Deep Impact Is More Than Just the Other 1998 Asteroid Movie

Deep Impact Is More Than Just the Other 1998 Asteroid Movie

One of the best things about movies is how they can become a part of your life. How you can fall so deeply in love with one that watching it is almost like a blanket: something warm and comfortable that makes you feel good. And that’s especially true of films that came out in your formative years and stuck with you all the way through adulthood. In 1998, a movie about an asteroid hitting the Earth did that for me. I saw it, loved it, bought it on DVD, watched it a million times, and anytime it’s on TV, which it is constantly, I can never turn it off. It feels like home.

That movie is called Armageddon, and my love of it is probably why I haven’t seen Deep Impact since the night it was released, 25 years ago this week. Deep Impact came out two months before Armageddon, telling a similar story of an asteroid striking the world, and was a huge financial success. But, with Armageddon’s much flashier cast, marketing, and hit Aerosmith song, it eventually overshadowed Deep Impact in every single way, including in my memory.

So this week when I finally sat down to rewatch Deep Impact for the first time in decades, it was as if I’d never seen it before. I didn’t remember that actors like Jon Favreau were in it. I’d totally forgotten the structure and plot of the movie. And I was not prepared for just how much it was going to emotionally devastate me, in the best possible way.

Deep Impact was the one with Morgan Freeman as the president. (Image: Paramount)
Deep Impact was the one with Morgan Freeman as the president. (Image: Paramount)

If you, like me, only remember Deep Impact for being the 1998 asteroid movie with Morgan Freeman as the president, here’s a quick recap. Directed by Mimi Leder, it tells the story of what might happen to the world if we knew an asteroid was going to hit. But instead of going full action-movie with it, Deep Impact approaches the story from decidedly more thoughtful, dramatic angles. We get a bit of the political side, we get a bit of the heroic astronaut side, we get the human side; the big-budget special effects, for the most part, are held until the very end when they have the, well, deepest impact. Basically, Armageddon’s story of astronauts going into space to stop a killer asteroid is only a third of this movie. And, frankly, it’s the least interesting of the bunch.

The most interesting parts of Deep Impact speak to American ingenuity and failure, which lock in after an admittedly weak opening. The first 20 minutes of Deep Impact follow a reporter (Téa Leoni) chasing a story she doesn’t quite understand which, eventually, ends up being about this “extinction-level event.” It’s not a great first act but once you get it out of the way, things take almost a complete 180.

Soon, the President of the United States (Freeman) announces to the world that an asteroid is on its way and it could end the world as we know it. But with that bad news, he also has some good news. He explains that the United States already has a plan in place. They’ve built this incredible spaceship with the help of the Russians and are going to try and blow up the asteroid. Later, when that doesn’t work (spoiler alert) the government even has a backup plan: a national lottery to create a real-life Noah’s Ark for a million Americans, who’ll live in massive bunkers the government also constructed in this time. When that’s announced, a whole new set of tension and questions enter the film. Who gets to go? How do they get picked? What will that do to the others?

Robert Duvall, Mary McCormack and Blair Underwood as some of the astronauts.  (Image: Paramount)
Robert Duvall, Mary McCormack and Blair Underwood as some of the astronauts. (Image: Paramount)

Watching this all unfold, it’s both inspiring and fascinating to see a political body that seems so capable and, when it fails, so ready to admit it and move on to the next thing. Maybe it’s because the past 25 years have seen us all get older, wiser, and experience non-stop political turmoil, but I found this whole storyline to be incredibly refreshing. That in two years the government made both a super spaceship and a mega bunker to actually aid humanity feels like the most far-fetched bit of science fiction in the whole movie. Plus, the plans are built knowing failure is ok, as long as there is effort and accountability. Then, within that, the film digs even deeper: what the families of the astronauts would act like, how the news media would cover it, what parents would do to save their children, etc.

Once Deep Impact gets going, it’s a surprising, tense, propulsive ride. Many, many characters die even before there’s any asteroid impact, and the way the script weaves the stories together and subtly reworks the plot to create new obstacles is hugely effective. The best example of this is when the astronauts fail at their attempt to nuke the asteroid Armageddon-style. Not only do they fail, they in fact create a second, smaller asteroid that’s way less deadly than the big one. In doing so, the film organically is given its climax. A chance to show the audience what they want to see — mass destruction — without that destruction actually killing every single person in the movie. It leaves a shred of hope, at least. Which, of course, ends up working out, leading to the movie’s dark but optimistic ending.

Is there anything Elijah Wood can't do? (Image: Paramount)
Is there anything Elijah Wood can’t do? (Image: Paramount)

Big-name actors jam-pack every inch of Deep Impact. I mentioned Favreau, Leoni, and Freeman, but Elijah Wood has a huge role (along with Leelee Sobieski) as the kid who discovers the asteroid. His dad is played by Richard Schiff, James Cromwell has a small role, Dougray Scott is in there, and then there are icons like Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Blair Underwood, and so many more. It’s a true ensemble piece where no one really gets to shine any brighter than the rest, but all of them have their moments to showcase a bit of humanity.

And in the end, that was what really stuck with me rewatching Deep Impact. Where Armageddon is all about flashy fun and excitement, Deep Impact is the opposite. It’s about hope, heart, and character. You really feel pain and sacrifice in the film. You get stressed by the awful realities everyone has to face. And that makes gives even the smallest victory — yup, I have to say it again — a deep impact.

So yeah, I didn’t give Deep Impact the credit it deserved over the last 25 years. It’s a damned good movie that takes you on a gut-wrenching ride. No, not all of the effects hold up 25 years later. No, it’s not as concerned with the passage of time as maybe it should be. Flaws flicker here and there. But in the end, everything comes together incredibly well. Deep Impact is a rare blockbuster that entertains but also makes you think and feel.

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