The season's first comet-targets-Earth special effects extravaganza is spectacular enough in its cataclysmic scenes of the planet being devastated by an unstoppable fireball, but proves far from thrilling in the down time spent with a largely dull assortment of troubled human beings.

The season’s first comet-targets-Earth special effects extravaganza is spectacular enough in its cataclysmic scenes of the planet being devastated by an unstoppable fireball, but proves far from thrilling in the down time spent with a largely dull assortment of troubled human beings. Hitting the market eight weeks before the reputedly more high-tech, outer space-oriented “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact” will score some powerhouse B.O. as the first event picture of the summer, even as it leaves audiences ready for something even bigger and better.

Boasting a pedigree from two studios as well as the combined expertise of exec producer Steven Spielberg and his “Jaws” producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, this comes as close to a universal, all-encompassing disaster picture as has ever been made, in that all life on Earth is threatened with extinction by the onrushing astral interloper. And yet, the choices of characters made by scenarists Michael Tolkin and Bruce Joel Rubin are mostly odd and uninvolving, with perhaps only one or two of them expressing any lust for life, a burning awareness of the preciousness of time, or a philosophical framework through which to view the threatened holocaust.

With director Mimi Leder working in the same hyperventilated, would-be realistic style she applied to “The Peacemaker,” the characters all frantically scurry about keeping appointments and fighting deadlines, with all of them facing, of course, the biggest deadline of all. But the impact they create is shallow and scattershot, leaving one to wait impatiently for the major moments that, fortunately, do arrive.

An unaccountable amount of time, especially in the early-going, is given over to Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni), a rising MSNBC reporter who, while investigating some high-level Washington shenanigans, stumbles onto traces of a very big story indeed. A year before, amateur teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) and an observatory technician (Charles Martin Smith) independently identified a new comet that is now certified as being on a collision course with Earth.

With impact looming in a year, U.S. President Beck (a solemn Morgan Freeman) announces the news to the world. The government hasn’t been asleep at the wheel, however; a giant spaceship called Messiah will blast off in two months’ time, the president informs, so that astronauts can plant eight nukes on the comet in the hope of blowing it to smithereens and thus eradicate the threat.

The mission, which concludes precisely halfway through the picture, proves a dismal failure, succeeding only in splitting the comet in two unequal pieces, each of which strike the planet. The smaller portion, it is eventually determined, will hit just off the North American eastern seaboard, causing a 350-foot tidal wave that will destroy New York and Washington, among other cities, and travel 650 miles inland. The larger rock will land in Canada and trigger what is called an E.L.E., or Extinction Level Event, complete with Earth-enshrouding dust clouds that will block out the sun and almost certainly wipe out all life.

The logistics and repercussions stemming from this announcement take up the film’s second half. Declaring martial law, President Beck reveals that a network of caves is being built to accommodate 1 million Americans, some of whom have already been selected but most of whom will be chosen by “The Ark National Lottery”; other nations, he says, will decide for themselves what to do.

The trauma created by the who-will-live/who-will-die edict is explicitly dramatized through Leo Biederman’s story. By virtue of his having co-discovered the comet, he and his family get to go underground. His girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Sobieski) and her parents are not so lucky, however. To enable Sarah to join Leo, the seriously underage couple marry, but even then there is much melodramatic toing-and-froing as to whether she will accompany him or remain with her folks. Potentially heart-tugging, this subplot is played out in the hokiest, most predictable manner, one that panders directly to the teen audience.

The adults are no more interesting. Although she has the looks for a plausible TV anchor, Tea Leoni’s Jenny seems so stiff and uncomfortable during her broadcasts that she wouldn’t last a weekend on the air. Furthermore, her character is stuck in a forlorn funk; her mother (a classy Vanessa Redgrave) commits suicide after the older woman’s ex (Maximilian Schell) marries a much younger woman, and Jenny spends a good deal of time dealing — not very effectively — with her errant dad. Leoni’s eyes seem on the verge of tears almost throughout, and her sad, brittle demeanor is an odd object of focus for such a high-powered picture.

In a different way, the team of astronauts isn’t very compelling either. Robert Duvall’s lead pilot, described as the last man to walk on the moon and a veteran of six shuttle flights, would normally be expected to have a certain weight and to command respect. Instead, the younger flyers (Ron Eldard, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood, Jon Favreau and Alexander Baluev) treat him dismissively as a dinosaur, almost a liability. Duvall, possibly not wanting to repeat himself by playing yet another military tough guy, makes his character somewhat defensive, as if he had something to prove. It’s one way to go, but not all that convincing.

But none of this matters terribly when the first big rock hits the water and sends the world’s biggest tidal wave breaking over the Statue of Liberty and all of Manhattan (a hilariously incongruous shot shows one man in Washington Square not even looking at the wave as it approaches, his mug obliviously buried in a newspaper). The water effects are just the slightest bit phony looking, but they still register dramatically, as do glimpses of the ocean making its way up through the valleys and over the mountains of the eastern states.

But, for all its destructiveness, this is just the appetizer: the Big One has yet to hit. Although the population is resigned to its fate, Duvall’s flight commander has a final idea that might just save the day, a kamikaze mission that will nonetheless require the agreement of the entire crew. Once again, the result is spectacular, something sci-fi and effects freaks will relish. Concluding sequence conveys hope for humanity in a very square, windy manner.

Tech contributions are souped up to the max, resulting in occasional overkill, particularly on the soundtrack, which is almost unbearably noisy at times. Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann delivered sharp, agile work, and pic is dedicated to him, as he died shortly after lensing was completed.

Deep Impact

Production

A Paramount release of a Paramount and Dreamworks Pictures presentation of a Zanuck/Brown production. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown. Executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Joan Bradshaw, Walter Parkes. Directed by Mimi Leder. Screenplay, Michael Tolkin, Bruce Joel Rubin.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints; Otto Nemenz Cameras widescreen), Dietrich Lohmann; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, James Horner; production designer, Leslie Dilley; art directors, Gary Kosko, Thomas Valentine, Dennis Bradford, Andrew Neskoromny; set designers, Joshua P. Lusby, Richard F. Mays, Suzan Torres, Dean Wolcott; set decorator, Peg Cummings; costume designer, Ruth Myers; sound (Dolby digital/DTS/SDDS), Mark Hopkins McNabb; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; visual effects supervisor, Scott Farrar; associate producer, D. Scott Easton; assistant director, K.C. Colwell; additional camera, Don Burgess; co-film editor, Paul Cichocki; second unit directors and camera, Mark Vargo (Washington, D.C.), Tom Priestley Jr. (L.A.); stunt coordinators, M. James Arnett, Charles Croughwell; casting, Allison Jones. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., May 1, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 120 min.

With

Spurgeon Tanner - Robert Duvall Jenny Lerner - Tea Leoni Leo Biederman - Elijah Wood Robin Lerner - Vanessa Redgrave President Beck - Morgan Freeman Jason Lerner - Maximilian Schell Alan Rittenhouse - James Cromwell Oren Monash - Ron Eldard Gus Partenza - Jon Favreau Beth Stanley - Laura Innes Andrea Baker - Mary McCormack Don Biederman - Richard Schiff Sarah Hotchner - Leelee Sobieski Mark Simon - Blair Underwood Eric Vennekor - Dougray Scott Chuck Hotchner - Gary Werntz Stuart Caley - Bruce Weitz Ellen Biederman - Betsy Brantley Morten Entrekin - O'Neal Compton Chloe - Rya Kihlstedt Vicky Hotchner - Denise Crosby Mikhail Tulchinsky - Alexander Baluev Marcus Wolf - Charles Martin Smith

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