Hollywood ripping itself off is nothing new. In fact, at this very moment, we have two Jungle Book movies in production, and no less than four takes on Robin Hood in development at various studios. Of course it’s only natural for competition to set in when a “hot” idea gets traction, though some similarly plotted films are borne out of more duplicitous motives than others (see: Antz vs. A Bugs Life).
But one of the most memorable “dueling movies” of the past couple decades came in 1998, which saw the release of two films in which an object from space is hurtling towards Earth, and only a team of astronauts can stop it. It’s fitting, then, that we look back on this event today, since Deep Impact was released in theaters exactly 17 years ago on May 7, 1998.
Directed by Mimi Leder, who was just coming off her 1997 feature directorial debut The Peacemaker, Deep Impact found Earth in the path of an impending comet. To prevent the impact, a team of astronauts were sent to plant nuclear bombs on the object, thus breaking it up and avoiding catastrophe. This is essentially the plot of Michael Bay’s Armageddon as well, although Deep Impact made a point to follow a number of different characters on the ground whereas Armageddon was primarily focused on the team of men sent to destroy the object (in that case, an asteroid). Also, animal crackers.
Deep Impact is not a great movie, but it’s an interesting one. Leder was under the wire to get the film finished before Armageddon so that Paramount could release its disaster movie two months ahead of Bay’s film. Both movies were rushed, so much so that Bay claims his visual effects supervisor had a nervous breakdown and Bay ended up overseeing the effects of Armageddon himself. Indeed, just two months before the release of Armageddon its budget was expanded to include more special effects in order to further differentiate the film from Deep Impact.
Despite near identical premises, the two movies are different in significant ways. Instead of teasing the buildup and ending with the day having been saved, Deep Impact delivers on the promise of its title by ending with the impact of a smaller portion of the comet in the Atlantic Ocean, setting off a devastating effect on various continents. It also features a much more varied cast than Armageddon, with Tea Leoni, Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman, Leelee Sobieski, and Elijah Wood filling out the ensemble, whereas Bay’s film is Testosterone Central.
In the end, while Deep Impact was a fair success (it grossed $349.4 million worldwide) and enjoyed more positive reviews than Armageddon, it was no match at the box office for Michael Bay’s explosion-filled disaster pic, which raked in over $550 million worldwide. Armageddon would go on to become the highest grossing film of 1998, entering the pop culture lexicon as a far-fetched, cheesy, but somewhat amusing blockbuster, while Deep Impact has been largely forgotten.
Leder would scale things back for her follow-up, the 2000 drama Pay It Forward, while Bay doubled-down and melded his blockbuster sensibilities with a “serious drama” in Pearl Harbor. Neither film was warmly received by critics.
Deep Impact isn’t necessarily a memorable film, but it’s a strong reminder of one of the most contentious and blatant instances of “twin movies” in recent memory.