In May of 1998, astronomer Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) notices an unidentifiable object in the night sky and forwards a picture to Doctor Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith), who realizes it’s a comet on collision course with Earth, but he dies in a car crash before he can warn the authorities.
A year later, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) is investigating the Secretary of the Treasury, Alan Rittenhouse (James Cromwell), because of “Ellie”, which she believes is his mistress. The FBI takes her to President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman), who takes her into his confidence. Ellie is actually ELE, or Extinction Level Event. The comet Wolf-Beiderman will strike the Earth in one year. The U.S. and Russia are building a ship in orbit called The Messiah so its crew can alter the comet’s path with atom bombs.
The ship launches with a crew of five astronauts and one cosmonaut. They land on the comet’s surface, drill into it, and place the bombs inside, but the comet rotates into the sun. One astronaut is blinded, and another is thrown into space. The others escape and detonate the bombs. But the comet is split in two. Wolf and Beiderman are now heading for Earth. Martial law is imposed, and a million people are chosen to survive, hopefully, in underground shelters.
An attempt to deflect the comet with ICBMs fails. Leo decides not to go into the shelter. He searches for his wife Sarah (Leelee Sobieski) and takes her and her brother to high ground. Lerner gives up her place and reconciles with her estranged father (Maximilian Schell). The Beiderman comet hits the Atlantic Ocean, and a mega tsunami destroys much of the U.S. East Coast and parts of Europe and Africa. The crew of the Messiah sacrifice themselves to destroy the other comet. The President announces that the country will be rebuilt.
The film was directed by Mimi Leder and written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin. Steven Spielberg was Executive Producer. It was a more intelligent and scientifically accurate movie than Armageddon, released the same year, and better than Meteor with Sean Connery, released in 1979. Richard Zanuck had wanted to do a remake of When Worlds Collide and Steven Spielberg had intended to make a film based on Arthur C. Clarke’s The Hammer of God, but they merged the two into Deep Impact. The music was composed and conducted by James Horner. It was nominated for a Stinkers Bad Movie Award but lost to Godzilla, but both Deep Impact and Armageddon were successful. The former was full of excellent actors and the latter was full of big movie stars. Both had amazing special effects.
Originally, the President was to end the movie by saying, “Life will go on. We will prevail. This is not Armageddon.” But they had to change that. Eugene Shoemaker, discoverer of the comet Shoemaker-Levy, was killed in an auto accident, inspiring that plot-event. The scene in which Jenny Lerner meets the President was filmed in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The vicinity of Norfolk, Virginia, where the comet hit, was the real site of an impact long ago which created the Chesapeake Bay Crater.
Just before the movie’s release, astronomers announced that the asteroid 1997 XF11 would impact the Earth in 2028. They were wrong, and it will miss us by 600,000 miles. Arthur C. Clarke received no credit for the inspiration from The Hammer of God and was pissed off about it. There was a real thing called Deep Impact—a probe that struck the comet Tempel in 2005. The production was given access to the White House Situation Room, mostly because of Steven Spielberg’s name. The only building still standing tall in the flooded island of Manhattan was the World Trade Center. The studio at first objected to Morgan Freeman as the President, saying, “You can’t have a black President. It’s not science-fiction, you know.”