Welcome to Seeing Double, a series where two strangely similar films released around the same time are put head-to-head. This time, we look skyward once again only to see big rocks filling our view, heading our way, and putting a countdown on life as we know it.
We’re currently gizzard deep in the great aught streaming wars, and while it’s too early to declare an ultimate winner yet the odds are it will be one corporation or another. More interesting are the individual players taking part in this new world with the likes of Martin Scorsese and M. Night Shyamalan staking their claims alongside others like Mimi Leder and Michael Bay. Leder is currently an Executive Producer on Apple tv+’s The Morning Show and directed half of the first season’s episodes too, while Bay’s fourteenth feature film, 6 Underground, premieres on Netflix on December 13th.
Those two titles are aimed at slightly different demographics, but twenty one years ago the two filmmakers had a far more direct face-off as directors of competing summer blockbusters about giant rocks hurtling through space towards Earth. Deep Impact opened on May 8th, and Armageddon was unleashed on July 1st. Both movies are big ensemble disaster pictures featuring elite astronaut crews sent into orbit to intercept and blow up up the offending chunk of space debris, but they each approach the setup in different ways with different results.
Keep reading for a head to head look at Deep Impact and Armageddon.
Deep Impact opens with horny teens stargazing and noticing something new in the sky. One year later a reporter catches wind of a cover up within the US president’s administration, but while she suspects in involves an affair with some woman named Ellie she soon discovers the truth is less salacious but far more important. The government is aware of the comet heading Earth’s way, and they know its impact will be an Extinction Level Event aka ELE. They’ve designed a mission to land astronauts on the comet, plant nuclear bombs, and then destroy the rock in the hopes that its pieces will miss the planet all together, but when the plan fails in part leaving a large chunk of rock heading towards North America’s Atlantic coast, the government reveals a backup plan – they’ve been building an enormous underground bunker, and a lottery system will select 800 thousand citizens to take shelter inside to wait out the comet’s destructive fallout. Chaos ensues as families are ripped apart, martial law is enacted to fight rioting and panic, AARP lobbyists argue that the lottery’s automatic exclusion of people over fifty years old isn’t cool, and the president gets a bit too preachy on national television. While the ELE-sized impact is averted, the smaller one still collides with Earth leaving a billion people dead and those horny teens with a newborn. Life finds a way, alongside numerous instances of MSNBC brand placement.
Armageddon opens with Charleton Heston narrating a history lesson about the last time a giant comet smashed into the planet. A quick jump millions of years later and we’re spinning around frantic NASA employees discovering that an asteroid the size of Texas is due to hit the Earth in just eighteen days. Numerous plans are suggested and rejected until they settle on the only one that could possibly work – they’re going to send deep sea drillers into space to land on the asteroid, drill deep holes, drop nukes in, and then detonate the bombs from afar. It’s a foolproof plan necessitating the involvement of renowned driller Harry Stamper, the young man in love with his daughter, and a motley crew of cowboys, ex-cons, and sexual deviants. The mission takes heavy casuies, but it’s ultimately a success unless you happen to live in Paris or Shanghai as they’re obliterated in earlier meteorite strikes leaving young love the chance to blossom and humanity the chance to continue.
Winner: Armageddon is perhaps the most Michael Bay movie yet as every thing you’d associate with his style is amplified here to eleven. Everything explodes including the onscreen title!, everyone gets at least one camera shot looking up at them or spinning around dramatically, the excessive slow motion adds an extra hour to the running time, and every female character exists to have her looks commented on by some super cool dudes. All of this takes precedence over the story, and that’s by design as thinking even a little bit about the plot is enough to drag the movie down. It’s easier to train drillers to go to space than it is to train astronauts how to drill a hole? Really? The dynamic between Harry, his daughter, and the young man she loves is given far too much attention with scenes seeing Harry shoot up an oil rig – for comedy! – because he doesn’t like the guy she’s dating and later bequeathing her to the young man as if she was property. Not cool Harry, not cool.
By contrast, Deep Impact lets the space-set action exist off to the side while the film focuses on character and a bigger story about people and character. It’s a true ensemble not just in its large cast but in their varied geographies, and each of them hold our attention equally. The story just has more to say, and while there are fewer jokes and explosions because of it the result is a more satisfying film. So on the story front, the winner is Deep Impact.
Mimi Leder made her feature directorial debut with 1997’s The Peacemaker – the very first movie from Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks studio – and chased it a year later with this disaster picture. She’s only made three features since, all smaller dramas, but while her film career fizzled she’s gone on to become a major force on television where she began. From The Morning Show to critically acclaimed shows like The Leftovers, Shameless, ER, China Beach, and more, she’s an in-demand talent. The film’s writers had their own cachets with both Bruce Joel Rubin Ghost, 1990; Jacob’s Ladder, 1990 and Michael Tolkien Deep Cover, 1992; The Player, 1992 coming aboard with fairly classy resumes. Sure, they also wrote Deadly Friend 1986 and Gleaming the Cube 1989, but…
Michael Bay hardly needs an introduction now and didn’t really need one back in 1998 either. He came to the project with two action hits Bad Boys, 1995; The Rock, 1996 under his belt, and delivered a movie only he could make – for better and worse. His star was still on the rise back then and just thirteen years away from his first billion dollar movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2011, but even then he was an “event” director. The script has three credited writers, all known entities both before this film and since. JJ Abrams only had romantic dramas Regarding Henry, 1991 and one-note comedies Gone Fishin’, 1997 to his name before Armageddon, but it wouldn’t be the last time he brought viewers into space. Tony Gilroy had adapted the under-appreciated Dolores Claiborne 1995 and was still a few years away from delivering the Bourne trilogy. Jonathan Hensleigh was still riding high on Die Hard: With a Vengeance 1995, but he would later become best known for the fact that he wrote Jumanji 1995, Welcome to the Jungle 2007, *and* Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle 2019. Okay fine, that’s a fact that only I care about but come on, it’s weird right?
Winner: Pains me to say it, but Bay and friends were on the far stronger hot streak back in 1998 and are still delivering hits two decades later. Armageddon wins this round.
As mentioned above, both films are big ensemble pieces filled with recognizable faces guaranteed to leave viewers smiling. Deep Impact features James Cromwell, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Morgan Freeman, Tea Leoni, Vanessa Redgrave, Leelee Sobieski, Elijah Wood, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a film so closely associated with NBC, plenty of the network’s stars including Ron Eldard, Laura Innes, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood, Richard Schiff, and Bruce Weitz. You may not recognize their names, but you’ve seen them in ER, The West Wing, and Hill Street Blues.
Armageddon turns up the heat a bit with the likes of Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Keith David, Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Will Patton, Peter Stormare, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Bruce Willis, and Owen Wilson.
Winner: Both of these casts are fantastic and immensely appealing, but while Deep Impact‘s roster is made up of mostly supporting players and television actors, Bay’s film attracted legit movie stars *and* engaging character actors. Armageddon takes the point.
Rotten Tomatoes currently lists Deep Impact rotten at a sad 45% with an audience score falling in line at 43%. It’s unclear how many of these thoughts were made by critics and viewers looking back at the film from today’s vantage point, but as the prevailing criticism is that the movie drags and feels melodramatic I’d argue the bulk of them are doing just that. It’s far from a flashy film, and by today’s disaster picture standards some people might find it pretty damn slow too. Still, while there’s no right answer as it’s all subjective, those people are clearly wrong.
Armageddon sees a more traditional split as it’s rotten with critics at just 38% while the audience lands at a more positive 73%. That’s more in line with typical blockbuster scoring as audiences eat them up while critics stick their noses up at dumb fun, but neither of these movies should be too proud of themselves apparently.
Winner: They’re both losers, but Deep Impact is the lesser loser which makes it the winner.
Budget and Box-Office
The general belief held by many seems to be that Deep Impact was a bomb or a failure of some kind, but that’s far from the truth. The combination of DreamWorks’ tight purse strings and Leder’s experience directing television shows with tight turnarounds helped keep the budget to a mildly conservative $75 million $113m with estimated marketing. It went on to earn three times that at the box-office reaching $349m worldwide. That’s not too shabby for a movie without the draw of a movie “star” lead or an Aerosmith song.
Armageddon cost nearly twice as much with a budget of $140m $210m with marketing, and it capped out at $554m worldwide. It outgrossed Deep Impact hough it fell shy of its multiple and was the highest-grossing film worldwide and domestically for 1998. The budget balloon is explained by the presence of both Bay and Willis, but a good chunk also went to the film’s extensive visual effects.
Winner: Neither film is really a loser here, but while Deep Impact has the higher multiple Armageddon still pocketed a bigger wad of cash when all was said and done making it the clear winner.
Armageddon wins three of the five categories, but at the risk of upsetting the animal cracker lobby – and while acknowledging that it also has the better standing in pop culture and is just entertaining enough – Deep Impact is the better movie. It still delivers spectacle and death, but it’s more emotional and philosophical, it treats women better, and its story is a human one focused on the love and sacrifice that follows in the path of impending disaster. “Heroes die, but they are remembered,” says President Freeman at the end of the film, and those deaths carry more weight than the far more elaborately orchestrated and cliched drama in Bay’s film. That’s due as much to Armageddon‘s constant and frequently flat attempts at humor as it is to Bay’s flash over substance style, but either way it makes for Bayhem that’s as grating as it is fun. So yeah, Deep Impact for the win.
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