Over the course of January, the Mustache and the Beard will be examining disaster movies as a sub-genre of Thrillers. Thrillers are characterized by mood and tone. There are aspects to these movies that cause them to “thrill” us — aspects such as suspense, anxiety, excitement, angst, nervousness, and fear incorporated in these types of narratives that make us seek them out. Red herrings (false antagonists), plot twists, and cliff hangers are all elements that make these movies successful when the conventions are applied adequately.
Disaster movies are thrillers that have an impending disaster or continuing disaster as a central plot device. They typically include big casts with high profile stars attempting to avert, escape, or endure. It is a monumental task that we have chosen to confront this sub-genre. Therefore, we have titled the month of January, Disastuary, as a way of setting aside this time to explore some of its greatest movies.
Both Armageddon and Deep Impact were released in the same year of 1998. They are similar in plot and tone, because according to Bruce Joel Rubin, the writer of Deep Impact, when he had a sit-down lunch meeting with a producer at Disney, the producer took notes on everything the writer said and initiated Armageddon as a counter film for Disney.
In the meantime, the roots of Deep Impact began in the 1970’s as a remake of the 1950’s film When Worlds Collide. Several scripts were bandied about until Steven Spielberg was asked to direct the movie. He had just bought the film rights to Arthur C. Clarke’s, The Hammer of God for his fledgling new company called Dreamworks and wasn’t sure if he could undertake the project in conjunction with the When Worlds Collide remake. When the two projects were merged, Spielberg was credited as producer still intending to direct until Touchstone Pictures announced their movie Armageddon. With a new sense of urgency, Mimi Leder was tagged to direct the movie and Deep Impact released a few months before Armageddon.
Deep Impact is really a character study telling the disaster from various points of view. The story begins with a star party hosted by a high school science teacher. Leo Biederman, one of his students spots an anomaly in the stars, and is told to take a picture. The teacher sends the picture to an astronomer Dr. Marcus Wolf. When Wolf confirms that the anomaly is a comet on a collision course with earth, he rushes to alert the authorities and dies in a car accident.
One year later, an MSNBC journalist named Jenny Lerner, investigating the sudden retirement of the Secretary of the Treasury, discovers that it’s as a result of his connection to an “Ellie”, but when the FBI take her to see the President, she soon realizes that ELE means Extinction Level Event. Due to her investigation, President Beck is forced to announce earlier than planned the operation to land on the comet and plant explosives in an attempt to destroy it before it collides with the earth.
After a massive meteor shower, NASA discovers that a rogue comet has altered the path of an asteroid which on impacting the earth will cause an Extinction Level Event. NASA scientists plan to drill a deep shaft and place a nuclear device inside the asteroid that when detonated will split the asteroid into two halves that should fly safely passed the earth. Harry Stamper is considered the best deep sea driller in the world. NASA contacts him to do the job. He acquiesces, but says he needs his team. Once their unusual demands are agreed to, they join Stamper in preparation.
Harry and his crew undergo 12 days of rigorous training to mimic some of the conditions they can expect to confront while in space. During some of the psychological evaluations, it becomes overtly clear how maladjusted Harry and his crew are. These are working class heroes attempting to overcome personal demons in order to allow civilization to continue. When a piece of the asteroid breaks off and partially destroys Shanghai, the mission is no longer clandestine and the world watches as Harry and his crew attempt an unbelievably risky mission to prevent the asteroid from colliding with the earth.
Both movies were very successful. Although Armageddon came out a few months after Deep Impact, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay made sure that where Deep Impact kept the aftermath subdued, Armageddon would be more DISASTER MOVIE. The destruction in New York and Shanghai are ratcheted up to heights that had not been seen before in cinema history. The production on both of these Hollywood Blockbusters is first rate. The CGI is believable and exceptional. Both movies are entertaining and reward repeat viewings, despite being dependent on suspense for its impact. . . so to speak.
I prefer the Deep Impact story to Armageddon. I think that I’m a sucker for the young love of Leo Biederman and Sarah Hotchner, Jenny Lerner’s story arc, and the astronauts on the Messiah space craft. The Beard prefers Armageddon. He loves the story of Harry Stamper, A.J., and Grace. In both movies there is sacrifice for the greater good. There is purity of purpose. There is patriotism. There is hope. No matter which you prefer, I think you can’t go wrong either way.