“Oceans rise. Cities fall. Hope survives.”
That’s what the poster for the 1998 disaster flick Deep Impact promised twenty-five years ago today. And that’s what it delivered too, alongside the usual great big helpings of cheese and computer-generated effects and celebrated thespians slumming it. Oceans do rise! Several cities do fall! And hope did indeed brush aside millions of corpses just so President Morgan Freeman could make us feeeeeeel something as he speechified from the steps of the ruined Capital Building. Ahh, to be so young and innocent again!
Riding in on a tidal wave of late ’90s disaster movies that felt like a delayed aftershock of the Irwin Allen pictures, the Earthquakes and Towering Infernos of two decades earlier, Deep Impact struck in the summer of ‘98 just a couple of months before Michael Bay’s similarly-themed Armageddon slammed into us for its sloppy seconds. It was “The Summer of the Asteroid Pictures!” the newspapers trumpeted, much as the summer one year earlier had been “The summer of the Volcano Flicks!” starring Dante’s Peak (my personal fave) and Volcano (RIP Anne Heche) both blowing their hot loads across our cinema screens.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this trend at this precise moment in time got kicked off—can we blame Jan de Bont via his terrific two-fer of Speed and Twister? Does Jurassic Park fit in here? Should we go step back a little further and recall the way the plane crash in 1993’s Alive and the train crash in 1994’s The Fugitive were heralded as modern masterpieces of smash-it-up special-effects? Exactly the sort of thing that Steven Spielberg just last year ladeled his usual glossy glow over in the early scenes of The Fabelmans, where his little self was seen trying to recreate the locomotive collision in the 1952 Oscar winner The Greatest Show on Earth?
Spielberg was actually one of the main driving forces behind getting Deep Impact made. He’d already optioned the rights to adapt Arthur C. Clarke’s 1993 novel The Hammer of God, which is about humanity’s attempt to survive Earth’s collision with an asteroid, when his Jaws producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown approached him with the idea of a remake of the 1951 sci-fi flick When Worlds Collide… which, whaddya know, is also about humanity’s attempt to survive Earth’s collision with an asteroid. (Writers? Who needs writers?) They’d been trying to get their version made since the ’70s heyday of disaster flicks with no luck, but suddenly everybody was choo-choo-choosing to hop on the disaster train again.
Unfortunately, Amistad got in the way of Spielberg directing the film, so he handed the reins over to director Mimi Leder. (And no doubt Spielberg eventually scratched some of these same itches with 2002’s War of the Worlds.) Mainly known for doing T.V. work (and you can see several of the actors she worked with on T.V. in small roles here, such as L.A. Law’s Blair Underwood and E.R.’s Laura Innes), Leder had just come off directing the warhead-thriller The Peacemaker for her E.R. star George Clooney. But this still felt like a happy anomaly in its moment—indeed Deep Impact held the record for the biggest opening weekend for a film directed by a woman for a decade, until Twilight rolled along.
Both Deep Impact and Armageddon were financial successes, just as both Volcano and Dante’s Peak had been the year before. The audience’s thirst for mega-destruction knows no bounds. Of course, they were all about to be dwarfed by the ultimate disaster movie when a certain boat hit a certain iceberg in December of that year, changing everything. Looking back now there does seem to be something of a crossroads in this patch of time, where Special Effects were effectively becoming the selling point, the star themselves, and Disaster flicks proved to be the perfect toe in the water to test it out. Who doesn’t immediately think of flying cow when one thinks of Twister?
Because unlike those ’70s films, which relied first and foremost on a vast array of Movie Stars—see Shelley Winters swimming through the wreckage of an overturned boat! See Olivia De Havilland screaming at a bunch of bees!—the ’90s batch of Disaster Movies became less and less invested in big names, and Deep Impact’s cast-list proves that. Téa Leoni was a T.V. person. Elijah Wood hadn’t carried any golden rings up any volcanoes yet. Leelee Sobieski was Leelee Nobody. Cashing checks were serious thespians like Vanessa Redgrave and Robert Duvall, sure—as was former Oscar winner Maximilian Schell playing Redgrave’s philandering ex-husband, who I am 1000% convinced is supposed to be playing Redgrave’s real partner Franco Nero in some sort of inside gag. Prove me wrong, Mimi Leder!
The biggest draw as far as the cast was concerned circa 1998 had to be Morgan Freeman playing the President of the United States. It’s that visual and that voice that frames the film’s trailer (alongside the requisite waves and kabooms of course). Somewhere circa The Shawshank Redemption and Seven (with another early 90s disaster flick Outbreak sandwiched in between), Freeman’s voice became one of humanity’s greatest comforts. Five years after Deep Impact he’d be playing God! But first he took over the Oval Office, and he told us everything would be okay after a gigantic tidal wave drowned the entire population of the Eastern Coast of the United States, and dammit we believed him.
So yes, I say—ahh to be that young and innocent again. When a Black man did eventually become President in the real world, the actual comet we were forced to reckon with was an orange slimeball dragging a tail of racist fools behind him. But in 1998 we could split the difference, and manage to maintain some sense of Hope. Deep Impact has its comet and eats it too, finding a way to break it apart and have only a small chunk wipe out part of the planet. Just a wee lil’ armageddon, is all! Nobody’s gonna miss Tasha Yar!
Soon enough Roland Emmerich would be exploding the Earth’s core in 2012 and dropping the Moon onto our heads with Moonfall, and that’s before we even get around to the total embrace of nihilism that is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. (“It tastes like ash,” indeed.) But there was still room for people in Deep Impact, even if they were getting smaller while the waves around them more momentous. Twenty-five years on, looking back at it now as the sea levels rise for really real this time, it’s weird to feel nostalgic for having our heads buried in the sand, as if we’d yet to be truly knocked on our asses. But hey that’s entertainment!