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'Deep Impact': C'mon Comet!

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 1998

  Movie Critic

Deep Impact Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski try to get out of town in "Deep Impact." (DreamWorks)

Mimi Leder
Robert Duvall;
Tea Leoni;
Morgan Freeman;
Elijah Wood;
Vanessa Redgrave;
Maximilian Schell;
James Cromwell;
Mary McCormack;
Blair Underwood
Running Time:
1 hour, 58 minutes
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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A 500-billion-ton comet as unrelenting in its course as Kenneth Starr on the trail of a presidential peccadillo hurtles toward Earth with its tail blazing. Humankind is on the brink of extinction. Indeed, all life, save a lucky virus or two, will be wiped out in the upcoming collision.

An alarming scenario, surely, but one that hardly registers on the multitudinous cast of the plodding disaster drama "Deep Impact." These folks are so blase, you'd think that scientists had predicted pennies from Heaven instead of world's end within the year.

So what do they do now?

At the very least, you'd think they'd stock up on canned goods. But the listless characters of this mirthless $80 million drama don't do much of anything to save themselves – unless watching MSNBC counts. Apparently the cable network's droning news anchor Jenny Lerner (stiff, silly Tea Leoni), who first broke the story, has won the hearts and minds of the sleepy people.

Jenny thinks she's on the trail of a Washington sex scandal when she confronts a former Cabinet secretary about his relationship with "Ellie." Actually the secretary has been working on ELE (Extinction Level Event), which Jenny discovers in a secret meeting with President Tom Beck (somber Morgan Freeman). He promises to let her ask the first question at his next news conference to disclose the crisis if she'll sit on her scoop.

No reporter would, but she does and is subsequently rewarded with a plum position at MSNBC's comet crisis desk. Her recently divorced parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell) are delighted with their daughter's success. If only she could get them back together, life would be perfect. Well, except for that darned comet.

Meanwhile, the government announces that it has taken some steps toward eradicating the astral menace. In his solemn address, the president reveals that Spurgeon Tanner (chummy Robert Duvall), an aging astronaut, and the crew of the new spaceship, Messiah, will attempt to plant nukes on the comet's surface, then either nudge the celestial menace off course or blast it to smithereens.

Should the mission fail, 1 million Americans, 200,000 of whom have already been chosen, may survive the cataclysm in a network of underground shelters built to withstand the impact. The other 800,000 will be selected from a national lottery that is limited to those under 50 years of age.

You'd expect the fiftysomethings to raise hell, but they accept their fates with complacency. So, too, do the residents of the Atlantic seaboard, who know the comet is headed their way yet don't head for higher ground until C-day. Hmmm. Natural selection? Directed by Mimi Leder ("The Peacemaker") and written by Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost") and Michael Tolkin ("The Player"), the movie is basically one long, dull prelude to the promised crash and its aftermath, in which a 350-foot tidal wave swamps New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. All of this takes place in the last 15 minutes of the movie and is far too unimaginatively wrought to merit the mind-numbing wait.

A third subplot focuses on the high school astronomer who co-discovers the comet (bland Elijah Wood) and his classmate (blander Leelee Sobieski). He and his family are among those going underground, but she and her parents must stay behind unless the 14-year-old couple marry. The story line has dramatic potential, but it's so predictably played out there's not a warm cockle in the house.

Leder, a veteran of such TV dramas as "ER," seems to go out of her way to avoid action or eye-catching effects. The shuttered storefronts and overturned cars suggest that there has been rioting and looting, but all we see is the corroded, cobwebbed evidence. She does know how to capture expressions, but can't seem to connect with the characters' souls. That's probably because they haven't got any in the first place.

But there's hope. The human race gets a second chance in July in "Armageddon," when another pesky space rock plunks Planet Earth. Maybe this one will hit Hollywood.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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