Deep Impact (review)

End of the World as We Know It — And No One Cares How I Feel

An article in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section last Sunday, May 3, bemoaned the rise of the special-effects movie and complained that SFX allow filmmakers to ignore character and plot and merely go for big explosions. I agree, for the most part — for every Forrest Gump or Contact, which used effects to broaden character and advance plot, there are ten Con Airs and Independence Days, which were basically FX porn.

But after seeing Deep Impact, I wonder if Hollywood is entirely to blame for this development.

Deep Impact (the fourth film from DreamWorks SKG) is an effects-laden end-of-the-world flick, sure — we’ve all seen the preview in which the big rock smashes into Earth a million times. But get this: that big smash-up doesn’t happen till the end of the movie, and knowing that it’s coming doesn’t make Deep Impact any less suspenseful. Because Deep Impact isn’t about watching stuff blow up — it’s about people.

Maybe in twenty years Deep Impact will seem as corny as The Poseidon Adventure, but right now it’s emotional and involving without being sappy, thanks to Mimi Leder’s sensitive direction (sensitive: there’s a word you won’t hear near most summer blockbusters). The teen astronomer (Elijah Wood) who discovers the rogue comet heading straight for Earth heads off on an almost-certainly pointless attempt to rescue his girlfriend from harm’s way; the hotshot reporter (Téa Leoni) who breaks the story juggles career, miffed colleagues, and estranged parents; the astronaut (Robert Duvall) leading an attempt to destroy the comet makes tough choices when his colleagues are in danger; and the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman) is feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders (pun intended).

At the risk of repeating myself: Deep Impact isn’t about the audience watching the world end — it’s about us empathizing with the people watching the world end. Big diff. But the sold-out, opening-night crowd I saw Deep Impact with wanted none of that. Tender moments were greeted with chuckles and derisive hoots. Manhattan being washed away by a tsunami in a genuinely terrifying sequence generated applause. Any scene that had me in tears elicited laughter from a good portion of the rest of the audience. Last night I had nightmares about drowning — I’m sure the laughers didn’t.

So is it Hollywood’s fault that the vast majority of the moviegoing crowd just wants to see awesome SFX? Is it Hollywood’s fault that most people appear not to possess any deeper emotions? I feel like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men: “The audience can’t handle the truth!”

Deep Impact does have cool FX, so it will probably hang on until Godzilla opens, which we can be sure will just be about watching a big monster destroy New York.

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