Bruce Joel Rubin
A big year for disaster movies, 1998 not only saw Godzilla destroy New York City but Armageddon and Deep Impact nearly destroy the entire world in a similar fashion. The latter was not quite as successful as Michael Bay's epic but it still did very well at the box-office.
While Armageddon was big and over-the-top, packed with bad jokes and melodrama, Deep Impact took a significantly more sober approach. When aspiring MSNBC anchorwoman Jenny (Téa Leoni) discovers a potentially juicy secret involving a politician who mysteriously resigned, she stumbles upon a far bigger issue as the President (Morgan Freeman) prepares himself to announce the possibility of an Extinction Level Event taking place within a year. As a large comet is revealed to be heading for Earth, an expedition is soon underway with a spacecraft carrying a group of experts with the mission to drill nukes into the comet, thereby hopefully destroying it.
Instead of focusing on mindless destruction, Deep Impact follows certain characters and their emotional journeys throughout these events. Teenager Leo (Elijah Wood) and his girlfriend are separated at a critical point, Jenny finally gets the career she always wanted but her relationship with her parents is crumbling, veteran astronaut Fish (Robert Duvall) finds himself having to make some difficult decisions under more pressure than ever. The impact the comet has on these people's lives is, and I would argue rightly so, what the film is really about so when the destruction finally hits, it's devastating but we only understand how bad it is because of the struggles the characters went through prior to it, which you can imagine applying to everyone on Earth.
Deep Impact may not have had the budget that Armageddon had so, obviously, its special effects aren't quite as slick and the serious tone makes it a much less fun experience but it is unquestionably the better film by far. From the strong performances to the solid writing and direction, Deep Impact conveys the fear of extinction in a far more thoughtful and real way. By not distracting the viewer with witty one-liners, endless explosions, slo-mo and Aerosmith songs, it allows them to really picture such an event and imagine how it would affect them. Critics were lukewarm about this one and, I would say, unfairly so as, while it may not be perfect, it's every bit as tense, dramatic and emotional as it needed to be, and all this without insulting the viewer's intelligence for one second.
It's funny to think that two movies that are so similar could be so different, and released pretty much at the same time. Both do what they set out to do very well with Armageddon nailing the brainless popcorn entertainment aspect and Deep Impact taking the subject matter and its audience seriously enough to deliver a level-headed, heartfelt cinematic experience that's, ultimately, far more rewarding.