It’s the End of the World as We Know It. Back in 1998, during the Year of Lewinsky, Paramount/DreamWorks got into a game of chicken with Touchstone. The result was two disaster films about comets that were about to crash into the Earth and destroy all life. The two films could share a single log-line:
When a “planet-killer” sized comet is discovered to be on an imminent collision course with Earth, an international space effort — led by the United States — sets out to deflect the object by setting off nuclear weapons deep inside its core so that it will miss Earth and, therefore, save humanity.
I won’t tell you how the Earth fared yet, but I can tell you that the point of impact in the theaters was about two months apart. Talk about operational redundancy!
Deep Impact was the first in the theaters but it was Armageddon that won the battle of the box-office. Armageddon grossed $553-million world-wide to the Deep Impact gross of $349-million. Incredibly, IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) has it as a virtual tie with both films scoring a 5.9 out of ten audience rating.
However we split that atom, the point is that the summer of 1998 gave us a cinematic laboratory experiment in how the same story can yield entirely different results. I can vouch for this having watched these two films back-to-back. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… we have lift-off…
Deep Impact made the first strike of the Comet Wars when it hit the theaters in May of 1998. As scripted by able scribes Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, it starts when a teenage kid, Leo Biederman (Elijah Woods) discovers an unusual comet. A year later, an MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) stumbles across the fact that the government’s been preparing for this challenge in secret. She breaks the story of a lifetime and is rewarded with a plum anchor job (not kidding, that’s the storyline). The President, played by Morgan Freeman, appears many times in his increasingly desperate national addresses. Toss in Robert Duvall as the last man to walk on the moon and the guy chosen to fly the mission to save Earth, using a specially designed spaceship known as the Messiah. Ultimately, though, nothing works the way it’s supposed to work and the government selects a million citizens to put in an underground bunker where they can ride out the annihilation for two years. The film, directed by TV vet Mimi Leder, is capped with an actual partial comet strike that wipes out the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
There are a lot of people out there who actually hate this movie — from Roger Ebert to about a thousand bloggers, all of whom seem to feel that director Michael Bay is the spawn of the Devil and that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been his enabler. Among the handful of screenwriters involved here, there were some good ones, including J.J. Abrams. The plot is basically this: an asteroid “the size of Texas” is about to crash into the Earth and destroy all life. The only way to stop it, NASA reasons, is to blow it up before it hits and to do that they will need to send a team of oil drillers there with a hefty nuke to get the job done. Enter Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, and even Owen Wilson and they have names like Chick, Rockhound and Bear. Back at home, throw in Billy Bob Thornton (who plays the best NASA guy I’ve ever seen, in my opinion) and Liv Tyler (Affleck’s love interest and Willis’s daughter). These guys join up with some Russians and hitch a ride on a Space Shuttle that’s been configured to do things that no Space Shuttle could probably dream of and off they go.
I don’t mean to claim to be an expert on disaster movies, but I did win a WGA award for writing one back in 2008, Pandemic, a project I did on the heels of the NBC miniseries The Poseidon Adventure. And, back about five years before these two films came out, I wrote a Lois & Clark episode about Superman stopping a meteor from crushing the Earth, “All Shook Up.” It was a re-imagining of that classic “Adventures of Superman” episode, “Panic in the Sky.” So whether any of that qualifies as expertise or not, I’ll let others decide, but I’ve definitely spent time thinking about this topic.
So one of the most important things in a disaster film is setting up the stakes to extract maximum tension. In Armageddon, there are numerous smaller chunks of falling space rock that show us how devastating the effects can potentially be when the big one gets here. New York suffers greatly, and Paris is wiped out entirely. In Deep Impact, however, there are no early strikes and the “planet killer” nature of the threat is never visualized. The former is visceral; the latter is cerebral.
The tension with the space crew is also important. In Deep Impact, it’s eviscerated by the less-impactful storylines going on back on Earth. Will Tea Leoni be up to the anchor’s job? Will Mom & Dad get back together? Will the geek get better sex? In Armageddon, the job in space is Job One and everything is about supporting that piece of the film. There’s a good preamble getting ready, but once they’re out there, so is the film.
While it’s true that on their most basic level they are the same plot, there’s also a world of difference. Armageddon shifts the focus to space once its out there while Deep Impact tries to keep at least half as much action on Earth as out the void. The best example of Deep Impact misfiring in this regard is that their POV into the crisis is primarily from the MSNBC newsroom. They’re played like they’re the news leaders of the world (which they’re not) and, in any case, watching someone report about what’s happening in space just isn’t as compelling as watching the touch-and-go taking place out there. The thing is, I kept asking myself why I cared if Tea Leoni got the “scoop of the century.” Really, reporter stories aren’t usually that compelling anyway but when
the fate of humanity is on the table, I don’t care if she beats CNN or not. In contrast, Armageddon has NASA for its institutional POV. And, as I said, Billy Bob Thornton has never, ever been better in a serious role.
From a scientific accuracy point-of-view, the call probably goes to Deep Impact but not by much. Both of these films are wildly off in terms of how these space rocks would be sighted, how much time we’d have to prepare, and how prepared we’d be to do anything about them. The thing is, if the drama in them makes you want to know more about the real situation, then there’s some great stuff to read out there. These are disaster movies on a topic where even the scientists are divided about some key issues they address. I know some of the flying around in Armageddon is a stretch but they do that stuff in Deep Impact, too. It goes with the territory.
As far as character development goes, yes, it’s true that Armageddon has a group out there that probably would never have been sent, but you do get to know them and like them. The Deep Impact team never comes alive at all and the people focused on at home do not rise to the occasion. And, by the way, both films have Russians along for the ride but the guy on Deep Impact speaks maybe a sentence while the guy on Armageddon actually is fun and a has a role in the resolution of the story.
The rap on Armageddon is the idiot crew and while part of that is fair, the truth is that Deep Impact has enough idiot characters of its own. There’s the idiot pilot who’d rather bitch about Duvall being on board than just suck it up and save mankind. There’s the idiot reporter who can speak only haltingly on camera. There’s the idiot kid who goes looking for his fiance in a crowd of millions and actually finds her. Let’s call that a wash.
In Armageddon, people are giving up families, lovers, and life to give the world a chance to survive. Even when the action is over-the-top, these people are still behaving heroically. In Deep Impact, there is no real connection between the people in space and the people at home (other than the obvious) until they utter tearful goodbyes at the end. Armageddon earns the tears and Deep Impact doesn’t.
Armageddon has a great movie moment when William Fichtner’s Colonel William Sharp points a gun at Willis and makes him swear on the lives of his children that he can do what he says he can do with a drill. I always get goose-bumps because, crazy as that situation is, at that moment in the movie it’s real and you care. I don’t recall any moments in Deep Impact where I actually felt the people on the ship were anything but good actors stuck in less-than-great parts. That’s really the big difference between the films. Armageddon has characters who actually, honestly feel like real people (given the heightened situation) who actually, honestly understand the stakes in what they’re being asked to do. Plus, Armageddon actually manages to have some fun along the way, something that is completely missing in Deep Impact.
Armageddon is full of plot reversals where victories are short-lived, things that were supposed to go one way go the other, and so on. Granted, it’s contrived, too, but it works very well on its own level. Deep Impact ambles through its surprises without any discernible energy.
People have pointed out that they could probably have lived a full and complete life without seeing Ben Affleck eating animal crackers off of Liv Ullman’s belly in Armageddon and I won’t argue the point.
And the winner is…
Armageddon is better written, for sure, and in terms of a crowd-pleasing vibe, it’s better directed. I’m sure this is going to rile a few people up, but I’m not only saying Armageddon is the superior film but I’m saying it with emphasis!
Maybe no one will ever read another review I ever write after this, but Bruckheimer and Bay delivered the ultimate popcorn movie in my opinion. I’ve seen it probably six times, usually with my kids who, like me, just enjoyed seeing it repeatedly. We’ve gotten to the point where we can call out lines and start screaming before something happens. For us, it works and works well. And the music is clearly superior.
Like I say, I know this will forever discredit my opinion to the Bay-haters out there but I would ask them to do what I’ve done which is to screen these films back-to-back ten years later. Deep Impact turns out, on repetition, to be more like “Shallow Impact.”
Not every film has to work for everybody. This one just worked for me. If you’re going to spend two hours at the end of the world, spend them with Armageddon.
Here’s the beauty of this Smackdown, though. You get to express your own opinion. Spread the word about this poll and let others vote. We’re very curious to see what people think about these films now that they’ve had over a decade to let them cool.