Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Deep Impact: A Not-At All Timely Review.

Oh, Deep Impact. You had the misfortune of coming out in the same summer as the Michael Bay blockbuster-disaster-porn-fest, Armageddon. And sadly for you, Deep Impact, Armageddon featured a bigger budget, a more famous cast, and a director with a penchant for blowing shit up. And lo and behold, Armageddon turned out to be the biggest grossing movie of the year, racking up more than a half-billion dollars in ticket sales. Deep Impact, meanwhile, reaped a more modest ~$350 million, which was still pretty damn good, given that it had cost less to make. Trivia note: until Twilight came along, Deep Impact was the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman.
"Curse you, Twilight! Currrrrrrrse yoooooooooooouuuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!!"
Anyway, Armageddon and Deep Impact actually scored equally with critics when they were released... or should we say, equally poorly. The received similar Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores, with Armageddon being slammed for being a brainless waste of time, while Deep Impact was panned for being boring and wooden. On the other hand, Armageddon ended up netting nominations for both the Oscars and the Razzies. So at least they have that going for them. But here's the question: what are the big differences between the two films? Well, there's the:

Cast: Armageddon clearly had access to more of the Hollywood A-list. I mean: Bruce Willis! Ben Affleck (and pre-backlash Affleck, at that)! Liv Tyler! Billy Bob Thorton! Steve Buscemi! Deep Impact? Well, there's Morgan Freeman, of course, and then there's... Robert Duvall! Tea Leoni! Um... Elijah Wood! Vanessa Redgrave... in all of two scenes! And... and... Laura Innes? Yes, with an extraordinarily bad haircut!
Seriously, what the hell?
Okay, so Deep Impact can't quite match its twin in 1998-level fame, though it does win some points post-mortem, as it also features pre-fame turns by Blair Underwood (currently tearing it up as the president in "The Event"), Mary McCormack ("In Plain Sight"), and Richard Schiff ("The West Wing"). Oh, and James Cromwell pops up for a few seconds. That's nice.

Then you have the:

Plot and associated holes: Call this the believability factor. The plot in Armageddon is purely ridiculous. I mean... Turns out that NASA screens the movie to candidates in its management training program; the candidates are supposed to document as many impossible things as they can. The record? 168 impossibilities. NASA, sadly, hasn't published the list yet, so we'll just have to lie back and imagine the stuff they're griping about. Or, you can just watch the movie with your brain turned on, leading you to ask things like "Wait, why are there machine guns on that drill rig? And how can the bullets tear through the titanium skin of this super-shuttle?"
I love that they included the guns in the official Hot Wheels version.
Deep Impact, on the other hand, is praised for having some semblance of scientific detail, although I have to say, it does NOT start out well. I'll try and be brief with this. We start with Elijah Wood's high school astronomy class, where Frodo finds an object in the sky that he can't find on his star chart. He and his teacher zip the relevant info off to the club's mentor, Dr. Wolf, who just happens to be chilling at his observatory. This is where things start to get hairy. Dr. Wolf figures out that the object is a comet fairly quickly, and then has his computer calculate the object's trajectory, which it manages to do in seconds. Now, I'm pretty sure that even today, it takes NASA super-computers to do that in real life, but whatever. Once he discovers the comet is on a crash course with Earth, he goes into "OH SHIT" mode, first attempting to email his findings out, only to find that the mail server is down. WAH WAHHHH. Then, he copies his findings onto a floppy disk (remember those?), labels the disk with the name of the comet (Wolf-Biederman, after himself and Elijah Wood), and rushes off in his Jeep.

Let us pause to consider that this was back when landline phones still existed. Which is an important point, because as he drives down the mountain (hilltop) that his observatory is perched on, Dr. Wolf is also frantically dialing his cell phone, attempting to get through to someone. We don't know exactly whom, and we never find out, because Dr. Wolf, in his manic race down the hill, manages to side-swipe a semi truck, and tumble through the guard rail and down said hill. Oh, and his Jeep pretty much immediately bursts into a ball of flame. Which, one would think, might spell doom for the disk.

But, surprise! When the comet is revealed to the world a year later, it's known as "Wolf-Biederman." Wait, what? How did that happen? The only person who actually knew about the stupid thing was killed before his discovery could be shared with anyone. Yet somehow, the name managed to live on.

ANYWAY. Let's finish up with the main point, the:

Types of Movies: Look, Armageddon is a flat-out action/disaster movie. It's big and dumb, and over its course, you have:
  • A space shuttle blowing up in orbit
  • Meteors peppering New York City
  • Paris getting obliterated
  • A horrible, horrible Aerosmith song
  • Shanghai getting obliterated
  • Assorted asteroid hijinx
How the asteroids manage to hone in on Earth's population centers, we'll never understand.
On the other hand, Deep Impact is a more thoughtful, character-based work. All we see of the disaster is the tidal wave taking out New York City (a strange choice, given that so much of the movie takes place in Washington, D.C.), and then later swallowing parts of the Appalachians.
Quick, try and spot the extras who were not given the proper motivation for this scene!
And while the movie does focus on the effort to blow the comet up, they manage to weave in other storylines: the reporter breaking the story and trying to reconnect with her father afterwards, the kid who discovered the comet in the first place, attempting to get his girlfriend and her family to safety, the President who has to dole out increasingly painful news to the world at large.

The fundamental problem with Deep Impact is that in order to jam all those storylines into a two-hour movie, each individual story gets shortchanged. Is there any reason we should end up caring about Elijah Wood's character? Or Tea Leoni's, for that matter? Well, no, there's not. President Beck is barely a character; we know nothing about him save for his ability to go on TV and be reassuring. Deep Impact's fatal flaw is that it wants to show the human side of a disaster, but then refuses to show us any three-dimensional humans. Whoops.

Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system... have you voted, yet? Well, why the hell not? Polls are open until Friday, 9 a.m. MDT. Show your support for Nixon or Beck, and we'll see you Friday with the winner!

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