Disaster Movie Procedural: DEEP IMPACT On Its 20th Anniversary

There will be no Armageddon. At least, not for a couple of months.

Broadly speaking, disaster movies can be sorted into abrupt and deferred, the former’s sudden cataclysm prompting tests of character amid the struggle for survival, the latter’s ticking clock injecting suspense into the effort to avert impending catastrophe. This deferred disaster sub-genre affords its characters the opportunity to act in advance rather than react in the moment, and how that opportunity is taken forms the entire narrative thrust of 1998’s Deep Impact.

In cutting straight from the discovery of a comet on a collision course with Earth to a Washington, DC newsroom a year later rather than immerse itself in scenes of specious scientific exposition, Deep Impact leans on the modern authority of cable news to establish its credibility. Anchoring itself in reality like this also allows the movie to operate in a purely procedural mode as reporter Jenny Lerner investigates what she suspects to be the cover-up of a political sex scandal, a detail very much in keeping with 1998’s real-world news agenda.

Ultimately, if accidentally, Jenny forces President Beck, in a press conference conducted with the reassuring solemnity of a declaration of war, to reveal the existence of the comet. It’s a highly plausible scenario when considering an event of this scale in a modern, connected world: nations strategising in secrecy for as long as possible to avoid fomenting panic and destabilising society, only for hints of the truth to emerge via unexpected channels and the full story to be delivered by the mass media.

Refusing to get bogged down in the plan’s minutiae, Deep Impact streamlines its story using the procedural’s familiar techniques of characters narrating developments and only offering up technical details as they’re needed, particularly in the convincingly realistic news broadcast anchored by the newly-promoted Jenny as a space mission is mounted to destroy the comet. The mission fails, at the very midpoint of the film.

It’s a subversion of disaster movie structure that triggers a new countdown as the contingency plan swings into action and the movie shifts its focus onto the human drama of characters assessing their lives and coming to terms with mortality, charting the breakdown of global law and order in a background buzz of TVs and radios as a lucky few make their way to shelter in an underground Ark before the cometary impact.

The lottery held to select the Ark’s evacuees is the most literal expression of the movie’s recurring theme of chance intervention, seen in the comet’s initial discovery and the uncertainty of its path, the conclusions Jenny and the President draw from their cross-purposed conversation, even a gas jet’s eruption on the comet surface, all set against a series of allusions to the granddaddy of the disaster movie: the Bible.

There’s a new star, animals going two-by-two into an Ark, a virgin mother riding a (motorised) donkey, a flood, an exodus, and a Messiah sent to save humanity. Such overtly religious motifs are rare in modern cinema outside of explicitly faith-based movies, but draw a parallel between the various catastrophes of the disaster movie genre and the apocalyptic vengeance of a capricious God, and in so doing Deep Impact hints at the ascendancy of science over theology: its Messiah is a spacecraft full of nuclear weapons and President Beck’s prayer alone will not deliver salvation.

Only an act equally steeped in religious symbolism will: sacrifice, which appears throughout the movie in both ordained and elective forms. Excluded from the Ark lottery, the over-50s are ordained to join the unlucky, their individual chance of survival traded for that of the larger human race, while Jenny elects to forgo her own for that of her colleague’s daughter. That laying down of one generation’s lives to secure a future for the next also guides the Messiah’s crew as they choose to undertake a last-ditch suicidal dive into the heart of the comet, tear-filled farewells to their families emblematic of the sacrifices demanded by parenthood.

Deep Impact is full of parents, and especially fathers: latent anger at her own father’s betrayal of the family unit fires Jenny’s initial investigation of philandering and its apparent enablement by the nation’s father, while Leo Biederman’s hasty marriage to Sarah Hotchner in order that she may join him in the Ark thrusts him into fatherhood when her parents entrust the pair with her baby brother, forming an instant nuclear family. Veteran astronaut Spurgeon Tanner, wife long gone and children grown, works to become a father to the Messiah’s crew, earning their trust in actions born of his experience before convincing them that securing their children’s future is an act of parenting worth paying the highest price.

Where the traditional '70s-style disaster movie template establishes character traits only to test them one-by-one in the face of disaster, Deep Impact becomes dramatically richer by exposing and developing themes through character while disaster plays out in the background, literally so in Jenny’s arc. After her mother’s disconsolate suicide she shuns survival to find her father amid memories of happier times as a comet fragment blazes a trail across the sky, and the two reconcile in the shadow of a tsunami as she admits to herself that, even as an adult, she needs a father, her final words an acceptance of him despite his all-too-human flaws, the bond forged between them in childhood unbreakable even in death.

In foregrounding a woman’s story Deep Impact is unusual amongst disaster movies, but in being directed by a woman it is unique. Originally pitched as a remake of George Pal’s 1951 When Worlds Collide, it was twenty years before the project landed at DreamWorks Pictures with Steven Spielberg attached to direct as the studio moved into film production, initially with the 1997 feature debut of director Mimi Leder, The Peacemaker. It was in this film’s cutting room that Spielberg suggested Leder should direct Deep Impact instead after its schedule was pushed up to beat the release of a movie with a similar premise.

Despite a self-proclaimed lack of experience with the genre, Leder’s work on E.R., produced by Spielberg and full of transitions between the dramatic and the technical, had already proven her ability to efficiently shoot action while navigating emotional complexity, and in the production and editing of Deep Impact it was upon this angle she focused while paring away the lengthy script’s extraneous details and budget-busting scenes. How much these choices were shaped by Leder’s gender is open to question, but an opportunity to examine equivalent choices in what is emphatically the boys’ version of the same story is presented by that movie with a similar premise, released two months later: Michael Bay’s Armageddon.

Operating at both ends of the abrupt/deferred disaster scale, Armageddon opens with explosions and exposition as a rogue asteroid approaches Earth, then hews to the '70s disaster template while following the trials of a mission to avert disaster, punctuating its knuckleheaded bombast with impacts which serve to underline the global threat despite the movie’s US-centric jingoism. Its spectacle comes at the cost of character development and thematic depth, although the arc in which Harry Stamper comes to accept that his daughter Grace is now an adult who no longer needs his protection bears comparison to the themes of sacrifice and fatherhood explored in Deep Impact.

These are complementary examples of the late '90s disaster movie boom, thoughtful maturity on one hand, unbridled entertainment on the other, and any rivalry was amicable: Bay observed that Armageddon was a much different movie after an early screening of his competition, while President Beck’s defiant line “There will be no Armageddon!” was only cut from Deep Impact once it provoked laughter from test audiences. Armageddon may dominate the cultural conversation with its greater box office gross, ascension to the Criterion Collection shelves and popular appeal, yet Deep Impact counters with greater critical approval, extraction of a bigger bang for its budgetary buck and the subtlety of its storytelling in background details.

In all of this, Deep Impact illustrates that genre is no barrier to directors of any gender and highlights the value of giving diverse creative voices the opportunity to tell stories from their own distinctive viewpoints. Twenty years on, this tide is finally turning, and as it comes in Deep Impact deserves to be not swept away from its lonely beachhead, but swept up and celebrated as a trailblazing entry in the disaster movie canon.