Think back to 1979 and a disaster movie called Meteor; Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Russian and American scientists united in a desperate attempt to stop a giant asteroid ploughing into the Earth. Twenty years on and Meteor has spawned its very own trend. Bar a certain giant lizard, 1998 is the year of the asteroid disaster-movie. And while action junkies should gear up for Jerry Bruckheimer's explosive Armageddon (big rock threatens the Earth, Bruce Willis dives into a space shuttle to destroy it), DreamWorks' more thoughtful Deep Impact (same plot, no Bruce Willis, more human drama) has managed to get its foot in the door first.
What begins as a tale of hanky-panky in government soon gives way to a deadlier agenda. The mysterious `Ellie' is, in fact, ELE; the codename for the US government's secret preparations for a direct hit by Biederman's rogue comet. As the end of the world draws closer in the months that follow, the film spins out several micro-dramas: Téa Leoni and her troublesome parents; Wood and his girlfriend; and a team of astronauts - including retired Apollo veteran Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) - who have been dispatched to try to nuke the planet-denting ice rock.
Director Mimi Leder does her best to try and find depth and emotional complexity within a simple high-concept Hollywood premise. Unfortunately, while the idea itself is a brave one, the result is a barely interesting action movie, intercut with forgettable slices of soap opera. Will Leoni make up with her pop, Maximillian Schell? Who will get picked to take up one of the 800,000 hidey-holes in a deep, blast-protected cave? Is this last orders at the bar for the human race?
Leoni, in her first major dramatic role, performs admirably under impossible circumstances, while Wood's young love story with Leelee Sobieski simply dissolves into an annoying distraction. Only Duvall nabs a compelling plotline and tries to give the film its heart, but he's off screen far too much. His cause isn't helped by a dodgy screenplay which is short on entertainment value but long on literary pretence. With shades of Contact, this is the kind of movie where the heroine who must explore deep truths is named `Lerner' and the fate of the world hinges on the Christ-like sacrifice of a man (almost) called `Fish' and a spaceship called `Messiah'.
Nevertheless, there are some impressive disaster effects in the final hour, and thanks to some clever and knowing twists, Deep Impact keeps you averagely entertained right up until the cataclysmic tidal-wave finale. That said, it still merely makes you hunger for Armageddon; an event movie that promises more of the things that would have made this film better (deep-space heroics, action, adventure, ooh-ahh computer-graphics), but with less of the spiritual guff that ultimately sucks the fire from its rival.