About halfway through "Deep Impact," a space mission to destroy an enormous comet that's hurtling fatally toward earth has failed. The president has gone on television to announce that Americans selected in a national lottery will enter underground caves to wait out the devastating aftermath of the comet's impact. News anchors appear afterwards to announce details of the lottery. Tia Leoni, as one of the anchors, announces that no Americans over the age of 50 will be chosen, while her mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, watches her daughter deliver the news that she is doomed to die. Redgrave's face momentarily retains its composure, but a tremor ripples through her body. It looks, for a few vivid seconds, as if this woman is going to come apart in front of us, nerve by nerve. Redgrave claps her hand over her mouth, as if it were her only means of holding herself together. And the movie goes on.
Except that it can't. Because in those few seconds, Redgrave forces this inhumanly phony movie to look into the abyss it so glibly skirts elsewhere. "Deep Impact" is the work of someone crass enough, and in some essential way mad enough, to try to turn the apocalypse into a tear-jerker. "Oceans rise. Cities fall. HOPE SURVIVES." That's one of the movie's tag lines, and it sums up the insanity running through this picture. For sheer mindless, barbaric idealism, it's in a league with JFK's famous Cuban Missile Crisis speech -- the one where he talks about how the duty of defending freedom means unwavering commitment to a course that could mean the end of the world. I'm paraphrasing, but what was so shocking about JFK's words was the argument that defending the American way of life justified obliterating all life.
In its pre-summer, blockbuster fashion, "Deep Impact" shares that crazed belief in ideals as things divorceable from life. Let cities be swept away, it says, let millions die, as long as hope survives. What kind of hope could survive that? I have a feeling that if you asked that question of the director, Mimi Leder, something about the indomitability of the human spirit would spring to her lips.
Of course, it's Leder's job as the director of a big-budget Hollywood movie to be able to summon banalities in an instant. And it would be easy and hip (and God knows, a lot less galling) to dismiss "Deep Impact" with some flip, smartass remarks, like the ones I heard tossed around at the screening I attended. That's how some of the movie's performers (like Robert Duvall as the head of the space mission assigned to obliterate the comet, and Morgan Freeman as the president) get through the movie: by going through the motions of professionalism. I'd love to talk about what a waste this movie makes of Leoni, who's as talented and beautiful and sexy and wonderfully crazed a comic presence as I've seen in years. But I'm too appalled. I can't get beyond my gut feeling that it's the epitome of Hollywood crassness to introduce the extinction of human life as an excuse for a series of Hallmark moments. Every once in a while you need to be outraged by the way a movie (or a book or a play) cheapens human emotion, if only to be reminded that such emotion is the thing that gets us going to movies or reading books or listening to music in the first place.
Once the space mission fails and earth prepares for the impact, Leder unleashes a series of scenes that show no inkling of the meaning of the word "shame." There are endless anguished encounters between family and friends, some of whom have been selected for preservation, some who will be left to die in the open. There are, of course, the bureaucratic screw-up scenes where some who think they've been chosen find out they aren't so lucky and plead with soldiers to let them board buses traveling to the underground caves. As the lucky few file into the caves, Leder gives us a shot of a desperate parent on the sidelines holding a wailing toddler overhead, imploring one of the select to save the child. Mothers take their children to favorite places to await the tidal wave that will kill them. What we might logically expect given this scenario -- anarchy, looting, martial-law executions or mob justice -- is relegated to news clips in a montage, while the noble syrup of James Horner's score smothers their horror.
What's especially offensive about all this is that we're made to sit through it when both the filmmakers and audience know that the only reason anybody turns out for this movie is to see the effects: a giant tidal wave washing over the Atlantic seaboard; the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline toppling; and people jammed into the middle of cities or caught in highway traffic jams getting drowned in an instant. Cool!
I can't say for sure why I found the smash fest of "Deep Impact" so repugnant and didn't feel the same way at "Independence Day." Maybe because that movie seemed, on some level, to cop to its own idiocy. "Deep Impact" is caught between the impulses of its two screenwriters, Bruce Joel Rubin, who was responsible for "Ghost" (another picture in which death wasn't an obstacle to hope), and novelist, filmmaker and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who, in his impressive first film, "The Rapture," unleashed a serious vision of the Day of Judgment. These are not compatible sensibilities. And anyway, it's Rubin's view -- which holds that any subject can be rendered into blockbuster material -- that wins out. The whorish high seriousness the movie cloaks itself in is already recognizable as the signature of Leder, although this is only her second film. She has reached that place in commercial filmmaking where shrewdness is inseparable from cretinism. Her first movie, last fall's "The Peacemaker," used the horror of Bosnia as fodder for a limp techno-thriller. Where can you go from genocide? The death of the planet, that's where. All of "Deep Impact's" calculated, gut-wrenching moments are designed to make it look like something more than just a special-effects demolition derby. Leder claims to be staking higher ground. It's easy to see the side of the street she's working.