Teen astronomy geek Elijah Wood and astronomer Charles Martin Smith discover a comet. Smith soon learns something really, really bad, but before he can tell anyone about it, he is killed in a car crash. A year later, MSNBC reporter Tea Leoni stumbles upon what she thinks is a sex scandal cover-up involving Secretary of Treasury James Cromwell. Turns out it’s a much, much bigger story. Apparently that pesky comet is headed for Earth, and is the size of a freakin’ city. President Morgan Freeman is forced to go public with the news. He tells of plans to send a NASA mission to give the comet a nuclear blast and hopefully divert its course. If that fails, then a national lottery system will be set up to select a certain percentage of the population to be moved to a newly constructed underground safe haven. Robert Duvall plays the veteran astronaut in charge of the space mission, who feels out of touch with his tight-knit younger team of astronauts (Ron Eldard, Jon Favreau, Mary McDonnell, and Blair Underwood among them), who think he’s kinda past it. Maximilian Schell plays Leoni’s estranged father, divorced from mother Vanessa Redgrave. Leelee Sobieski plays Wood’s girlfriend and neighbour, and Laura Innes is Leoni’s friend and co-worker.
Two asteroid film hit cinemas in 1998, and one of them took themselves seriously enough to be quite entertaining. I’m a “Deep Impact” kinda guy, I guess. Although the feature directorial career of Mimi Leder somewhat crapped out, she does a rock-solid job here with this rather traditional, multi-character disaster-drama. Most of Leder’s 41 directing gigs have been TV episodes and TV movies, and she hasn’t directed a feature since 2009’s “The Code”, after having helmed this, “The Peacemaker” (which admittedly didn’t do great business for a film featuring two of the world’s biggest movie stars), and “Pay It Forward”. I’ve seen directors with worse resumés who are much more prolific in cinema, Leder’s crime (if anything) is mere mediocrity, save for this film, which is enjoyable. Not all of the characters and storylines are entertaining in equal measure (or scripted in equal measure for that matter), but it’s actually really affecting at times and quite underrated. The big moment, when it comes works on all levels, and even Tea Leoni’s final word is perfect.
You’d swear it was a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, because the film opens in the exact same way that all of Emmerich’s disaster movies appear to, with character actor Charles Martin Smith this time being the nerdy scientist guy who stumbles upon the beginning of the film’s plot. Same thing happened in “The Day After Tomorrow” I believe, and certainly it happened in “ID4”. Not a complaint, just an observation.
I wasn’t at all surprised to find Steven Spielberg as EP, it’s pretty classy stuff for what it is, and the FX still hold up pretty well in 2014. Tea Leoni is the film’s anchor (no pun intended), and I actually think it’s her best work. I was a fan of “The Naked Truth” until they suddenly changed her character into the female, live-action equivalent of the bumbling cop character on that one episode of “The Simpsons” who just happened to be called Homer Simpson (Speaking of jokes, Conservative Americans must bust a gut when they find out she’s an MSNBC reporter, and she initially gets the story oh-so very wrong). She wouldn’t have been among my first tier casting choices, but she does a very fine job. Even better is Robert Duvall, who owns his part and is in some ways the heart of the film, or at least its rock. Of all the astronaut characters in the film, he’s the one who best breaks out of his stereotypical role. Ron Eldard impresses, though as the next most prominent of the astronauts. It might be the best I’ve seen the versatile actor, and he definitely gets more meat to chew on than co-pilots Mary McCormack (who is astoundingly beautiful and deserves more than playing ‘the token chick’), Blair Underwood (‘token black guy’), and Jon Favreau (‘Token guy who’d like to remind you once again that he was in “Rudy”, and has lots of famous friends’). Morgan Freeman plays the President, showing that Ms. Leder at least got one thing accurate, very prescient there. He brings the necessary gravitas and authority to the part that the film dearly needs. When Freeman speaks, you listen attentively. Do I believe he’d have such clandestine meetings with MSNBC reporters in kitchens? Why are you asking that when the film already asks us to accept Tea Leoni as the offspring of Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell?
In addition to the pitch-perfect casting of Duvall and Freeman, the future Frodo Baggins, Elijah Wood is spot-on too, and both Redgrave and Schell are every bit as solid as you’d expect. James Cromwell has limited screen time as an important cog in the wheel that is the film’s central premise (before forgetting about him entirely), but he’s genuinely effective in his brief appearance. The one casting mistake is “E.R.” actress Laura Innes. She’s not a good actress, and brings with her a brittle and unpleasant screen presence that just rubs me the wrong way. There’s something remote and bitchy about her, I feel.
The other problem the film has is that it’s not nearly long enough to properly address each of the characters and their storylines. It gets the job done as well as it can in the confines of a 120 minute running time, but this really needed to be a mini-series at the very least. So the film ends up being more B-level than it could’ve been. On that B-level, though, it’s still pretty good. Most of these disaster movies are too hokey to achieve gravitas or have audiences reaching for the Kleenex, even the best ones like “The Poseidon Adventure” (The more serious-minded “Voyage of the Damned” probably got closest to bringing a kind of weight and importance to the all-star format, though it wasn’t a disaster film per se, but a drama based largely on fact). While this film isn’t as entertaining or memorable as “The Poseidon Adventure”, it did indeed get to me on that emotional level. Leoni reading out the lottery is a very strong emotional moment (it’s a cruel thing, but the idea of the lottery undeniably makes sense), and a scene with Wood, Sobieski, and her family is also heart-tugging. Maybe it’s because I’m approaching middle-age and thinking about some rather weighty issues, or maybe the film is just genuinely well-made. The screenplay is by Michael Tolkin (“The Rapture”, the phenomenally overrated “The Player”) and Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”, “Jacob’s Ladder”, “My Life”). By the way, did you know Jon Favreau was in “Rudy”?