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Friday, February 15, 2013

Musing Pictures: Deep Impact (1998)

With all the recent talk of meteors, asteroids, and our proximity to doomsday, I decided to catch the other meteor-impact film from 1998.  People remember "Armageddon" from that year, but "Deep Impact" did quite well theatrically, both in the US and overseas.

Disaster movies at this scale -- especially movies where the world's end seems imminent, are tough stories to tell.  First of all, we rarely believe the threat (I mean, it's a movie, right?  It's going to end well for at least a few of the people we care about!  And certainly, the Earth will not be destroyed!)  Second, a story of global significance is hard to convey without individual narratives, and those individual narratives often trivialize the global danger.  ("Titanic", on a smaller scale, runs in to this problem: we care so much about the two heroes that we kind of don't care about the thousands of others on the ship.  I mean, of course we care, but not quite like that...)

Both "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" kind of make the same mistake:  Some parts of the world get destroyed, millions of nameless, faceless people die (and so do a few people we know peripherally), and humanity, on the whole, survives... but has humanity learned anything?  Is there any redemptive value to humanity's survival?

I ask this in light of other, older end-of-the-world stories.  When the world is flooded, and only Noah and his clan are left to repopulate it, the understanding is that they are somehow different, a new hope for humanity, and a symbol of humanity's renewed contract with their Creator.  "War of the Worlds" (a very flawed narrative for other reasons) concludes with the emergence of a humbled and vulnerable humanity -- a humanity that has learned its lesson.

But humanity remains pretty much unchanged in both the '98 asteroid films.  I find that in stark contrast to a film that made its impact a few years earlier, "Independence Day".  There, in order for humanity to survive, humanity needs to fundamentally change, to unite, even across deep-rooted and historical divisions.  The humanity that emerges from the near-catastrophe of alien invasion is transformed.  More than that, it has earned its redemption.

I think that's what I found most incomplete about "Deep Impact".  The story, however consequential to millions of individuals in the film's version of Earth, seemed to have no real meaning to humanity as a whole.  In the final scene, the president (played by Morgan Freeman, interestingly) delivers a speech in front of the scaffolding of a new US Capitol building, under construction.  It's the same old building that they're re-building.  Not something new.

Compare that to the famous presidential speech in "Independence Day", in which that film's US President speaks of a new meaning to the word "Mankind".  The events in that film have profound consequence to those who survive them, not just to those who do not.

Global disaster films are really about salvation.  They're about giving us hope that when things get really, really bad, there's what to strive for -- beyond survival itself.


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