Is ‘Deep Impact’ cinema’s most underrated film?

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When people ask me what my favourite film is, my response always surprises them: Deep Impact.

Why would a seemingly-run-of-the-mill 1990s disaster movie top anyone’s list ahead of so many other cinematic classics?

Because, I tell them, Deep Impact isn’t a film about a disaster. It’s a film about humanity. It’s an understated and underrated exploration of the unwavering love that parents have for their children, which happens to be told via the lens of an impending apocalyptic disaster.

But when the film was released in 1998, it had a rival meteor-based movie to compete with: Armageddon, which was released in cinemas just weeks later.

Audiences could be forgiven for presuming that both films had been cut from the same cloth. Indeed, the marketing for each was almost indistinguishable: both featured a meteor on track to catastrophically collide with Earth, and a team despatched into space to destroy it before it penetrated our atmosphere.

Yet — and forgive the pun — Deep Impact’s storyline goes much deeper than this.

It explores how numerous families — each with their own unique dynamics and problems — respond to the prospect of life on Earth ending.

It lays bare the sacrifices each of the characters make for their children, their parents — and themselves.

And, rather than featuring token female characters waiting in the wings for the men in their lives to save them (yes, Liv Tyler, I’m looking at you — and I urge you to click that hyperlink as it is a wonderful thing), it places women at the very heart of the film, giving each of them flaws, layers and heartbreaking choices to make.

This is why the film’s director, Mimi Leder, is one of my favourite filmmakers. She tells powerful stories about relatable women who are faced with the most extraordinary circumstances.

It didn’t surprise me in the slightest when I learned that Leder had directed one of my favourite television moments in recent years. A moment which, again, laid bare a female experience told through a fresh but timely theme.

Yet how did the (mainly male) critics at the time respond to Deep Impact’s female-led storylines? They dismissed them as “melodrama” and distracting for “mainstream action audiences” (I think they mean ‘men’?), which explains why the film has a shameful Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 45%.

But to suggest the film failed as an action movie does the subtle screenplay and sensitive direction a huge disservice. As does Netflix’s current tagline for the film on its platform, which gives the impression that “a steely veteran astronaut” (a man) is the protagonist. Not so. The protagonist is a junior television reporter (a woman), with Téa Leoni’s gentle yet raw performance perfectly capturing her character’s internal battle between vulnerability and strength as she faces the unimaginable.

Indeed, maybe it’s the marketing that lets this film down the most: by positing it as a nonstop action film — when in fact it’s pretty action-light — audiences in seek of endless special effects and migraine-inducing editing are bound to be left feeling underwhelmed.

Perhaps if it’d been pitched more like 2011’s Take Shelter, for example, then a more relevant segment of cinemagoers — and film critics —may have appreciated it from the outset, rather than in hindsight. But were we culturally ready for such a film in 1998? Maybe not.

Over 20 years later, the film has aged remarkably well in terms of its themes, characters and dilemmas (let’s ignore the 1990s technology interfaces). Not only does it pass the Bechdel test with flying colours, it also passes the more recent DuVernay test in terms of racial representation.

So if you’re flicking between channels one evening and you stumble across Deep Impact, please keep watching it this time. And if you can do so without it striking any kind of emotional chord in your soul, then maybe you’re better off sticking to Armageddon after all.

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