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It’s probably just a canny ear for the Zeitgeist, or its scientific equivalent, that has prompted Hollywood to make two end-of-the-world-by-asteroid movies for the warm months of 1998. I’m assuming we didn’t hear about the possibility that the Earth is in danger of being hit by an asteroid the size of Texas before now because it never has been in danger. Then again, are scientists only talking about the possibility now because they just got around to thinking about it, or do they know something?

At any rate, this subject probably seems like a space-age variation on the old disaster-movie formula, which it is, to most people who are not convinced that it is their fate to be hit by a great chunk of this asteroid, which I am. (This is not an unusual phobia among our kind—one well-known and otherwise sensible film critic spent the latter half of the ’70s indoors, convinced that a Volvo-sized piece of Skylab had his name on it.) Of these two asteroid films—and let’s face it, Deep Impact’s “comet” is just a ‘stroid in friendly disguise—Deep Impact is supposed to be the human one. This summer’s Armaggedon, with Bruce Willis, is the macho, violent one.

So imagine how horrible this movie has to be to not only bore and annoy an asteroid-phobe but to set a packed audience of screening-ticket-winners areel with laughter almost consistently, especially during the explosive climax. Deep Impact is lousy beyond imagining—deadly serious about its clichés; strenuously overacted by a cast of uninteresting stars (Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave); its digital effects (as usual) cheesy, transparent, and silly; its plot as lumpy as a 20-year-old mattress. Mimi Leder’s misshapen direction (she perpetrated Dreamworks’ first loser project, The Peacemaker) cuts among three story lines as first one comet, then two (don’t ask), come careening toward the Earth.

Téa Leoni, of whose film career we shall hear no more, plays Jenny Lerner, an ambitious news chippie assigned to cover an uninteresting political resignation with hints of adultery. After she is roughed up by the FBI and hustled off to make a deal with the president not to break the story, she begins to get the idea that perhaps it isn’t merely a mistress we’re talking about. Turns out “Ellie” isn’t a girl but E.L.E., an “extinction-level event,” the kind of thing that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs and that is heading toward Earth with terrifying velocity. Jenny is handed a trolley of unwieldy baggage from the start so that she can develop as a human being throughout this crisis: a lonely, aging beauty who drinks too much for a mother; a father with a 25-year-old bride; an inability to break through a workplace glass ceiling installed, it seems, by the women who got there first. Thank your lucky stars that she wasn’t also awarded a roguish piece of rival news beefcake to bounce snappy lines off of.

The president (Freeman) announces Plan A—a space mission in which seven astronauts aboard the Messiah, a name used unironically throughout, will land on the speeding comet and stud it with nukes. The mission is story line No. 2, with each flyboy or -girl getting a moment in which to put his or her face into the holes in one of those Coney Island wooden cutouts—only these aren’t cutouts of strongmen and bathing beauties but of your typical doomed crew: Guy With Pregnant Wife, Atheist Guy With Churchgoing Fiancée, Master Seducer, Techie Geek. Only Jon Favreau, who is blown into outer space minutes into the mission, and Duvall, who can out-act any of the smooth-faced young nobodies around him sound asleep—which he may be—put any oomph or distinction into their roles.

Story line No. 3 is the most preposterous. Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), the young astronomy student who co-discovered the comet, watches Jenny’s broadcasts of the Messiah mission with his amazed family and the family of his little girlfriend. When the mission fails, the president rolls out Plan B: The government has been burrowing out ant tunnels in the limestone caves of Montana, and 1,000,000 lucky Americans (the comets are heading toward Cape Hatteras, N.C., and Canada, but fuck Canada, man) will be chosen by lottery to hide out there for two years, procreating and living on Ensure. Little Leo is the star chosen one, randomly signing up friends and family for the big airlift and just as randomly changing his mind. There’s no satire, no horror at the piggishness and petty betrayals such a scenario might inspire among humans, nothing to raise the question that we may not be worth preserving. What Rod Serling could do brilliantly in 22 minutes Leder makes a hash of over the course of two full hours.

Three plots, 120 minutes, and ten thousand lines you’ve heard before. Except for the occasional deliberately funny line, there’s nothing good about Deep Impact, not even its title, which sounds distinctly gastrointestinal. The Noah’s Ark project is—well, “preposterous” is such a handy word. They load the caves up with two elephants, two flamingos, a flat of chickens—it’s like a 3-year-old’s vision of an ecosystem, with all the cool, pretty animals on board but no insects, fungus, plant life, or weather system to make the system viable. The comets looks like giant jellyfish, Jenny’s real problem is not that she’s held back at work but that she “feels like an orphan” thanks to her parents’ divorce (and you thought Independence Day was old-fashioned), and, should doomsday loom, the good news is you’ll easily be able to hail a D.C. cab in a rainstorm.

Leder directs with a series of well-composed images but a flat-line energy level. The pace is dreary and dense, peaking mildly whenever a mission to stop the comets fails—which is kind of funny the first time but gets downright hysterical with each subsequent announcement. Busy fumbling the three story lines, Leder never steps outside of them to show what life is like for the people of Earth—that means Americans, of course—under threat: what the newspapers are saying, how people shop, dress, go to work at the advertising agency, whatever.

Deep Impact could have adopted another time-honored form to more powerful effect—that of the multiple little-people stories along the lines of The Day After or Airport—choosing to depict some scientists, some government agents, and a random fistful of ordinaries reacting to the national lottery and the state of martial law—in America!—against the backdrop of impending doom. But instead, it’s just Jenny whining, Leo doing a creditable headless-chicken act, and the space crew waxing heroic. Even the actual disaster is half-hearted. The only upside is, if the Big Asteroid ever hits, it’ll flatten Dreamworks in its wake.CP