Top critical review
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on June 30, 2002
"Deep Impact" is the classic example of a movie that had everything going for it, and simply failed to gel. It has many excellent actors, good special effects, and a script that should have been better than it was. In its effort to give a more "human" approach to a worldwide disaster, it doesn't work.
Astronomy schoolboy Leo Bierdman (Elijah Wood) spots an unusual speck in the sky; out of curiosity, he sends the information to a scientist, who meets a needlessly theatrical demise moments after finding out the horrible news. A year or so later, reporter Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) begins snooping out a potential sex scandal: strange calls about a woman called "Ellie" have been circulating from the president's office. She discovers the truth only days before the president (Morgan Freeman) tells the public: It's E.L.E., not "Ellie," and stands for Extinction Level Event. An enormous chunk of rock is hurtling toward Earth, and if it hits, it will destroy all life on the planet.
A spaceship called the Messiah is launched, in an effort to destroy the comet, with a mixed crew of minorities and non-Americans, lead by Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner (Robert Duvall). In case that doesn't work, a series of tunnels are being built in which selected humans, animals, plants and so forth will be sheltered if the comet were to hit. As the potential doomsday draws closer, Jenny tries to make peace with her fragmented family, Leo tries to save the people he cares about most, and the astronauts struggle to avert the diaster.
Handled correctly, this film might have been a triumph of moviemaking. But the director's handling of this is melodramatic, often illogical, unrealistically noble, and chock full of cliches. Among the cliches is an older, more experienced astronaut among younger ones who consider him a dinosaur; the lead character fussing about her father divorcing her mother for a pretty young thing; the teen boy who risks it all for the girl he loves, and so forth. The lack of logic kicks in quite often: Why does Leo see the comet when every conservatory on the planet managed to miss? Why doesn't anyone freak out until scant days before the comet hits? How could a pair of teenagers on a very slow motorcycle outrun a tidal wave? What kind of teens, when faced with impending death, would applaud silly sex jokes?
One of the biggest drawbacks in this movie is Tea Leoni, a sort of Katie Couric on tranquilizers, who expresses all the pain, angst, and turmoil of a breadboard. This woman simply cannot act. Over the course of the movie, Jenny mumbles in a soulless monotone, failing to display a single identifiable emotion, no matter what is going on around her. When Leoni does display some emotion, it resembles rambling drunkenness rather than mild hysteria. Morgan Freeman is excellent as the President of the United States; he manages dignity, poise, outward calm and inward unhappiness, and a sense of being larger than life.
Robert Duvall is similarly convincing as the grizzled veteran astronaut. Elijah Wood is clearly trying hard to make Leo Biederman halfway sympathetic (I'm told that the script was altered substantially after he was signed on). Wood also had to bear, on his narrow then-teenage shoulders, the burden of the worst proposal scene ever committed to celluloid, in which Leo displays both arrogance and insensitivity. LeeLee Sobieski, as Leo's girlfriend/wife Sarah, acts well at the beginning of the movie, but apparently stops trying about halfway through.
The scripting is on and off; sometimes it's dreadful, sometimes it's very good, especially when Leoni is a peripheral presence. Sometimes the camera shooting is a little too cheesy, such as the back-and-forth shots between Leo and Sarah's "young love" wedding, and the lonely primping of Jenny's divorced mom; on the other hand, I thought the scene where Duvall reads to a blind crewmate to be quite touching and sympathetic. The movie also raises some intriguing questions. How would humanity react if we faced extinction? Was it in the best interests of the people to keep it all a secret for a year? Who would be saved, and why? And is the "lottery" to choose the survivors a good idea, or a cold, soulless way of determining who deserves to live?
This movie has some deep flaws, but is worth watching if you have some empty time, or if you are a fan of some of the actors in it.