Box-Office Alternatives: Deep Impact

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Deep Impact

Its been a while since we've had a worthwhile disaster movie at the cineplex. Back in the 1970s, the genre was a staple of the summer movie season with audiences devouring multi-strand plots, which saw stars both old and new struggling for survival against any and every catastrophe an ambitious movie producer could think of.

Despite giving audiences some bona fide classics such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), the genre has been rather dead as of late with lackluster offerings such as Poseidon (a weak 2006 imitation of the far better original) and the overly confident 2012 (2009). Yet this week, the genre hopes for a resurgence with the impressive looking San Andreas (2015). Starring Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas details a rescue pilot’s frantic search for his family following the most powerful and devastating earthquake ever to hit the West Coast.

One of the few noteworthy offerings following the post-70s boom of disaster movies was the thoughtful and still entertaining Deep Impact (1998). A high-school astronomy student (Elijah Wood) discovers a random comet that's headed directly for Earth, promising  destruction of cataclysmic proportions. While the President (Morgan Freeman) tries to maintain order in the land, a team of experts led by a famed astronaut (Robert Duvall) attempts to stop the comet and an ambitious journalist (Tea Leoni) resolves to come to terms with her past.

The primary reason anyone goes to a disaster movie is to watch mind-blowing special effects. And Deep Impact has plenty to spare. From the moment the actual impact of the title hits Earth, audiences are treated to a special-effects extravaganza that was considered impressive for 1998 and still remains state of the art. The film's most memorable set piece -- a tidal wave taking over New York -- has gone down in effects history as one of the most innovative disaster sequences ever on film. Likewise, the comet itself and the action in space with Duvall and his crew boast equally engrossing scenes and expertly mix manmade stunts with computer generated effects.

Where Deep Impact strays from the crop of most other disaster movies is in the treatment of its characters and their stories. The film focuses on three storylines and actually develops them while the impending disaster plays out in the background.

The first, the budding romance between two teenagers is thankfully schmaltz-free as the audience follows Wood while he travels cross country to be with his girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski) when the comet hits. Meanwhile Leoni's reporter must deal with losing one parent while finally reconciling with another. Her final scenes nearly bring forth tears. Finally, as the weathered, past-his-prime astronaut, Duvall must bypass the naysayers to find the necessary strength and courage to prevent one of the greatest natural tragedies from happening. Duvall being Duvall makes it all work.

In fact, the same could be said for the entire cast. They believe in the material so strongly, they bring strength and conviction to their roles and elevate Deep Impact into territory that goes beyond the typical summer fare.  

Wedged between two other blockbusters in the summer of 1998 (Godzilla and Armageddon), both with disaster elements and higher profiles, Deep Impact managed to get lost in the excitement yet still pulled in respectable enough numbers to be considered a hit. Unlike the two previously mentioned films, Deep Impact was able to bring back a handful of decent reviews, while noted astronomers praised the filmmakers for the care taken with scientific accuracy.

Like so many other summer disaster movies that came before it, Deep Impact would be mostly forgotten, or at best, casually remembered. However the film gave a breath of life to a much loved yet mostly forgotten genre, and took it a step further by injecting flashes of credibility and human interest elements amongst the array of breathtaking action.

On a personal note, this is my last column for Slackerwood as the site ends its run. I would like to thank Jette for allowing me to express my off-center look at cinema and share some of my favorite films with our amazing readers.

Where to watch: Deep Impact is currently available for online streaming via Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.