Sunday, February 17, 2013

Russia's meteor event convinces me to finally watch Deep Impact

The recent impact event in Russia tickled me to pieces. Whereas world news has been mirroring dystopic science fiction all too often lately, it was an improvement to see it mirror doomsday science fiction for a change. The event also reminded me there's a movie I never watched all the way through that I should have seen by now. That movie is Deep Impact. I've been dreading my decision to watch it for fifteen years.

proof that all disaster movies are indistinguishable

In the interest of transparency you should know I hate Hollywood disaster movies. The Towering Inferno, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Earthquake, Twister, The Core, Volcano, Dante's Peak--the list goes on and on even when I don't account for the alien-related disaster films like the severely stupid Independence Day. My dislike for the genre certainly isn't due to false advertisement; each of these movies are as disastrous as the literal disasters they depict. All you need is a weak understanding of natural occurrences, a bunch of boring chatter between men in suits, a few crumbling landmarks, and scenes in which people run down streets.

The more puke-inducing tropes of a disaster movie are the thick melodrama, the Hallmark moments (see: Armageddon's oil workers singing Leaving on a Jet Plane a capella), the constant destruction of the Statue of Liberty, and the absurd lack of science. If you want a good disaster film you can't do any better than WarGames and The Day After, both of which came out in 1983 and were about nuclear war. Why do disaster movies suck time and time again? It's not because of the subject matter. It's because Hollywood is so used to exaggerating otherwise mundane action and suspense, they don't know when something's well enough to leave alone.

Case in point: the opening of Deep Impact features a kid (Elijah Woods) who discovers a strange object in the sky. Even though the scene reeks of disbelief, that's actually kind of cool, not to mention fairly accurate—amateur astronomers really are invaluable to the field and always have been. His astronomy club submits the finding to a full-fledged telescope observatory. The stereotypical scientist working that night keys the discovery into his computer and realizes there's an object that's barreling towards our planet. That alone is interesting in itself, but somehow it leads to a cliff-side car wreck that has the scientist's vehicle exploding in an enormous fireball, in midair no less.

spoiler alert: the comet hits Earth!

Cut to one year later and Téa Leoni, playing Unbelievable Reporter #1, thinks she's hot on the trail of a scandal in the White House. It turns out that her information is inaccurate. She's not looking for a mistress named Ellie, but a government cover-up, the code word of which isn't even a proper code word, it's just an acronym: E.L.E. or "extinction level event." Yes, I know the United States government can be pretty incompetent at times, but that's on a level of using the code word "U.F.O." to cover up an alien crash landing.

Morgan Freeman plays the American President. He personally asks Unbelievable Reporter not to tell anyone about the comet that's going to destroy all life on the planet. Unbelievable Reporter kind of shrugs and says, "Okay," and then two days later The President reveals the information to the public himself. As if by magic he freezes national wages and product prices to prevent profiteering and panic. Can you imagine Obama announcing that he was going to freeze wages? Do you really think the republicans would let him get away with it? Yes, it's another disaster film in which the President's political affiliation is ambiguous.

So the President reveals a group of astronauts (and one cosmonaut) who will fly a massive space ship to the comet in an attempt to destroy it with nuclear weaponry. The senior astronaut, played by Robert Duvall, was the last man to step foot on the moon. The younger astronauts resent the senior astronaut, a guy who has landed on the fucking moon. How many astronauts do you know who would show no respect to a moon walker? If the filmmakers felt they needed some kind of conflict among the group, it would have been a lot wiser to set it up between the Americans and the single Russian aboard the ship. After all, it was a joint mission between the two countries—why is Russia so unrepresented on the mission itself?

As the ship is on its way to the comet, Unbelievable Reporter is promoted to an even less believable news anchor. I know anchors are known for being stiff, but Leoni could make even robots wince. I don't care how professional he is, Dan Rather would have been hopping up and down in his chair when he reported the end of the world was nigh. Other than that, the space scene really is good. Yes, there's sound where there shouldn't be any and most of the suspense is drained by the fact that the poster and trailers for this film have already given away the fact that the mission fails, but this chunk of the movie is really spectacular.

Predictability aside, the rest of the movie is much better than the first forty minutes or so. Lesser movies show complete mass hysteria in the face of such a threat. I just never bought the idea that the whole of humanity could go from zero to murderously crazy at the drop of a hat. This movie doesn't buy complete hysteria, either; in typical Hollywood fashion you can still hail a cab within seconds of raising your hand. I'd say they're doing pretty well on the society front.

Every once and a while the movie is effective, particularly when it isn't trying to be. When Leoni meets with her mother, the older woman says she actually feels relieved she won't survive the impact. She even quit smoking and donated some of her more valuable belongings to the government's effort to preserve culture through antiquities. That scene unexpectedly moved me, despite the severely miscast Leoni being in it. A lot of armchair philosophers and conspiracy theorists love to talk about how shitty humanity is, but if we were all that bad we never would have gotten to where we are today.

Deep Impact is a lot like a newborn calf. There's a lot of wobbling in the beginning, but eventually it learns to walk on its four legs. Sort of. It's one of the better disaster movies, but is that really saying much? Do yourself a favor and read The Hammer of God or The Forge of God instead.

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