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Deep Impact Turns 25: Looking Back at Sci-Fi Disaster, 1990s Style
Remembering when President Morgan Freeman gave the planet some seriously bad space news.
It’s been 25 years since Morgan Freeman addressed an apocalypse-anxious planet as President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, one of those special disaster blockbusters (streaming here on Peacock!) that lets audiences sit back and watch as the Big Disaster teased in all those sizzling trailers starts to seem more and more certain, well, of actually happening.
Juggling multiple smaller storylines against a bigger picture of impending destruction, the Mimi Leder-directed sci-fi epic didn’t bop into theaters with a rockin’ Aerosmith anthem like fellow 1998 Earth-shaker Armageddon… but then again, it didn’t really need to. Unlike its premillennial Bruce Willis-led space counterpart, Deep Impact is more about the slow-burn drama that unfolds down on terra firma while humanity’s eyes warily watch the quiet skies. After all, most of them aren’t expecting to make it out of the film’s colossal comet encounter alive.
Deep Impact at 25: Deep 1990s Nostalgia with a Killer Cast
A co-production of DreamWorks, Amblin, and Paramount, among others, Deep Impact made a definite impact at the late-1990s box office, with a $350 million global haul that more than quadrupled the $80 million spent on its production. Though it packs a fair share of sci-fi spectacle (including some neat comet fly-bys, a ginormous tidal wave, and one whopper of a doomed interstate traffic jam), a lot of that budget was wisely spent to secure the movie’s sprawling A-list cast.
The cast, in fact, remains a big part of Deep Impact’s enduring appeal as the film commemorates its 25th anniversary. Aside from all the expected action and cosmic-scale drama, one of the delights in rewatching it today has to be the way the wider acting ensemble evokes a certain nostalgia for the period in which this movie was made. With Téa Leoni anchoring the gang as aspiring but beleaguered reporter Jenny Lerner, Deep Impact arrived as one of those summer event films where megastars both familiar and fresh seem to casually commingle in just about every scene.
Freeman’s turn as leader of the free world came roughly midway between his big roles in Outbreak and Se7en (both 1995) and Batman Begins (2005), while Elijah Wood (as teen astronomer Leo Biederman) showed up here three years before his first trip to the Shire in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Elsewhere, the film liberally plucked big names from different Hollywood eras, with Robert Duvall’s veteran NASA astronaut chief and Vanessa Redgrave’s resigned maternal character contrasting nicely with younger stars like Wood and Leelee Sobieski (who’d go on to turn heads in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut only a year later).
As for the story itself, Deep Impact tilts in a slightly more pessimistic direction than your typical hopeful-but-bleak sci-fi epic. Waiting until there’s no other alternative to reveal the government’s secret plans for just such a scenario, President Beck takes to the airwaves to explain how American astronauts must lead an international space mission toward an enormous comet on a collision course with Earth, touch down on its scary surface, and drill down deep to embed an array of comet-killing nukes — all, of course, while keeping clockwork precision to avoid burning up amid the comet’s cat-and-mouse space dance with the Sun.
In the movie’s real-world setting, nothing like that has ever been tried before — and naturally, it all goes wrong once astronaut boots are actually on the comet’s rocky ground. While all Earthly eyes patiently watch and wait for word on humanity’s fate, Leoni’s upstart reporter delivers breathless live updates on TV, a clever trick of exposition that makes those all-important spacey maneuvers, happening so high above and far away, seem immediate and thrilling rather than remote and tedious.
There’s no reason to spoil things too much for those who haven’t seen it, but Deep Impact eventually does demand heavy human sacrifices to achieve its kinda-optimistic, bent-but-not-broken finale. Present-day Star Wars creative guru Jon Favreau gets one of the film’s great noble sendoffs (as the NASA crew’s ill-fated medic) before the extinction-level threat expands from the personally poignant to the downright catastrophic — all while some of the film’s most reliable realists drop some serious gallows humor to foreshadow what yet lies ahead.
“Well, look at the bright side,” quips space pilot Andrea "Andy" Baker (Mary McCormack) in one of the movie’s best lines, delivered right after the adrift astronauts decide to improvise an Earth-saving solution that likely won’t end so well for them: “We’ll all have high schools named after us.” By the time the cataclysmic credits roll, though, that’s a prophecy that might just take humanity decades or even centuries to fulfill. Deep Impact is the kind of blockbuster that hands its survivors their final victory almost on a mere technicality... but victory or not, it certainly has no intention of letting humanity completely off the hook.
Relive one of the 1990s’ great come-together sci-fi blockbusters by diving back into Deep Impact now. Stream it here on Peacock!