freakin’ Denver. Meanwhile, the rest of the country was sent spiraling into unremitted chaos. We are shown but a glimpse of the chaos of mass evacuation and other riots, but understand, if the world is filled with billions of people with no hope of survival and then that threat is lifted at the very last second? No, you don’t recover from that. At least not in any kind of timely manner, President Freeman or no. Beyond the permanent, irrevocable damage sustained by the United States in such a situation, all of the Western European Union powers would also decimated, or in the case of the UK, all but totally destroyed. Global markets at that point are razed to the ground. Add to this the fact that even the “small” impact shown in the film would kick up enough debris into the atmosphere to heavily impact global weather patterns, and now you’ve got worldwide famine issues as well. The true ending to this film is that of a worldwide nightmare, and I would pay real money for a Deep Impact 2 that takes place in such a situation.
But that’s size. And despite being a financial success, there is not going to be a sequel dedicated to life in the new Wasteland America. This is supposed to be an Apocalypse we can feel good about! There’s nothing Nature can throw at us that a little American gumption, elbow-grease, and stick-to-it-ness can’t fix right up. While such naked American exceptionalism can get annoying, I suppose it’s better than an alternate version where everyone gives up and just loots and has orgies the entire time. Yet that’s where the disaster film as a trope falters, and we’ll see it in other films of its kind. Since we’re dealing with spectacle, the movie becomes more about that smashy-ka-boom than anything of substance. And that’s fine, sometimes. However it seems that Deep Impact was reaching for more, only to undermine itself at the end. The film spends most of its time focusing on the wind-up to the event itself, and considers the efforts of humanity to avoid the disaster. We like to see humanity at its best, so the filmmakers focused on the tenacious reporter, the cool and collected President, and the heroic international astronauts with the plucky young astronomer to serve as a window into the average person’s life during this crisis. That’s all well and good, but I think it was a wasted opportunity. I think the more interesting aspect of a massive disaster like this is how people would respond to the immediate and total dissolution of society. However, according to Deep Impact, civilization isn’t fragile at all. Quite the contrary, the film states pretty clearly that not even the total devastation of a comet impact could possibly keep America from being America. I’m not sure if that’s reflective of reality, but then this is a summer movie with a large special-effects budget, so I guess we can afford some fantasy.