‘Deep Impact,’ ‘Armageddon’: How two ’98 movies tackled doom from above

25 summers ago, filmgoers had their choice of cataclysmic comet movies — one with big stars and big noise, the other smarter and better.

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A massive tsunami hits shore in “Deep Impact.”

Paramount Pictures

In May of 1998, the Earth was about to be destroyed by an enormous comet headed straight for us. Our hopes and prayers resided with the likes of Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner, Cmdr. Oren Monash, Dr. Gus Partenza, Andy Baker and Mark Simon as they embarked on a mission to destroy the comet in outer space.

We barely survived that one, albeit with heavy casualties—and then, less than two months later, the Earth was about to be destroyed AGAIN by an enormous comet headed straight for us. This time, our hopes and prayers resided with the likes of Harry Stamper, A.J. Frost, Chick Chapel, Oscar Choice, Col. Willie Sharp and Bear Curlene as they embarked on a mission to destroy the comet in outer space.

What in the wide world of disaster movies was even happening!We’re approaching the 25th anniversary of the most famous case of Dueling Movies in Hollywood history: the release of Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact” on May 8, 1998, followed by the premiere of Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” on July 1 of that year. The Dueling Movies phenomenon occurs when two films with similar subjects are released in the same year, and it goes all the way back to 1930s Hollywood and “The Rise of Catherine the Great” and “The Scarlett Empress” in 1934. A partial list of the many, many other instances of Dueling Movies would include “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” (1997), “Antz” and “A Bug’s Life” (1998), “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige” (2006) and “Friends With Benefits” and “No Strings Attached” (2011), and to this day I know Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher starred in those latter two films, but I have to stop for a moment to remember which pairing occurred in which movie.

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Steve Buscemi (from left), Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ben Affleck and Owen Wilson play oil drillers sent into space to destroy and approaching comet in “Armageddon.”

Touchstone Pictures

There’s no doubt “Armageddon” left a bigger footprint than “Deep Impact” on the Pop Culture Surface and it’s easy to understand why, what with the star power of Bruce Willis, the typically bombastic and commercially viable style of Michael Bay, the old-fashioned, American Cowboys Save the Day plot line and let’s not forget Aerosmith’s monster power ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It was a giant cinematic amusement park ride that was scientifically ludicrous, filled with explosions and shamelessly corny dialogue. Little wonder it was a huge hit, grossing $201 million domestically and another $350 million worldwide.

This doesn’t mean “Deep Impact” was a bomb, so to speak, as it pulled in some $350 million worldwide. It’s also a superior film on just about every level, from the screenplay to the direction to the editing to the special effects to the performances. Whereas “Armageddon” was all about the needle drops and the bombs bursting in air and the overwrought moments, “Deep Impact” spent more time with the human interest stories back home than it did in outer space, and while it might not have been totally grounded in reality, it at least had respect for the science, and we felt as if we were watching real people with actual lives, not sweaty cartoon characters.

Still. Having just emerged from a double-feature re-watch, I can’t deny the sheer, leave-logic-at-the-door, entertainment value of “Armageddon,” whereas “Deep Impact” ladles on the self-importance to the point where even President Morgan Freeman looked like he was tired of doling out bad news to the nation as the orchestra swelled with heart-tugging music. (My final vote still rests with “Impact.”)

Let’s take a look at the different ways in which these two explosive blockbusters took on those pesky comets.

Opening credits

“Armageddon” begins with a voice-over from Charlton Heston saying, “This is the Earth at a time when the dinosaurs roamed a lush and fertile planet. A piece of rock just 6 miles wide changed all that.”

Chuck then warns us, “It happened before, it will happen again, it’s just a question of when,” followed by the title card for “Armageddon,” which actually ignites, explodes and shatters to pieces. The tone has been set!

“Deep Impact” begins with the title card slowly dissolving into the heavens as we hear the ethereal, almost magical sounds of an orchestra, as if something world-shattering is about to occur. Nobody reads us any history lessons about that time when the dinosaurs were destroyed. The tone has been set.

Listen to the music

The first song we hear in “Armageddon” is “Swarfega 340 (Minimum Mix)” by Chris Liberator & DJ Chino & Darc Marc, which accompanies Eddie Griffin’s loud and obnoxious monologue as he bicycles into Manhattan and he and his dog are nearly killed by a chunk of meteor. In addition to the aforementioned “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” we hear a number of other Aerosmith songs in “Armageddon,” as well as Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away,” ZZ Top’s “La Grange” and Journey’s “Remember Me.”

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Elijah Wood plays a young amateur astronomer who discovers the approaching comet in “Deep Impact.”

Paramount Pictures

The first song we hear in “Deep Impact” is “La Bohème: Act IV: O Mimi, tu più non torni,” as Charles Martin Smith’s astronomer realizes a photo sent to him by amateur astronomer Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) is in fact a comet on a collision course with the Earth. “Deep Impact” eschews the Top 40 soundtrack and the booming score of “Armageddon” in favor of the majestic, orchestral compositions of the late and legendary James Horner (“Titanic,” “Aliens,” “Braveheart,” “A Beautiful Mind.”)

Round ‘em up!

After NASA executive director Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) explains the mission to Willis’ Harry Stamper and Harry says they gotta replace the astronauts with his own men, we get a montage of the FBI rounding up Harry’s men — and because this is a Michael Bay film and he’s always looking for excuses for splashy, sun-dappled, elaborate action sequences, the montage includes scenes of Michael Clarke Duncan’s Bear speeding madly on a chopper as squad cars and a helicopter zero in on him, and Owen Wilson’s Oscar on horseback on a ranch in Texas, desperately trying to elude the helicopters bearing down on HIM. There’s absolutely no reason for such dramatics, given Harry is already at NASA and on board with the plan. Just leave a few messages and maybe send over one or two agents in a car to knock on a door, right? But you can’t show that type of sequence to the tune of Aerosmith’s rockin’ cover of “Come Together.”

That’s my president

In “Armageddon,” the venerable character actor Stanley Anderson plays the president of the United States — a role Anderson had played in Michael Bay’s “The Rock” two years earlier. That’s right, “The Rock” and “Armageddon” exist in the same universe.

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Morgan Freeman (left, with O’Neal Compton) plays the president in “Deep Impact.”

Paramount Pictures

In “Deep Impact,” Morgan Freeman is the president, and he’s pretty much the greatest commander-in-chief ever in a disaster movie this side of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore in “Independence Day.”

Say what now?

After the surviving heroes have landed back home in “Armageddon,” we’re treated to one of the most quoted and most ridiculous lines in the entire movie: “Miss Stamper? Col. Willie Sharp, United States Air Force, ma’am. Requesting the permission to shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I’ve ever met.” It’s a wonder Grace didn’t say, “Can you repeat that? I’m a little lost here.”

Daddy issues

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Grace (Liv Tyler) and A.J. (Ben Affleck) fall in love in “Armageddon.”

Touchstone Pictures

In “Armageddon,” there’s no logical reason for Harry Stamper’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) to be on that oil rig, where she winds up sleeping with and falling in love with that rascal A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck). Even more insane is Harry chasing A.J. around the rig while firing multiple blasts from a shotgun. On an oil rig. With dozens of crew members everywhere.

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As she reports on the looming doomsday, Jenny (Tea Leoni) also deals with her estranged father (Maximilian Schell) in “Deep Impact.}

Paramount Pictures

Less dramatic but equally questionable is the “Deep Impact” daughter-daddy dynamic between Téa Leoni’s Jenny and her estranged father Jason (Maximilian Schell). Jenny is a reporter/producer for MSNBC who seems to be in her early 30s, but when she learns the world is coming to an end, she meets her father and his new bride (Rya Kihlstedt), downs a martini in one gulp and says, “Dad, you need to get back together with mom.” Later in the story, Jenny tells her father, “I feel like an orphan.”

Jenny! You gotta move on from these issues!

Spoiler alert: Jenny gives up on an evacuation helicopter and joins her father on the beach, embracing him and saying, “Daddy,” just before they’re engulfed by a tidal wave. It’s arguably the most moving moment in either movie, leaving, well, quite the deep impact on us.

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