|Deep Impact is a 1998 science-fiction disaster-drama film released by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks in the United States on May 8, 1998. The film was directed by Mimi Leder and stars Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, Téa Leoni, and Morgan Freeman. The plot describes the attempts to prepare for and destroy a 7-mile wide comet, which is expected to collide with the Earth and cause a mass extinction.
Another “space impact” film, Armageddon, was released about two months after Deep Impact in the United States. Deep Impact’s greater scientific credibility was recognized, though Armageddon fared better at the box office; however, Deep Impact was still a major financial success, grossing over $349 million worldwide on a $75 million production budget. Both films were similarly received by critics, with Armageddon scoring 41% and Deep Impact scoring 46% on the Tomatometer.
On May 10, 1998, teenage amateur astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) discovers an unusual object near the stars Mizar and Alcor at a star party. He alerts professional astronomer Marcus Wolf (Charles Martin Smith) at a local observatory. Wolf learns that the object is a comet, and calculates that it will hit the Earth, but dies in a car accident before he can alert the world.
A year later, MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) investigates the resignation of the United States Secretary of the Treasury (James Cromwell) and his connection to an “Ellie”. She discovers that Ellie is not a mistress but an acronym: “E.L.E.”, for “Extinction-Level Event”. Because of Lerner’s investigation, President of the United States Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) advances the announcement of the grim facts: The comet—named Wolf-Biederman—is 7 miles (11 km) wide, large enough to destroy all life if it strikes Earth (although how the U.S. government learned of the comet’s existence is not specified). The United States and Russia have been secretly constructing in orbit the spacecraft Messiah, which they plan to send on a mission to destroy the comet with nuclear weapons. Life changes drastically worldwide, and both Leo and Lerner become celebrities.
After landing on the comet, the Messiah crew members plant nuclear bombs 100 meters beneath the surface; one crew member dies while another is seriously injured. When the bombs are detonated, Messiah is damaged and loses contact with Earth. Instead of being destroyed, the comet splits into two smaller rocks nicknamed “Biederman” (1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide) and “Wolf” (6 miles (9.7 km) wide), either one still world-threatening.
Beck acknowledges Messiah’s failure, declares martial law, and announces that governments worldwide are building underground shelters. The United States’ national refuge is in the limestone caves of Missouri. The US government conducts a lottery to select 800,000 ordinary Americans aged 50 and under to join 200,000 pre-selected scientists, engineers, teachers, artists, soldiers, and officials. Lerner and Leo’s family are pre-selected, but Leo’s girlfriend Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski) is not. Leo marries Sarah to save her family but the Hotchners are mistakenly left off the evacuee list; Sarah refuses to leave without them.
A last-ditch effort to use Earth’s missile-borne nuclear weapons to deflect the two chunks of the comet fails. Leo returns home looking for Sarah, but her family has left for the Appalachian Mountains and are trapped on a jammed highway. Sarah’s parents urge Leo to take Sarah and her baby brother to high ground; Sarah still does not want to abandon her parents, but they convince her to do so. Lerner gives up her seat in the last evacuation helicopter to her friend Beth, who has a young daughter. She instead joins her estranged father (Maximilian Schell) at her childhood beach house, where they reconcile and remember happier times. The Biederman fragment impacts in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda, creating an enormous, supersonic megatsunami. Leo, Sarah and her baby brother survive but Lerner and her father, Sarah’s parents, and millions of others along the Atlantic coasts of North and South America, Europe, and Africa perish. A scene is shown with the destruction of New York.
The world braces for the impact of Wolf in western Canada, which will create a cloud of dust that will block out the sun for two years. This in turn will destroy all remaining life aside from that which has been evacuated underground. Low on fuel and life support, the crew of the Messiah decides to undertake a suicide mission with the remaining nuclear warheads. After saying goodbye to their loved ones by video conference, the Messiah reaches the fragment and enters a fissure to blow itself up, which breaks Wolf into much smaller pieces; these burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, sparing humanity.
The film closes with President Beck speaking to a large crowd in front of the United States Capitol (which is under reconstruction), where he urges the nation and the world to continue their recovery.