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High Profile, Low 'Impact'

By Michael O'Sullivan
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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The year's first of two much-anticipated movies about space-rocks hurtling toward Earth, "Deep Impact" is an underwhelming disappointment from executive producer Steven Spielberg. (That still leaves "Armageddon," scheduled to open July 1, whose asteroid the size of Texas could seriously one-up "Impact's" merely Manhattan-sized comet.)

But the comet is not the only smallish thing about this film. For a suspense drama, "Impact" is a slack, oddly enervated and mawkish soup of largely lethargic performances by such normally robust stars as Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman and Vanessa Redgrave.

The story itself seems torn from recent headlines: One dark day, President Beck (Freeman) announces that a speeding ball of dirty ice is on a collision course with the third rock from the sun (whoops, that's us!). A joint U.S.-Russian team of hot-shot rocket jockeys, led by veteran mission commander Spurgeon Tanner (Duvall), is quickly assembled and sent up to plant six nuclear-warhead "moles" in the surface, which will theoretically atomize the comet into a harmless shower of hailstones. But somehow the scheme doesn't work as planned and now mankind must steel itself for an "extinction level event" – wonkspeak for the very thing that killed the dinosaurs.

So far so good. In a refreshing change from the more obvious disaster-movie theatrics, the movie wisely focuses on the individual human dramas of ordinary people facing their demise. But the bland script shows far more evidence of the schmaltz of writer Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost") than it does the hard-edged canniness of co-writer Michael Tolkin ("The Player" and "The Rapture").

For one thing, the human dramas are not all that dramatic – much time is wasted on an uninvolving subplot involving the comet's teenage discoverer, Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) and his efforts to save his white-bread girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski). It's difficult to care about these people when director Mimi Leder never asks them to furnish anything other than cheap, manufactured sentimentality.

There's one scene in particular where Tea Leoni as an MSNBC reporter is reacting to the telephoned news of a family member's off-camera suicide. We see only her face as the personal tragedy slowly sinks in. What could have been a nice, subtle moment, however, is ruined by the fact that Leoni's emotive abilities do not extend above well-trained eyebrows.

That's just one example from a laundry list of under-utilized talent and squandered opportunities. Early on, when an astronomer (Charles Martin Smith) is frantically trying to log on to e-mail to warn the world of the deadly comet, his computer freezes with the blunt announcement, "Opening mail server . . . Server down." It's a tiny, telling joke that hints at a genuine intelligence behind the film, but the theme of our betrayal by modern technology is quickly abandoned.

Another dashed hope comes one long hour into the story, when mild looting and profiteering start to break out among the panicked citizenry. It looks for a moment as though the film might finally generate some real electricity, delving into the savagery we hide within us, ala "Lord of the Flies," but then the pandemonium subsides and we return to our regularly scheduled programming about insipid teen love, predictably selfless sacrifice and tear-jerking family reconciliation. There are many such moments of button-pushing lachrymosity, but they are so false that you'll likely gag with anger at the lump in your throat.

Despite the fact that when we first see the comet floating in outer space it resembles a piece of styrofoam sprayed with that Christmas-snow-in-a-can stuff, there are a couple of nice special effects. The flying boulder looks much more terrifying the closer it gets to Earth's atmosphere. And a massive tidal wave does look rather realistic – water effects having come a long way since the parting of the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments."

Much of the movie is set in and around Washington, D.C., so there is some modest pleasure to be gained from seeing the familiar sights of the city on the silver screen. Nevertheless, a tepid chase scene set on the Key Bridge and the Whitehurst Freeway is nowhere near as heart-pounding as a typical rush hour on that roadway.

When all is said and done, it is precisely such lackluster imitations of real life that prevent this lightweight melodrama from leaving any deep, or lasting, impact of its own.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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