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Film / Deep Impact

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In 1998, Hollywood almost destroyed the Earth from space. Twice. This is about the one that didn't involve Bruce Willis.

Deep Impact is a 1998 sci-fi/drama Disaster Movie released by Paramount Pictures in the United States and DreamWorks SKG internationally (with the former later gaining the latter's share of the film by purchasing the studio in 2006). The film was directed by Mimi Leder, and stars Elijah Wood, Téa Leoni, Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall. It is loosely based on a book by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called Lucifer's Hammer.

The plot is roughly divided into these plot-lines:

  • A Teen Genius (Wood) and amateur astronomer who discovers what turns out to be a previously unknown comet. He strongly values his girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski).
  • An Intrepid Reporter for MSNBC (Leoni) who thinks she's found a scandal when she asks a just-resigned cabinet member (James Cromwell) about "Ellie." Due to a misunderstanding, she believes "Ellie" is his mistress; the White House believes she's uncovered the truth and treats her accordingly, chasing her down with the FBI. She has an irascible father (Maximilian Schell) from whom she is estranged and a virtuous single mom (Vanessa Redgrave) as a boss, whose insistence on giving her lame stories is why she's so ambitious.
  • The president (Freeman), who announces some months late that an ELE—an Extinction Level Event—threatens the earth. But he has several plans involving a large underground bunker and a special shuttle.
  • The crew of the special shuttle sent to save the world from disaster; the younger members of which (Ron Eldard, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood, and Jon Favreau) are a little grumpy about having an old-timer along (Duvall).

Although the film's premise is similar to that of the more famous Armageddon (1998) of the same year, the two movies are only superficially similar otherwise. Deep Impact is a drama movie first and foremost, and unlike the action-packed Armageddon, focuses mostly on depicting the effects of the meteor's impending arrival.

This film contains examples of:

  • Altar the Speed: Leo and Sarah quickly get married so her family can join his in the Ark. But her name still doesn't get onto the list.
  • Apathetic Citizens:
    • The throngs (far too many to simply be facing death with dignity) in New York City still calmly going about their business downtown even though the President has warned that the Eastern seaboard (including New York City) is about to be destroyed by a tidal wave.
    • Even before that, there seems to be massive public indifference to the comet's existence for over half a year, all the way up until the Messiah fails in its initial mission. At the press conference where the story is broken to the world, there is a brief agitated murmur when the President makes his announcement...and then everyone either calms down or (in the case of the news media) scrambles to find out anything they can about comets or natural disasters in order to make for must-see TV news coverage. Immediately after this sequence, there are some inappropriately lighthearted scenes, first of Leo Biederman receiving honors from his school for discovering the comet and being told that he is now going to lose his virginity, then of the younger astronauts chatting at a backyard barbecue and then in a country-and-western-themed bar, bragging and putting down Spurgeon Tanner.
  • Apocalypse How: If the comet hit in full, it would've caused a Class 2 for humanity with select survivors protected by shelters, and a Class 4-5 for the rest of Earth's biosphere due to the ensuing impact winter. Though the larger chunk of the split comet is stopped, the smaller chunk does cause a major Class 0 to Class 1, creating a Giant Wall of Watery Doom in the Atlantic which destroys the U.S. East Coast, Europe and Western Africa, and a view from space shows the Caribbean islands having more than a little problem on their hands.
  • The Ark: It's not mobile, but the underground bunker is specifically called "the Ark" by one of its security staff, and cages of wild animals are seen being brought inside to preserve them.
  • Artistic License: The Messiah is taken into space by a rocket called The Orion which, like its hypothetical counterpart, is nuclear powered. However, rather than being propelled by a series of nuclear detonations, it is depicted as having a continuous conventional thrust. It could be something like a NERVA rocket, but then the name doesn't make much sense, and it's not really suitable as an ascent stage anyway.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Several around the climax.
    • A comet the size of Biederman passing so "close" overhead would have at least blinded and more likely incinerated everyone on the highway.
    • While a tsunami or wave surge of some kind would have been likely, the East Coast-flooding megatsunami would be highly improbable, given the angle that Biederman impacted; it would have been more likely to devastate Europe and Africa than the United States.
      • It did hit Europe and Africa too, the President's last speech confirmed it.
    • Finally, shattering a comet's mass in the atmosphere is not a viable tactic. It does nothing to its actual energy and so the friction of that much material entering the atmosphere will still cause the same global firestorm an impact and the resulting high velocity fallout does. Small asteroids burn harmlessly in the atmosphere because they are small. Any fragment left dozens of meters across or larger is at least a large nuclear bomb.
  • Big Applesauce: Disaster movies hate New York City.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The larger chunk of asteroid is blown up by the team of astronauts sent to destroy it, thus sparing humanity, but the smaller chunk hits and causes massive damage and millions of deaths. In addition to that, the astronauts were forced to drive their ship into the larger chunk of the asteroid which cost their lives as well, and they are also grieved by their families.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The dirt bike that Chuck, Sarah's father, bought. Leo uses it to find Sarah as they're fleeing the coast.
  • Citywide Evacuation: The Biederman fragment of the comet will impact the Atlantic ocean, causing a massive tsunami that will destroy many coastal cities. New York City (and presumably others) is evacuated once this becomes clear.
  • Colony Drop: By the comet Wolf-Biederman. After the Messiah mission only creates two chunks, the smaller comet is named Biederman (which hits in the Atlantic Ocean) and the larger one is named Wolf (which was calculated to hit Western Canada, but was fortunately destroyed).
  • Cool Starship: The Messiah and its Orion Drive. In the movie, it's supposed to be the most ambitious spacecraft ever developed by man.
  • Creator Provincialism: The Beiderman comet splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean - specifically, in Cape Hatteras, which is just off North Carolina. North America, South America, western Europe and western Africa all get swamped by the massive tsunami; Asia and Australia are apparently completely spared. That alone could be handwaved, at least until we learn the other comet will hit the Earth nowhere else than Canada, disregarding the fact how improbable it would be for it to land less than 3000 miles away from the first impact zone. In any case, with a few exceptions, the entire film takes place either around New York, Washington DC, or "in the soft limestone hills of Missouri."
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Gus Partenza is blasted into space by an outflow of gas, and dies either by starving to death, freezing to death, or being burned alive by the radiation of the sun.
  • Danger Deadpan: Andrea, while the Messiah is flying up into the comet, is completely unflustered by the house-sized rocks passing by. In fact the whole Messiah crew usually fall into this, even while discussing their suicide mission towards the end. They are astronauts/cosmonauts after all.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Oren lives just long enough to know that his wife named their son after him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The entire crew of the Messiah, but particularly Spurgeon Tanner and Dr. Gus Partenza.
  • Deathbed Confession: Played for Black Comedy. Jenny gives up her seat on the escape helicopter to face The End of the World as We Know It with her estranged father. She finds him standing on the beach waiting for the tsunami, and the following conversation takes place.
    Jenny Lerner: When I was 11, I stole $32 from your wallet.
    Jason Lerner: When you were a baby I once dropped you on your head.
  • Death of a Child: We clearly see children among the masses of people trying in vain to escape the torrent of water that destroys the East Coast. Also subverted as Leo and Sarah manage to haul the latter's infant brother to higher ground where it's safe.
  • Demoted to Extra: Dougray Scott appears intermittently throughout the start and middle of the film. At the climax, while drawing straws for the last seat on a helicopter, there are hints that he and Tea Leoni's character are in some sort of relationship, though their main interactions must have been lost to editing.
    • In fact, in the original script his character, Eric, had a slightly bigger role and him and Jenny were supposed to become a couple; which made the helicopter scene more heartbreaking as he'd tell her that he loved her and she'd reply "next time", holding their hands till the last moment.
  • Deus ex Nukina: A group of nukes is used to break up the asteroid.
  • Disaster Movie: A giant comet on a collision course with Earth. The final disaster is minimised thanks to the Messiah's actions but there's still a lot of destruction and loss of life by the time the credits roll.
  • Driven to Suicide: Implied with Jenny's mother who is seen changing into an evening dress and putting on jewelry shortly before Jenny is called to a hospital and given the necklace in an envelope.
  • Dull Surprise: Téa Leoni's performance in this film has been criticised as falling into this. She does okay as the Smug Snake Intrepid Reporter looking for a political scandal. It's when the end of the world is confirmed and she has to show she has hidden depths, that her acting takes a turn for the worse.
  • Earth-Shattering Poster: The poster has a meteor impacting Earth and actually followed through on that promise.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: Created to put a million people underground for 2 years.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Spurgeon Tanner, which became "Sturgeon," which became "Fish," and all on his first day at the naval academy.
  • Emergency Presidential Address: The President makes the announcement about Wolf–Biederman, and then makes another announcement that the Messiah has failed but there are back up plans with the Titan missiles and the caves (the Ark). This is followed by a third announcement after the Titan missiles fail, which is to confirm that disaster is coming — and if anyone has any way at all to get out of the path of destruction they better get going.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Subdued because of how fast the rest of the Messiah crew accepts it (including one of them joking about how they will all get schools named after them), but in the final act as Tanner explains his idea of using the remaining nukes to blow up the bigger "Wolf" part of the comet, all of them keep asking how Tanner expected them to do an EVA with their damaged ship before Oren (who figured it out quicker) bluntly says "we don't".
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: The astronomer's ride couldn't just get hit by a truck, nooooo...
  • Face Death with Dignity
    • "Look on the bright side. We'll all have high schools named after us." Also counts as "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner.
    • The families that knew they couldn't outrun the wave and chose to send their last moments in meaningful, loving embrace rather than futile panic.
  • Failed a Spot Check: When the tsunami hits Manhattan, we see a man in a park reading a newspaper who doesn't notice the massive wave destroying the city until it swamps him. Doubly hilarious because everyone knew the asteroid was supposed to hit on that day, so even assuming someone did print a newspaper that morning, there would be nothing else worth reporting. Since he looks over 70 and wouldn't be eligible for the Ark as a result, it could be another instance of Face Death with Dignity.
    • It was Stuart Caley (Bruce Weitz), the MSNBC boss from the beginning of the movie who disappeared about halfway through. One can assume that he did indeed decide to Face Death with Dignity and go on about his last morning on Earth the way he did every other morning: reading the newspaper in the park.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Tanner sticks a photo of his late wife and his sons on the flight console when they first land on the comet, and looks at it right before commencing their Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Free-Range Children: As Sarah's father is chaining up his motorcycle and putting bars on the window of his house because society is breaking down as the comet approaches, his daughter is away from home, by herself. True, she's an older teen - but it certainly provides some dissonance as to what her father really cares about.
  • Fulton Street Folly: Justified, in that the tidal wave naturally takes out the part of Manhattan Island that faces the bay.
  • Government Conspiracy: Played more realistically than most, they can only keep it secret for about a year. But still, constructing an Elaborate Underground Base requiring thousands of people and a new spacecraft? Surely someone would have blabbed sooner.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Though the crew of the Messiah counts (see below) counts, it's more about Jenny's last-second choice to give up her space on the Ark to a coworker and her baby daughter. This allows her to finally reunite and make peace with her father.
  • Hope Spot: When the impact wave hits New York, people can be seen running out onto the roofs of several skyscrapers. And then we see that the wave eclipsed even the Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the city...
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Jenny downs an entire martini when meeting her father, because she has just realized the world is going to end.
  • I Warned You: President Beck tells his advisor Entrekin "See? What did I tell you?" when Jenny says they should have picked a better cover story than "sick wife."
  • Idiot Ball: The astronomer in the beginning panicking about his discovery. He knew the world had well over a year until impact, yet still drove recklessly despite how precious his cargo of information was. Not to mention he didn't try to phone anyone about it until he was driving, rather than calling from the observatory.
  • Impeded Messenger: Astronomer Marcus Wolf (Smith), who realizes that the object is a comet on a collision course with Earth, tries to get the information out, but dies in a car accident before he can alert the world.
  • Indy Ploy: The Intrepid Reporter thinks she's investigating a sex scandal involving a woman called Ellie...until the moment the President of the United States enters the room and demands "What do you know about the E.L.E?" She has to bluff out a response on the spot.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: Averted. As the astronauts worked on the dark side of the comet their face shields were open, only closing them as the Sun approached the horizon. This scene also realistically portrays the effects of failing to use face shields when one astronaut fails to close their shield in time. The exposure of only a few seconds results in immediate permanent blindness and severe sunburn.
  • It Has Been an Honor: The astronauts Spurgeon and Andy, the former being the aged mission commander and the latter one of his subordinates, tell each other that "it's been an honour" just before they detonate the nukes on their ship to blow up the meteor from within.
  • Just Before the End: While society remains intact and humanity survives, there are a lot of moments where people feel like they’re waiting for the end as the early efforts to destroy the approaching comets fail. There are Citywide Evacuations into the mountains, lotteries to select who will be evacuated to bunkers, a spike in suicides, and people who end up milling around the coastlines to cling to some semblance of routine as they wait for their deaths.
  • Lottery of Doom: Inverted—there is a lottery for the limited space in the underground bunker.
  • Made of Explodium: The astronomer's jeep, which is run off the road by a semi and explodes in midair.
  • Meaningful Name: The shuttle sent to destroy the comet and save the Earth is named "Messiah." Fittingly, the Messiah and its crew sacrifice themselves to save humanity. Also, novice reporter Jenny Lerner.
  • The Medic: Dr. Gus Partenza serves as this for the Messiah, though he isn’t able to put his skills to use on account of being the first of the crew to die.
  • Messianic Archetype: In a literal and symbolic sense, the Messiah really does save the Earth with its final Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Mood Motif: The moment where Jenny hits the net to find out what ELE is — and discovers it stands for Extinction Level Event, thus making her understand why the White House is willing to go to extremes to keep it secret.
  • The Mountains of Illinois
    • Well, at least it was the same state...
    • The hill Leo proposes to Sarah on is rather obviously in Southern California.
  • Mr. Exposition: Most of President Beck's scenes consist of him addressing the nation and explaining what is going to happen.
  • Nice Guy: Tanner.
  • The Night That Never Ends: The president explicitly states after the comet splits in two that the larger piece will cause an impact winter that will darken the Earth's skies for two years.
  • Noah's Story Arc: The underground refuge, designed to ensure continuity of the species in the face of an impending extinction-force impact, is called the Arc.
  • No Antagonist: There is practically no villainous behavior on anyone's part, and of course we can't hate the comet for doing what Nature intended for it. At the announcement, President Beck announces he is freezing all wages and prices, ensuring that no one will be able to take quick advantage of the crisis. Secretary Rittenhouse and Jenny's stepmother seem to be Designated Villains at the beginning; the stepmom is Put on a Bus and never heard from again, and Rittenhouse is quickly revealed to have resigned as quietly as possible for pragmatic reasons (he doesn't believe the Messiah project will work and wants to prepare for impact with his family).
  • No Endor Holocaust: The movie generally plays its physics straight, with three notable exceptions that stop it from being a cold exercise:
    • The smaller comet (Biederman) would have instantly blinded if not crushed to a pulp everyone looking at it on its descent.
    • There is no apparent impact winter from Biederman, which it alone is easily energetic enough to create.
    • The big one: Destroying an object the size Wolf on the edge of the atmosphere would accomplish nothing. All of that energy is still going directly into Earth, except distributed across the entire facing side of the atmosphere rather than punching through into the ground. At a bare minimum, the atmospheric heating from that much material would burned North America (Biederman hits near the Atlantic Seaboard and Wolf is slated to strike Western Canada) to a crisp.
  • Not So Stoic: President Beck's first news conference is routine, with only a brief pause as he contemplates what Messiah failure would mean. He progressively loses composure over the following months as he has to inform the nation of worsening developments.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: This occurs early in the film when Jenny is asking Allen Rittenhause about "Ellie" in connection with his resigning as U.S. Treasury Secretary. She assumes the name is a woman he was having an affair and he assumes that she knows that "Ellie" is really "ELE" (Extinction Level Event)—information on the upcoming comet impact. He thinks she is asking him about his discussions with the President about the comet and she thinks he is just talking about an extramarital affair.
    Jenny: [to herself after finishing the interview]: "Biggest story in history"? What an ego!
    • It happens again when Jenny is brought before the President, who spells out "ELE" as he asks what she knows. Realizing something is up, Jenny acts like she knows more than she really does. Thus, the President is convinced she's about to break this and they need to get ahead with a press conference. It's not until she checks the Internet that Jenny realizes what she's really stumbled on but naturally never tells the President she had no idea.
  • Orion Drive: The Messiah, the spaceship sent to nuke the meteor, has an Orion Pulse Drive.
  • The Peter Principle: Jenny Lerner wasn't exactly a great reporter in the first place but got very lucky - and ended up being a stiff, nervous anchor (though, in her defense, under the circumstances, anyone would have been nervous).
  • Precision F-Strike: The film largely sticks to PG-13 language but a few F-bombs slip through. During Jenny's initial investigation she speaks to Rittenhouse's former secretary who says his sudden retirement (metaphorically) fucked her. Tulchinsky drops another while trying to convince Sturgeon to go after Gus when the latter's blown into space.
  • Product Placement: For MSNBC. Leoni's character was originally supposed to work for CNN, but they rejected the offer, saying it would be "inappropriate." MSNBC jumped at the opportunity, since their network had only just been founded and wanted to get exposure. Ironically, the film's rights-holders Paramount is now under common ownership with CBS while MSNBC, and NBC News as a while, is co-owned with rival studio Universal.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Once the existence of the comet is revealed to the world, President Beck is quite open and honest with the public about what's going to happen, and while he remains hopeful, he doesn't mince words when it's clear that things are not going well.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: The first public announcement about Wolf-Biederman makes it sound like both Dr. Wolf and Leo Biederman died in the same accident. Leo and his family are slightly bemused to hear his name crop up during the broadcast. During an assembly at his school Leo guesses that because Dr. Wolf put both their names on his notes the officials who investigated got confused and thought Leo was also dead.
  • Rousing Speech: President Beck is quite good at giving these, though most of them are bittersweet, in that they're meant to help people prepare themselves for the end. His final speech is a straight example, though.
  • Rule of Drama: Used very conspicuously in the shuttle storyline. The mission to blow up the comet is entrusted to an aging veteran who hasn't been in space in years and a bunch of unqualified technicians who have never been in space at all nor ever manned a spacecraft outside of simulations.
  • Russian Humour: At the barbecue, the Russian cosmonaut is chatting up some American girls by describing the Orion drive and saying it was built by the same guys who built Chernobyl. One of the girls is put off a little by this, and he replies, "Well, Chernobyl almost worked."
  • Shown Their Work:
    • To be fair, most of the science is pretty realistic, and certainly a lot more realistic than Armageddon (1998).
    • The piece of the comet that hits the Atlantic Ocean produces a radial impact and mushroom cloud appropriate for a kinetic impactor.note 
  • Soft Water: A wave that tall would have scoured the entire East Coast to the bedrock.
  • Someone Has to Die: The crew of the spaceship Messiah sacrifice themselves so that everyone on Earth can survive.note 
  • Spotting the Thread: When talking to the President who spells out "E.L.E.", Jenny realizes the spelling of that is off and plays like she knows more than she does. As the President goes on about how they couldn't hide so much spent money in the budget and talks to his Chief of Staff, Jenny looks around the large room and spots that it's stacked with at least a ton of bottled water and various canned foods and it hits her something far more serious is going on.
  • Suicide Mission: The crew of the spaceship Messiah assign themselves one last mission, well aware of the fact that the remaining nukes to destroy the comet will have to be armed and detonated inside the Messiah cargo bay.note 
  • Television Geography: It's to be expected in a film of this size:
    • Sarah's family is fleeing inland from Richmond, Virginia—stuck on the highway by a sign saying "Virginia Beaches 6 miles". Richmond is MUCH farther than 6 miles from the coast.
    • There are no big hills such as the one Leo and Sarah find safety on within 6 miles of the coast there.
  • Together in Death: Jenny gives up her seat on the escape helicopter to reunite with her estranged father at their beach house, which puts them at the front line when the tidal wave from Beiderman hits. Sarah's parents, having sent her and their baby son off with Leo, spend their last moments looking into each other's eyes rather than trying to outrun the wave themselves. When the Messiah crew are saying goodbye to their families via video link Sturgeon mentions his late wife and how he's going to be seeing her again soon.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Sarah's parents. They let their child refuse to go into the ark tunnel and then when Leo comes back for her, they don't try to follow on foot just because he has a motorbike. And yet they're redeemed, when they spend their last few moments in each other's arms, giving each other a loving hug.
    • After being found by the FBI and taken before the President, Jenny says "I'm expected back at MSNBC at 6." Evidently it didn't occur to her that, being a Government Conspiracy, it wouldn't take much effort for them to arrange an "accident."
    • You would think that the idea to send out an additional spaceship (preferably more than one) tasked with nuking the asteroid in the unlikely scenario the first Messiah crew would fail their mission would have occurred to somebody involved in putting together the most critical project in the history of mankind.
    • The fact that, despite it being outright told that one fragment of the comet will cause a massive tsunami that will affect a ton of countries and kill millions, that people will do everything they can to get out of its way. Cue the impact, when you see millions of people either still in cities like nothing is happening, or even on vacation rather than on a plane or somewhere that won't fall victim to the tsunami, like a mountain.
  • Trailers Always Lie: According to Morgan Freeman's narration in the official trailer, two comets were discovered heading for Earth. In the actual movie, there is only one comet to start with; the other one is actually a large piece of the first, nuked off by the Messiah crew.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer compresses the whole movie into 3 1/2 minutes without anything important cut out.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out if Jenny's young stepmother survived the tidal wave caused by the comet impact. The subplot about the resigning U.S. Treasury Secretary wanting to spend time with his daughter and sick wife is also dropped without resolution early on.
    • Arguable, really. After the conversation Jenny had in the rain with her father, her stepmother is out of the picture, showing us all that her marriage with Jenny's father was hollow and pointless, after all, and putting a fine point on just how much of a waste his hurtful treatment of his family really was. The Treasury Secretary plotline was only there to introduce Jenny's plot, so he served his purpose with that one scene.
  • While Rome Burns: Jenny ends up spending her time at home with her dad as a huge comet approaches the Earth. A minute later, as a huge wave is destroying New York, we see a man on a park bench quietly reading a newspaper just before he's swept away. One wonders what could have possibly been in the newspaper... He's reading a DAILY NEWS with the headline Comet to City: 'DROP DEAD' (a nod to the Daily News headline back in 1975 referring to President Ford) and the sports page at the back says GAME OVER.
  • You Are in Command Now: Commander Oren Monash is blinded while on the comet, so Captain Tanner takes command of the Messiah.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: As soon as the Wolf–Biederman comet is revealed to the public, the world is told the projected timeline for the impact. First, the countdown to the Messiah mission begins, then to the actual catastrophe.


Video Example(s):


Deep Impact

When the comet Biederman hits, a wave is created that wipes out New York City and much of the eastern US seaboard.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / GiantWallOfWateryDoom

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