Deep Impact (1998, USA)
Director: Mimi Leder
Writer/s: Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin
Women in the crew: Allison Jones (casting); Peg Cummings (set decoration); Ruth Myers (costume design); Barbara Lacy (make up artist); Paula Case (second AD); Cara Giallanza (first AD, second unit LA); Dana Kuznetzkoff (first AD, NY); Lisa Rowe (second AD, NY) Alison Rosa (second AD, DC); Michele Ziegler (first AD, second unit) also across art, visual effects, and sound departments
This review contains **SPOILERS**
Deep Impact is a disaster movie – part of a long history of watching the US fall whilst also seeing the box office numbers rise from that very site of imagined destruction. The decimation of New York has a lengthy history in Hollywood cinema; the earliest example I’ve found is the pre-code apocalyptic disaster movie Deluge (Felix E. Feist, 1933) where a tsunami crashes through the city. Perhaps it is the precariousness of the fault lines in LA that make this a recurrent theme in Hollywood movies. It projects a fascination with the destruction of the present-day America and the potential of reconstruction thereafter.
Deep Impact tells the story of a closely averted extinction level event (ELE) from a US perspective, although originally intended as a movie with international scope (curtailed by budgetary concerns). A comet is headed for the Earth; astronauts on The Messiah ship as part of a US-Russian mission attempt to destroy the comet with ballistic (ICBMs) weapons. Instead they split the comet, with a smaller chunk hitting the Earth and creating tidal waves that destroy the East Coast – focussed on the iconic skyline of New York. The second, larger part of the comet is destroyed by The Messiah crew’s sacrifice, but the West Coast, represented by LA, is still hit by waves. The very young married couple at the centre of the film survive, of course, alongside a significant proportion of the world’s population.
Deep Impact is one of the few, if not the only, disaster movie directed by a woman, but this distinction does not separate it from the successes of the subgenre. Deep Impact was immensely financially successful, grossing $140,000,000 in North America and an additional $209,000,000 worldwide for a total gross of $349,000,000. Deep Impact was also released around the same time as Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) but was the more successful of the two on its opening weekend (a major marker for US box office success narratives). Yet, it is still Armageddon that I remember, although I think Deep Impact is a more nuanced and thoughtful film.
It’s just a shame [Mimi Leder] hasn’t been given more opportunities to prove herself as a blockbuster figure. Such is the story of women in Hollywood
Leder’s Hollywood story matches that of so many women directors, where one perceived failure (even the failure of another woman director) can lock women filmmakers out of the Hollywood Boys’ Club. Few get to make a second feature if their first is not wildly successful, and even then the gap between features is much larger than their male counterparts. Many of those locked out of Hollywood go on to have successful television careers, and as the recent turn in premium event television continues we see more women heading hugely successful shows including Westworld (creator Lisa Joy), Humans (China Moo-Young), Little Fires Everywhere (Lynn Shelton), Pose (Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Janet Mock), and Mimi Leder’s work in The Leftovers and Shameless.
Mimi Leder’s first two films – The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998) – were relatively well received and sufficiently financially lucrative, but her third film, Pay It Forward (2000), was not as successful as the studios hoped. The Washington Post’s Regina Kempley called it a ‘baldly manipulative, emotionally counterfeit melodrama’ and many of the reviews of the time called it out for its sentimentality. Honestly it’s not my favourite, but it’s hardly the worst and it still made money internationally. Leder didn’t deserve to be sidelined as a director, but as we’ve said before women directors do not get second chances. Marginalised directors have to be perfect the first time or see their opportunities vanish. As Byrdie Lifson Pompan, Leder’s former agent, noted, “opportunities dried up in a way that they probably wouldn’t have for a man”. Leder refers to the 18 year gap between the release of Pay it Forward in 2000 and her Ruth Bader Ginsberg movie On the Basis of Sex (2018) as “movie jail”.
I’m usually the woman in the room. When lesser men were given the directing jobs I was pursuing, it was hard, hurtful, but my father—and my mother—taught me never to be afraid, to go forward. I identify with Justice Ginsburg on that. She never stopped – Mimi Leder
As I commented above, Armageddon is the film that I remember, and I spent much of Deep Impact unsure whether I had seen it before. The film is not as focussed on individual characters, and avoids comedic stereotypes and tropes. But it means that I didn’t really care what happened to them. Even when news anchorwoman Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) dies in the arms of her father (Maximilian Schell), drowning in a tidal wave (my nightmare death), I wasn’t particularly affected. It takes such a long time for disaster to strike (most of the movie), that it is almost underwhelming.
I was delighted to see a woman astronaut (Andy Baker/Mary McCormack) as the pilot of The Messiah, who, like Ripley in Alien, puts the needs of the many (in this case the Earth) over the few (the crew). The women in Armageddon are secondary characters (co-pilot Jennifer Watts/Jessica Steen) or space WAGs (wives and girlfriends – sorry, Grace/Liv Tyler) rather than agentic women like scientist/pilot Andy in Deep Impact. Several of the main characters are also women: news anchor Jenny (whose obsession with her parents’ relationship, rather her own, make her a difficult character to bond with) and 16-year-old teen-bride Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski), whose marriage to Leo Biederman/Elijah Wood is an attempt to keep her away from the deadly megatsunamis.
As a film about the flawed human response to a extinction level event, Deep Impact is carefully considered and imagines the difficult and almost impossible decisions that would face presidents (here, Morgan ‘God’ Freeman) and world leaders as well as individuals faced with almost certain death. The leaders chose to use bunkers called Arks (the biblical rapture stuff is not subtle) to save the ‘best’ of humanity – essential personnel, foods, animals, seeds, and, artefacts, alongside a random lottery-selected group of under-50-year-old civilians.
Deep Impact is unflinchingly dark (despite the sappy/weird teen-bride storyline) that covers more complex issues, but it was placed in direct competition with Armageddon which takes a less-challenging, arguably more entertaining approach to the end of the world. Sometimes I just want some comedy with my catastrophe.
What to watch next from Mimi Leder:
On the Basis of Sex (2018)
The Leftovers (directed 10 episodes of season 2, producer on 18, 2014-2017)
The Peacemaker (1997)
Nicole Sperling (2018). The Long Road from Pay It Forward to Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Inside Director Mimi Leder’s Return to the Big Screen. Vanity Fair. URL: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/09/director-mimi-leder-on-the-basis-of-sex
Lindsay Zoladz (2017) Mimi Leder Is the Best Director on Television. The Ringer. URL: https://www.theringer.com/2017/4/12/16045810/mimi-leder-director-the-leftovers-deep-impact-1725f67b26de