Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact was the better of 1998’s two movies about an object hurtling from space toward Earth.
Deep Impact is often paired in the public imagination with Michael Bay’s Armageddon, another movie about something from space threatening the existence of life on Earth and humanity’s efforts to stop it. The two films were released within two months of each in the spring/summer of 1998.
But I want to compare Deep Impact to another movie about a comet hurtling towards Earth: Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, which arrived in 2021 and used that premise for an extremely broad political allegory about climate change.
Deep Impact, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago this week, is a better film than Armageddon, but it’s also a better film than Don’t Look Up. It’s far from perfect, but Deep Impact also takes the impending end of the world seriously and provides a believable telling of what it actually might look like if the human race believed we were a year away from the apocalypse.
The film also, wisely, didn’t try to do political satire.
Deep Impact was directed by Mimi Leder, then best known as a TV director who helmed the famous early episode of ER about Dr. Greene delivering a baby. It came from a script by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, the respective screenwriters of early 1990s hits Ghost and The Player.
The film starts in a very unconventional way for a disaster movie: A TV news reporter for MSNBC (Tea Leoni) stumbles into a story about a cabinet secretary (James Cromwell) resigning, and assumes that it’s about a sex scandal (perfect for the timing of the movie, which was released in the opening months of the Clinton-Lewinsky brouhaha.)
But it turns out what’s being hidden is that a comet is headed straight towards Earth, and will strike the planet in about one year. The comet here is “the size of New York City” (whereas the asteroid in Armageddon was “the size of Texas.”)
This triggers both a plan to destroy the comet with nuclear weapons — also the plan in both Armageddon and Don’t Look Up — and a plan for continuing the human race by gathering about a million people to stay in underground shelters.
It’s all presided over by President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman, who in his career has played God, Nelson Mandela, and now the president of the United States. A decade later, The Onion joked about America turning to another Black president, after the world was nearly destroyed with Freeman in charge in Deep Impact.
The movie’s space crew, meanwhile, is assembled from outstanding actors, led by Robert Duvall, Blair Underwood, and a super-young Jon Favreau, fresh off Swingers, plus air traffic controller Kurtwood Smith. Duvall is especially a highlight, as a veteran astronaut of the Right Stuff generation, commanding a bunch of younger types who barely know who he is. John Glenn, in real life, went back to space at age 77 just a few months after Deep Impact was released.
Deep Impact, in addition to the Armageddon connection, arrived in something of a golden age of disaster movies, with Twister and Independence Day tearing up the box office two years earlier, and the dueling volcano erruption movies Volcano and Dante’s Peak both coming out the year before.
The ending kind of has it both ways: There’s some heroism in that the world is saved, but there’s still a great deal of destruction. How does the movie accomplish this? The mission fails to destroy the comet, but it does blast it in two.
Therefore, Deep Impact gets to present both the heroic moment of the heroes sacrificing themselves to save the day, as well as the memorable shot of the massive tsunami- which, at one point, strikes (but doesn’t appear to topple) the World Trade Center.