Good friends, let us talk about the first disaster film of the season, Deep Impact.
Disaster film did I say? Yes, indeed. This one follows the disaster genre formula so closely that you'd expect to see Irwin Allen in the credits. Yet it daringly breaks with the most recent crop of disaster film cliches as well: no cute dogs are saved.
We start with a junior astronomy club out gazing at the stars and trying to rope in the vital teen demographic. Young love is blossoming. Under a star field in which I did not recognize a single constellation they blithely call out the names of all the stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. Yet what is this? A star that no one recognizes! Close to one of the named first-magnitude stars, and of the same brightness! No one else has noticed this (and no other junior astronomy club in the world, let alone professional astronomer, grad student, navigator, or truck driver will notice it for the next year or so, if we are to believe the rapidly (for the moment) unfolding plot) so our guys take photos and send them off to the professional astronomer who sponsors the club.
Egad, he gets the photos, and is so excited that the pizza drops right out of his mouth. He tries to email his friends, but don't you know it, the server is down. Since telephone technology is beyond him, he leaps into his truck to drive down the mountain from his observatory in search of a working ISP. When I saw him headed for the parking lot, I said to myself, "He's gonna die." And die he does, in a wonderful action-adventure flaming wreck, for reasons not related to the plot, since word of the comet that's going to hit earth, complete with the name he assigned it, clearly gets to the President by the next morning, and whether he lives or dies makes no difference in the following events.
[The Director pops up. "No! No! You don't understand!" she shouts. "This is foreshadowing! An impressive collision, resulting in death! Don't you see?"]
This was entirely too much excitement for the screenwriter, director, and audience, so we flash forward a year to take a breather.
We're now with the Product Placement Division of Microsoft, as everything in sight is either MSNBC, or MSIE, or otherwise related to our pals from Redmond. We join spunky MSNBC reporter Jenny as she learns of a sex scandal in the Cabinet. SecState apparently had a private line in his office, where he whispered with someone named Ellie, and now he's resigned with a flimsy excuse! Could it be he was covering up for the President?!
But wait! Jenny has problems of her own. In a touching attempt at human interest, and one of the three major heartwrenching subplots in this film, Jenny's mom and dad have divorced, mom drinks like a fish, and dad just married a bimbo young enough to be his daughter.
Mom will eventually die, though she does it off screen and so ambiguously that you're left wondering if it was a broken heart, suicide, a freak taxi accident, or cirrhosis of the liver that finally got her. If it was suicide, that seems especially pointless, since by then everyone knows that Ellie wasn't another bimbo, it means E.L.E., or Extinction Level Event, a comet is headed for earth, and we're all gonna die.
Remember that no one other than this one high school astronomy club detected this thing. No other astronomers have figured this out. The word never got out.
Now, the President goes on the tube to announce that the US and the Russians have been secretly building a giant spaceship in Earth orbit, in order to go and blow up the comet and save everyone.
Here's one of those maddening lost movies. A movie about the planning stage, as the Prez and his advisors try to figure out what to do and arrange their contingency plans might have been interesting. But that movie wasn't made, so we're left with this one.
We now go on to some more heartwarming, boring, Relationship stuff, with young Leo and Sarah (the kid from the astronomy club and his girlfriend), and with Jenny and her mom and dad. And, in an astounding break from the Disaster Movie Cliche standard, we only now meet another set of major characters. Usually you meet them all in the first five minutes in a kind of Mouseketeer Roll Call set of scenes. Here's the Intrepid Astronauts who are going to go blow up the comet, led by crusty old-timer Apollo veteran Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner.
Everyone spends an awful lot of time saying goodbye to one another, repeatedly, in a number of ways and in a variety of media.
None of the relationships are on screen enough to get us to care about the people, or in some cases even remember their names. Hint for the scriptwriter: Find one relationship and stick with it.
[The director pops up. "No, no!" she says, "You don't understand! This movie is about saying farewell! It's about endings! There's this impact, you see, and it's deep!"]
Well, off we go to the asteroid. By now I stopped glancing at my watch and started pinching the bridge of my nose and shaking my head. First, we fly our landing craft from the mothership to the surface of the comet, coming right through the tail filled with swirling chunks of rock. Wham! Bam! They get hit! Leaking air! Junk getting knocked off! And I said to myself, "Why isn't this spacehipship built like a tank? Why are there those big glass windows on the front? (wham, pow!) Why are the engines out on those delicate stalks? (biff! crunch!)
We arrive at the comet, a rotating ball of ice and rock seven miles across. And we need to fire retrorockets to ease down to a soft landing against the powerful gravitational pull. Yeah, right.
Now our guys go EVA, to put down mechanical moles that will burrow into the comet to add nukes to the mix and blow the thing into tiny bits, or change its course, or something.
And they have to do it all before local sunrise, since then the ice will start to boil and the surface will become Very Dangerous Indeed. Apparently setting up a picnic awning made of aluminized mylar a couple of acres in size didn't occur to them.
Off they go. And now dawn is near. Oh, dear! The guys aren't back yet. And there are these big flashing lights that say "Horizon approaching!" And I said to myself, "What the frip?!"
The distance of the horizon depends on two things: The size of the sphere you're on, and your height of eye above the surface. Neither one of those things was changing.
There is, in fact, a specific word that means the sunset or sunrise line, the line between light and dark. All of the people on that spacecraft are military. They'd know that word. It's "Terminator."
[The director pops up. "No! NO!" she says. "If I had a flashing light that said 'Terminator approaching,' the audience would expect Arnold Schwartzenegger to bust through the door, then I'd get hit with a trademark suit!"]
Okay, they blow up the comet. And it doesn't work. The comet merely breaks into two parts.
This flashes me back to that movie they didn't make, with the Prez doing the contingency planning. "What kind of kilotonnage do we need to turn a chunk of rock the size of Manhattan into gravel?" someone would ask. "XXX," some scientist type would say. "Great," says the first guy. "We'll double it." "Screw doubling it," someone else would say, "Let's use ten times as much." This, however, apparently wasn't done.
And now we get to another movie that wasn't made. The comet mission itself, with none of the weepy stuff on the ground, with the highly professional astronauts doing their thing, would have been interesting.
Okay, it'll take five months for that asteroid to hit earth. The astronauts, touchingly, spend the time reading Moby-Dick to each other. Now you, or I, or they, would actually have been trying to figure out something else to do -- they have the world's largest and most powerful spaceship with them, after all. Do they nose it down into a hollow on the comet and run the engines up full, at 90 degrees to the comet's path, to deflect it? At five months out, a small deflection would probably work.
Nah, they don't do that.
Anyway, back to earth. More weeping and hand holding.
The Prez has a contingency plan. He's had caves dug, somehow without anyone noticing, and he's going to put a million Americans into 'em, chosen by lottery, to survive a couple of years then come out and try to rebuild. Our boy junior-astronomer Leo has a pre-selected ticket, since he's famous. His girlfriend doesn't make the cut. So he quickly marries her, to get her a place on the inside.
Here comes the Army bus. Leo gets on the bus, but Sarah, suddenly she says "No! I'm going to stay with my parents!" What do Sarah's mom and dad do? They let her stay! What would you or I do if it were our kid who had a chance at surviving when the rest of the world looks likely to be wiped slick? Cold-cocked her, and thrown her on the bus, that's what.
Off to the caves of Project Ark we go. And at the gate, Leo has a sudden rush of stupids to the head, and decides that he has to go back for his own loving wife (who decided to stay with mom rather than go with him -- will this marriage last?) Dad looks at him proudly, and says, "Here, you'll need this," and hands him his wristwatch. Now, with the comet due to hit in like two days, and junior about to go out into the world, and mom and dad didn't just put a hammerlock on him and march him into the cave, what would be a useful thing to hand him? A .45, maybe. Perhaps a .38. But a wristwatch? Maybe it was a moneybelt. I dunno. Whatever it was, that particular prop is unimportant, and is never seen again.
Doesn't matter. No one needs a .38 far less a .45 in this film. Everyone in the world seems to have joined the Boy Scouts between now and whenever the film is set. But they sure do hold hands and cry a lot.
The Prez orders a Titan missile strike on the comet, with no effect. That there is no effect isn't surprising -- all the Titans were decommed years ago. Perhaps this is a clue to how long this script has been kicking around Hollywood. In any case this all happens off-screen.
The bugger only had three contingency plans? See if anyone ever votes for him again.
Actually, by this point every country in the world that a) had a space program and b) had a nuke would be out trying to do in that comet. Space between Earth and the rock should have looked like the Channel off Dunkirk. But apparently the whole rest of the world left it up to the USA and Russia to defend them. Nukes are 1940s technology. Space craft are 1960s technology. If cost was no object, you'd be astounded what nations could make a credible effort.
In a major display of Incredible Coincidence, our hero Leo finds wifey Sarah just minutes before the Big One, as he cruises up the very highway that her family took when they tried to evacuate the coast (having heard the comet was going to make a water hit off Cape Hatteras). He's on a dirt bike by now, and I'm wondering why he's still on that dirt bike. In the real world, he'd have that bike until someone who had no principles but did have a baseball bat decided that he wanted the bike for himself.
Now the astronauts finally make the decision that any one of us would have made five months before. And they still have four nukes on board? Why is this, I wonder? Why didn't they use everything they were carrying? There's suddenly a mile-and-a-half tunnel through the main comet, and they're going to fly into it and blow themselves up.
Again, this isn't surprising for military people to make this kind of decision. See, for example, the actions of USS Samuel B. Roberts at the battle off Samar during WWII. The only surprising thing is how long it took them to reach that decision.
Meanwhile the press corps is abandoning D.C. Young Jenny has a guaranteed place in the caves. The MSNBC crew draws straws to see who gets on the helicopter. One young gentleman fails to select. He gets all kinds of perturbed. Me, I would have turned to Jenny and said, "Hey, babe, how about a quickie?" on the off chance that my DNA would stay in the genepool. No one apparently thinks about this.
Jenny snatches a kid from the MSNBC daycare room. "No, no! Don't take my baby!" the mother shouts. In real life, knowing that getting on that bird and getting into the caves would be the kid's only chance, the mother should have been shouting, "Yes yes! Take my baby!"
Actually, Jenny goes off and stands on the beach with her dad, having finally reconciled with him. She's the only one who figures out that you can get off the road and drive on the grass verge, allowing her to drive when everyone else is stuck in a massive traffic jam. Apparently no one around there had ever driven in Boston.
About now the first part of the comet hits, in a special-effects extravaganza that you already saw if you watched the commercials and the trailers.
This is a water hit off Hatteras, like I said. Somehow the wave hits New York City before it hits a spot where the highway sign clearly labels the location as being six miles from Virginia Beach. Oh well.
Young love survives. The astronauts blow up the bigger part of the comet successfully. Since momentum isn't conserved, all of the gravel doesn't hit the earth in a semi-solid lump of equal mass to the original body.
The US capitol building winds up looking lots better than you'd expect after a thousand-foot-high wall of water moving at supersonic speeds supposedly hit it.
Other than the priest who shows up to marry Leo and Sarah, there's no religious feeling at all in the flick. You'd at least expect a guy in New York, wearing long robe and a beard, carrying a sign "The end is near."
Now there are a few more movies that could have, should have, been made. The story about the people in the caves, for example. What was it like for them? (We never do see the interior of a cave.) What's it like for them when they go back home to face the people who weren't chosen and stayed behind?
What happened to the people who were partying like there was no tomorrow, when they woke up and there was a tomorrow?
There were lots of interesting movies that could be made. This wasn't one of them. It tried to follow too many stories, and so followed none of them. I was heartily sick of teary goodbyes by the end.
Perhaps this film will play better with non-SF audiences. We've all read The Hammer of God, Shiva Descending, and even Lucifer's Hammer. We saw Meteor.
The interesting stories happen the week after the comet doesn't destroy everyone. If I were writing this, that's where I'd start my story. The special-effects extravaganza would be behind the opening titles.
At least it was better than Speed II.