Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:00 - Released 5/8/98

In the wake of such disappointing big-budget special effects thrillers as Sphere and Lost In Space comes Deep Impact, a truly exciting science fiction epic with (mostly) amazing effects and a script and actors that (mostly) measure up. Not since Contact has there been a science fiction movie this tight and with this much talent. Director Mimi Leder, who has been nominated for an Emmy for her work on NBC's ER but fell flat last year with the shallow Peacemaker, has redeemed herself.

Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, who co-wrote this story, have infused it with a dazzling number of different relationships, all complex and believable, and all played with sincerity by a large cast. But the effects computers at Industrial Light and Magic are working overtime, too, producing cataclysmic shots reminiscent of Titanic, Twister, and even The Ten Commandments.

Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) is a newswoman for MSNBC who thinks she's uncovered a sex scandal involving the president (Morgan Freeman), but finds that there is a much bigger story, one that is going to make her career. The downside is that it could also end her life and that of every living organism on the planet: there is a huge comet on a collision course with Earth. But in his press release, President Beck reveals that the U.S. government has known about this for a year, and has been cooperating with the Russian government on a space mission, called Messiah, to destroy the comet with nuclear weapons before it reaches Earth. This will be done by a six-man crew headed by veteran astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall).

As a contingency measure, huge caves have also been excavated to make living spaces for a limited number of humans, animals, and plants, in order to survive the two-year winter that will result if the comet does strike the earth. Persons to inhabit this ark will be selected at random, with the exception of a few thousand hand-picked for their expertise or their contributions to society. For the rest, well, it's time to say "buh-bye."

There are many beautiful performances here, but perhaps the best is by Leder herself, bringing this global saga together into a cohesive story that is heavy on effects without being light on meaning. The ever-growing sense of panic that envelops the population is brought out as well as it was in Titanic. Though the human relationships must be dealt with quickly, they are given enough time to make us feel something. Jenny's bonds with her divorced mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and father (Maximilian Schell) are touching, as is the relationship between teenager Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), who discovered the comet, and his girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Sobieski). Freeman is elegant as the president faced with a disaster that makes Watergate look like child's play. And the scenes of mass hysteria and disaster are nothing short of incredible.

Some effects are a little computer-heavy, and perhaps the least believable are those involving the astronauts. Faking weightlessness with a blue screen is never as good as going up in a KC-135 and doing the real thing, as in Apollo 13. Some of the acting is inconsistent, and of course the script is somewhat simplistic. But dealing with such a disaster and all its ramifications in 2 hours is not possible.

Overall, Deep Impact is like Titanic: it's not perfect, but it's still a darn good show. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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