Yes, Armageddon (1998) gave us Steve Buscemi as an astronaut. And true, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) blessed us with the archetypal ’00s pairing of Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum. Hell, even overlooked gem The Core (2003) found its way into the collective consciousness thanks to the indelible charm of Stanley Tucci’s silver-fox wig. But still, the paramount disaster movie of the last quarter-century remains Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (1998).
Baby-faced Elijah Wood is Leo Biederman, a high-school student who spots an unknown object in the sky during an astronomy-club outing. The object, it turns out, is a massive comet, rapidly making its way towards Earth. To avoid an impending extinction-level event, the US joins forces with Russia to build the aptly named Messiah, a spacecraft designed to implode the comet, altering its collision course to save humankind.
Deep Impact hits all the marks of a disaster classic, from the tension-filled NASA auditoriums to the 11th-hour presidential broadcast rife with religious undertones. It also boasts a cast glowing with star power, from Morgan Freeman to Téa Leoni, Vanessa Redgrave, Jon Favreau, James Cromwell, Leelee Sobieski…
But what sets the film apart from its genre peers is its beautiful rendezvous with the existential. Leder has little interest in burning through the runtime with meaningless CGI-heavy sequences. Instead, the director homes in on what is at the centre of the prospect of extinction: the primal fear of unimaginable oblivion. It’s a movie that somehow works not only as a roaring blockbuster, but also as a meditation on mortality: a feat so rare, we might as well put a horn on it and call it a unicorn.
“We’ll never be closer to home than we are right now,” Captain Spurgeon ‘Fish’ Tanner (Robert Duvall) soulfully tells his crew aboard the Messiah. The astronauts are enveloped in grief and pride as they realise Earth will only be reachable again through memory. It’s but one unforgettable moment in a movie that offers more profundity per frame than any modern disaster movie… or is it just me?