‘Impact’ Takes Upscale Approach to Disaster


Wolf-Beiderman is a comet 7 miles long, roughly the size of Manhattan. Weighing in at 500 billion tons, it’s got the heft of Mt. Everest. But instead of minding its own business in deep space, this big bully is headed for direct contact with Earth, where a collision will cause the end of life as we know it.

Sounds like a summer movie to me.

The latest in Hollywood’s almost biblical procession of disaster films, “Deep Impact” tries with moderate success to be more than just the sum of its special effects. The first of two pictures this year (“Armageddon” is set for July release) about intrusive objects from outer space, “Deep Impact” is standard fare crisply and professionally done. Though director Mimi Leder is expecting a bit much when she hopes audiences “will walk out of this movie reevaluating their lives and the choices they’ve made,” at least they won’t be embarrassed to have gone in the first place.

Disaster films, especially ones that flirt with the extinction of the entire human race, have a delicate line to walk. Given that the best special-effects shots are more likely to close the picture than open it, how do you keep viewers involved for the duration?

“Deep Impact” has opted for a somewhat upscale approach. The film employs actors such as Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave and Morgan Freeman, and asks a pair of reputable screenwriters, Michael Tolkin (“The Player,” “The Rapture”) and Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”), to construct a story line that interweaves the reactions of different people to the impending catastrophe.

Youngest of the group is Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood), a 14-year-old high school student who discovers the comet on an astronomy field trip. He also discovers that he has a crush on classmate Sara Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski), a situation that gets noticeably trickier as the possible end of the world approaches.

Barely older than Leo is Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni), a spunky, ambitious young TV newsperson who stumbles on what the government has tried to keep secret, that that darn comet will hit in less than a year and cause more trouble than Dennis the Menace. In addition to her career, Jenny has to deal with the troublesome emotional situation between her divorced parents (Redgrave and Maximilian Schell).

The government, led by President Tom Beck (Freeman), is not without a plan: A newly built spaceship called Messiah will be sent to intercept the comet, plant nuclear devices below its surface, and, with any kind of luck, blow it to tiny bits.

Mostly young and telegenic, the Messiah crew resents the presence of old-timer Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Duvall), the last man to walk on the moon, who they feel was brought on the spaceship strictly for P.R. reasons.

It is typical of the film’s pleasant way of telegraphing its events that though the other crew members think Tanner is expendable, the fact that he’s played by a big star and they’re not means that he’s going to turn out to be plenty important before the close.

Besides working out all these human equations, “Deep Impact” has a what-if strain that is perhaps its most interesting feature. The contingency plans the government has made, if all else fails, are rather fascinating, and director Leder shows, as she did in her previous “The Peacemaker,” that she has a facility for putting large-scale logistics on screen. These sequences also allow Freeman to be so effectively presidential that you can’t imagine voting for anyone else. No, not even Harrison Ford.

It would be nice to say that all this effort has turned “Deep Impact” into a model for getting top-drawer scripts for special-effects movies, but that’s not the case. Though you rarely wince at what people say, and there are even occasional bright lines, (a Messiah crewperson on possible failure: “Look on the bright side. We’ll all have high schools named after us”), these people’s problems are more pro forma than involving.

Also, key emotional sequences are only sporadically convincing, and “Deep Impact” has trouble resisting the obvious. The film’s closing moments, for instance, include scene after scene of women having emotional crises with infants or toddlers: Either they’re being given away, or saved at terrible cost, or held up to be admired via video by tearful fathers in space. Even the impressive closing special-effects shots of walls of water crushing flimsy-looking models of New York and Washington, D.C., can’t shake the feeling that we’ve somehow wandered into the outtakes of a Gerber baby food commercial.

Does this mean the end of the world will come not with a bang but with a Pamper? Stay tuned.

* MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense, disaster-related elements and brief language. Times guidelines: Final scenes of watery destruction may be too intense for younger viewers.

‘Deep Impact’

Robert Duvall: Spurgeon Tanner

Tea Leoni: Jenny Lerner

Elijah Wood: Leo Beiderman

Vanessa Redgrave: Robin Lerner

Maximilian Schell: Jordan Lerner

Morgan Freeman: President Tom Beck

Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures present a Zanuck/Brown production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Mimi Leder. Producers Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Joan Bradshaw, Walter Parkes. Screenplay Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin. Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann. Editor David Rosenbloom. Costumes Ruth Myers. Music James Horner. Production design Leslie Dilley. Art directors Gary Kosko, Thomas Valentine, Dennis Bradford, Andrew Neskoromny. Set decorator Peg Cummings. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.

* In general release throughout Southern California.