Why 'Deep Impact' Couldn't Top 'Armageddon'

Deep Impact Armageddon Split - Photofest - H 2018
Photofest (2)
Twenty years after Mimi Leder's film fought and lost to Michael Bay's blockbuster, it's time to revisit the more cerebreal of the two 1998 asteroid disaster movies.

Twenty years ago, dueling asteroid movies made an impact on Hollywood.

Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact opened May 8, 1998, and was swiftly followed by Michael Bay's Armageddon just weeks later on June 30. Bay’s disaster film was a Disney-financed success that became ingrained in pop culture. Deep Impact had a higher opening weekend than Armageddon ($41 million vs. $36 million), but was soon relegated to the status of second banana, receipts-wise. Deep Impact’s reviews were more positive, but audience reaction remains firmly in Armageddon’s favor. Why is Deep Impact regarded as the lesser of the two movies, and does it deserve a second look now?

To talk about why Deep Impact failed to capture audiences’ attention back in 1998, and why it deserves our respect in 2018, it must be compared not only to Armageddon, but within the context of the late ‘90s cultural milieu. Armageddon’s rollicking, Aerosmith-infused story of American exceptionalism and appreciation for the blue-collar “average Joe” was perfect in a moviegoing landscape where action stars still reigned supreme, if on their last legs. The film, centering on a group of oil riggers who are sent up into space to blow up an asteroid, came in the era when Armageddon leading man Bruce Willis — and fellow tough guys like Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone — could still open a movie with star power alone. The script, co-written by a pre-household name J.J. Abrams, eschewed scientific authenticity entirely and, in fact, pointed out that scientists didn’t know their facts from a “plastic ice cream scoop.” Much of what audiences celebrate about Armageddon today could have only happened in the ‘90s. The decade of economic stability, low unemployment and few international skirmishes ensnaring the U.S. helped Armageddon remind audiences why it kicks ass to be an American and how there was nothing the country couldn’t fix on its own.

Deep Impact is another story all together. Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin’s script is a somber, pragmatic take on the risk of a mass extinction. Events are stretched out over a year from the initial discovery of the Wolf-Biederman comet to its eventual collision with Earth. In that time the audience and characters go through different stages of grief, from hope that a crisis will be averted, to fear and eventual resignation and panic with regards to their collective fate. At times, the film is almost mundane as it explores how life will go on. But isn't that what would happen in real life? In 2018, looking at our own increasing apathy toward the horrors of the world, it’s not hard to believe we’d take the announcement of a comet on a collision course with Earth as little more than fodder for skeptic tweets.

Where Armageddon shows immediate chaos and panic, Deep Impact slowly builds on the tension, fear and desire for someone to come in and fix things. Armageddon treats the U.S. government, and NASA more specifically, as if it were staffed entirely by buffoons. (In Armageddon, when asked why NASA didn’t find the asteroid earlier, the response is, “It’s a big fucking sky.”) Deep Impact’s strength is found in the government, particularly Morgan Freeman’s President Beck. Beck shields the public from the truth for as long as possible, leading to mixed questions of whether this is for the best or not. He remains calm and dignified in the wake of this disaster, the patrician figure people need. Freeman is considered among the film's best elements, but his casting was controversial at the time (a reporter once told Leder, "You cast Morgan Freeman as the president — now that’s science fiction.")

Much of what separates Deep Impact from Armageddon is the sense of dignity and kindness from its characters, whether it’s Beck, or young Leo Biederman’s (Elijah Wood) attempt to save his girlfriend, Sarah (Leelee Sobieski), and her family. Even characters who have flaws do the right thing in the face of extinction, like Tea Leoni’s reporter Jenny saving the lives of a colleague and her daughter, or Jenny’s father attempting to make amends for his neglect of his child. Especially today, where our own sense of safety in the world feels constantly in flux, Deep Impact depicts a world like our own; people aren’t always kind, but they can show off their pure humanity when put to the test.

This humanity extends to the astronauts themselves. Compared to Bruce Willis’ ragtag group of degenerates, the team of the space shuttle Messiah in this feature are highly trained, yet still relatable. The various individuals have families waiting for them and understand their mission is grander than themselves. When Bruce Willis' Harry sacrifices himself in Armageddon, it’s meant to benefit his daughter (Liv Tyler) more than humanity itself, while Deep Impact's Messiah crew seem to have the sneaking suspicion they won’t make it home. When they all receive the opportunity to say good bye to their families, it’s a collective moment of sadness and joy. No one member is singled out as being more important than the others. Their deaths have meaning as well as a larger purpose (see below).

It’s no surprise that Leder, now known for her stellar work on HBO’s The Leftovers, gives death resonance in Deep Impact. The Messiah crew notwithstanding, the movie’s quasi-hero, Leoni’s Jenny, decides to welcome death alongside her father (Maximilian Schell). Jenny’s death, more than any other, illustrates why Deep Impact kept audiences at arm’s length back in 1998. Deaths happen in Armageddon, but generally death finds characters the audience isn't bonded to — does anyone remember Owen Wilson is even in the movie, let alone that his character dies? There’s an action movie feel to the deaths of Armageddon's ultra-masculine heroes, and that helps distance them from the audience.

In Deep Impact, as Jenny clutches her father, the wave bearing down on them, her fear is palpable; no matter how stoic Jenny and her father are, there’s a mix of terror, hesitation and regret for how they’ve ended up there. Death isn’t something to cheer, but a moment of true existential dread we all eventually face head-on.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to understand why Armageddon is more fondly remembered. It presents an America that in 1998 was how we all felt about ourselves. America, the land of the average man, saved the world from destruction. Michael Bay’s world of Depression-era children in the heartland drinking out of Coke bottles and hiding in fallout shelters as Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck get things done is a rallying cry, even if it never existed in 1998. There’s never any doubt about their success, and in the end, audiences cheer while singing about how they “don’t want to miss a thing.” It’s a stark contrast from Leder’s quiet, contemplative exploration of how we navigate life and death; how smart people make tough decisions, sacrificing things for a greater good. It’s a world too current, that leaves us wondering how we would get through a crisis on this scale. How would we rebuild a country devastated by massive tidal waves when we can’t even clean up the hurricane-ravaged lands of the real world? There’s something too authentic about Deep Impact, but that’s way it deserves a revisit, as well as appreciation.

Deep Impact was a more modest success ($359 million worldwide) than Armageddon ($553 million worldwide), but it still was a definite success. Leder followed it up with 2000's Pay It Forward, a flop she has said landed her in "movie jail," even though male directors are allowed to have bombs and keep working. She spent her post-Pay It Forward movie-jail sentence working on TV shows like The West Wing (for which she was nominated for an Emmy) and The Leftovers. She's finally returning to the big screen with November's Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex. Her path — and Deep Impact — stands as a testament to the strides women directors have made and how far they still have to go.

Twenty years later Deep Impact remains an interesting experiment in the world of dueling film projects. It’s better than Armageddon in many ways, yet just as flawed as Bay’s feature. Regardless, each film has its legions of fans and in honor of its anniversary it might be time revisit Deep Impact — and apologize for judging it so harshly.