25 Years Ago, One Movie Showed What Don't Look Up Could Have Been

Apocalypse movies are stressful, but you can find hope in them too.

Paramount Pictures
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Apocalypse movies weaponize possibilities. When Contagion presented an airborne virus ripping through the globe, it was the stuff of science fiction — until it wasn’t. There’s a reason it was trending in March 2020: confronting the worst-case scenario can be comforting.

25 years ago, one movie explored the fear of a comet hitting Earth, and how the dawn of the Information Age would affect it. Deep Impact, directed by Mimi Leder, is the ideal apocalypse movie. Although it was overshadowed by the release of Armageddon, it’s the better and (relatively) scientifically accurate version. It’s just as evocative and damning today when compared with more recent entries in the genre.

While stargazing, young teen Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) discovers a star he doesn’t recognize. He sends the information to a local astronomer, who quickly realizes it’s a massive comet on course to collide with Earth. After a frantic attempt to spread the news via email fails thanks to his terrible 1998 internet connection, the astronomer hops in his car to warn the authorities, but hits a truck and vaults his car over a cliff in a fiery blaze.

After that exciting start, we shift to a year later, where upstart journalist Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) suspects the Secretary of the Treasury has resigned, not for the personal reasons he claimed, but for something shadier concerning a woman named Ellie. She’s half right — Ellie is E.L.E., an extinction level event.

What follows is a multifront story. The president (Morgan Freeman) announces a last-ditch effort to blow up the comet with a manned space mission, Jenny tries to deal with her estranged father while keeping the country informed, and Leo has to balance the end of the world with being a teenage boy.

A crowded highway watches as the comet arrives.

Paramount Pictures

While most apocalypse movies focus on the rip-roaring action of saving the world, Deep Impact shows the parts of the impending end that are actually relatable. While we may wish we could bravely plant nukes on a floating rock in space, what would really happen to us is a bit more mundane. There’s the preparation, all the anxious waiting, the panic, and, hopefully, a newfound appreciation for life.

When Adam McKay touched on those topics in Don’t Look Up, a movie that was supposed to be satirical came across as preachy. Deep Impact is what McKay’s movie should have been: a human examination of a real-life problem, complete with panicked scientists, family reconciliation, and an Ark-like survival plan. Unlike many other movies, Deep Impact shows the aftermath of the crisis, and the rebuilding that follows. Our survivors haven’t forgotten what they lost, but they’re looking ahead.

Apocalypse movies tend to be stressful watches, but Deep Impact cuts through all the fear to show that even in the darkest moments, hope remains. And if people watch these movies for comfort, isn’t that the most comforting message of all?

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