A comet is heading for Earth - and it's big enough to spell disaster for all life on the planet if it strikes. As the US president launches a desperate last-minute bid by NASA to blow up the comet, Earth prepares for the worst, taking refuge in caves and where they can...
Pairing George Clooney and trail-blazing director Mimi Leder (longtime collaborators on ER) on The Peacemaker seemed about as close to a surefire hit as possible for DreamWorks SKG's debut production last year. But the result somehow failed to light up the sky. Which rather left the studio still anxious to score. This time, though, while the planet's plight may be even bleaker, a plot of high drama dripped through intensely personal strata provides Leder with much more scope.
Lovelorn teen Leo Beiderman (Wood) joins his high-school astronomy class after going starry-eyed over fellow student Sarah Hotchner (Leelee Sobieski), only to spot a heavenly body that'll make the earth move for everybody. All at once. In the wake of volcanoes and alien invasions, the cinematic theme du jour has careering comets on collision course: Earth. And before Bruce Willis tried his luck in Armageddon, US President Morgan Freeman announces Uncle Sam's fail-safe measures.
First up, careworn and improbably named astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Duvall) has been fished out of retirement to join the comet-cracking crew of a joint Russo-American spaceship dubbed Messiah. As their mission entails an unprecedented landing on the rock to bury nukes, further contingencies are planned. Namely, a warren of caves back on Earth loaded with tuck, designed to sustain a million people for two years while the dust settles - 200,000 boffins already selected plus 800,000 lucky Americans who'll be joining the chosen through a national lottery. There is, rest assured, no sign of Anthea Turner.
Blending the epic with the intimate is never an easy feat, and to achieve sufficient emotional impact amid the widescale issue of entire species snuff-out, the audience has to care about the characters by the time doom looms. Despite solid enough stuff from Freeman, Wood and Duvall, only Tea Leoni's rising reporter - who springs the story - enjoys enough screen time to make any sort of connection. But such failure is nevertheless largely admirable, symptomatic of an attempt to meld graphic realisation of the Extinction Level Event, while asking whether mankind would lose its humanity under the shadow of apocalypse, and doing all of this within a tight two-hour movie, not a sprawling, self-indulgent butt-buster.
Around the serious "issues" of course, special effects do have their place, and these are sometimes awesome, sometimes pretty ordinary. A spectacular bundle of tricks is unleashed in the finale, guaranteed to prompt jaw/carpet interface but a questionable comet-surface scene has our doughty defenders attempting to plant nukes by leaping about an original series Star Trek set streaming with dry ice. And while straining for the most part to preserve scientific credibility, NASA's highly trained team go about their illogical rescue bid with a gung-ho attitude to maximise viewer thrills.
The subject matter can't fail to make you think about your own reaction to such a crisis, and Leder has packaged the premise in a way that's never boring and frequently telling. An uneven but worthy watch then, hampered only by the high-flown intent being just too tall an order.