Deep Impact vs. Armageddon: 1998's box office space race

1998 was the battle of duelling asteroid movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. (Paramount/Touchstone)
1998 was the battle of duelling asteroid movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. (Paramount/Touchstone)

By most measures, Deep Impact is only America’s second-favourite asteroid movie of 1998, but it’s more than just a couple of months that set it apart from Armageddon.

Released in May and July respectively, Deep Impact and Armageddon both centre on the United States’ reaction to potential planet-killing comets that are set to crash into Earth. Both films were big hits in the summer of 1998, but inarguably, it was director Michael Bay’s film that struck the jackpot with its preposterous blockbuster story of oil drillers learning to be astronauts in time to save the world.

Melodrama is unavoidable, but in the shadow of Bayhem and its blue-collar, can-do approach to the cold, hard enormity of human extinction, a more restrained approach was always going to be under-appreciated.

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Of the two, Armageddon can’t be beaten on blockbusting spectacle and emotion, but taken apart from the strange clash of subjects upon its original release, Deep Impact stands on its own dramatic merits.

Elijah Wood starred in Deep Impact. (Paramount)

At the start of the film, young Leo Beidermann (Elijah Wood) and astronomer Dr Wolf (Charles Martin Smith) spot an object in space. One year later, TV journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) follows what she believes is a bog-standard gossip item all the way to the White House and discovers that the Wolf-Biedermann comet is a potential planet-killer... and it’s just one year away from crashing into Earth.

Both movies are ensemble pieces, but where Armageddon is a rip-roaring action extravaganza, Deep Impact focuses on its Earthbound anxieties, even when its own daring space mission slips the surly bounds of the drama down below.

However, there was arguably more at stake for fledgling studio DreamWorks Pictures than there was for the Disney-backed blockbuster.

When scripts collide

Jon Favreau, Mary McCormack, Alexander Baluev, Ron Eldard, Robert Duvall, and Blair Underwood in 1998's Deep Impact. (Paramount)

In Deep Impact, the US plan to avert an extinction-level event is twofold, and funnily enough, the script was a combination of two other scripts in development – a long-gestating remake of the 1951 disaster movie When Worlds Collide, and an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1993 novel The Hammer Of God, which Steven Spielberg optioned soon after it was published.

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If you’ve seen the resulting film, you might guess that each takes a different approach to their respective extinction-level events, both of which inform the contingencies set out by US President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman).

The Hammer Of God charts an attempt to blow an asteroid off-course with nuclear thermal rockets, whereas When Worlds Collide is a sci-fi riff on a Noah’s Ark story, portraying the efforts to get randomly selected humans to safety before Earth is destroyed by a rogue star.

Morgan Freeman with producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Morgan Freeman with Deep Impact producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck (Getty Images)

When Jaws producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown approached Spielberg in a bid to spring the When Worlds Collide project from development hell at Paramount, the director decided to join forces with the producers and merge the two projects into one at DreamWorks.

After various drafts throughout the 1990s, Deep Impact was eventually credited to co-writers Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and Michael Tolkin (The Player). Although both When Worlds Collide and The Hammer Of God were mentioned in the marketing for the film, neither was acknowledged in Deep Impact’s story credits, as it was judged the script had travelled far enough from both.

Meanwhile, Spielberg intended to direct the film himself, but his dance card was remarkably full in the latter half of the 1990s. As well as directing Amistad and Saving Private Ryan for his new studio, DreamWorks Pictures, he was also committed to making The Lost World: Jurassic Park for Universal.

In the end, it was another clash that forced Spielberg to change his plans.

Space race

(L/R) Actor Steve Buscemi, producerJerry Bruckheimer, Liv Tyler, Bruce Willis and director Michael Bay at a photocall for theIr new blockbuster, Armageddon, on the beach at Cannes, France, during the 51st Cannes Film Festival.   (Photo by Neil Munns - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Steve Buscemi, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Liv Tyler, Bruce Willis and director Michael Bay at a photocall for Armageddon during the 51st Cannes Film Festival. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Famously, what kickstarted development on Deep Impact was Disney and Touchstone Pictures announcing another asteroid movie, Michael Bay’s Armageddon, for a summer 1998 release. At that time, Spielberg was busy directing the three aforementioned movies back-to-back-to-back, so the producers hired Mimi Leder to make it instead.

Leder was still completing work on DreamWorks’ first theatrical release, 1997’s The Peacemaker, when she agreed to direct. And as the Hollywood space race emerged, the filmmaker wound up turning the film around quite quickly and on an $80-million budget, compared to Armageddon’s whopping $140m price tag.

Mimi Leder Film: Deep Impact (1998)   Director: Mimi Leder 07 May 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of DREAMWORKS and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To DREAMWORKS is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Mimi Leder on the set of Deep Impact. (Dreamworks/Alamy)

The director has spoken in the past about how the budget prevented her from incorporating a global outlook. Indeed, in Deep Impact’s audio commentary, she compares the filming of this tentpole drama to making five smaller films, as principal photography ran from June to September 1997, moving from one aspect of the sprawling plot to the next.

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There were post-production hiccups when Leder’s first cut was screened for executives at Paramount, which co-produced and distributed the project, and it reportedly didn’t go down well.

Jon Favreau in a scene from 1998's Deep Impact. (Alamy)

In his capacity as an executive producer and a major stakeholder in DreamWorks, Spielberg was hands-on in giving notes and Leder worked to the last minute to get his suggested pick-up shots in the can in time for the film’s release in May 1998.

With the unpopular 165-minute test-screening cut condensed to a neat 121-minute theatrical cut, Deep Impact outperformed expectations both critically and commercially. With a worldwide total of $349.5m, it wasn’t as big a box-office hit as Armageddon, (which topped the global box-office for 1998 taking $554m) but then as should be obvious by now, the films take two very different paths to their similar subjects.

USA. Steve Buscemi, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, Ken Hudson Campbell, Greg Collins, Anthony Guidera, Grayson McCouch, and Ian Quinn in a scene from the (C)Buena Vista Pictures film : Armageddon (1998).  Plot: After discovering that an asteroid the size of Texas will impact Earth in less than a month, NASA recruits a misfit team of deep-core drillers to save the planet. Director: Michael Bay  Ref: LMK110-J8205-050822 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service onl
Armageddon saw a team of oil drillers travelling into space to defeat an asteroid. (Alamy)

Suitably enough, Deep Impact is a disaster movie of two clean halves, bittersweetly exploring both the hopes and fears of its apocalyptic premise.

Granted, its more limited VFX budget limits the impossibly big climax to one sequence, but there’s no shame in finishing second in that big, unexpected 1998 space race when it finds its memorable moments elsewhere.

Deep Impact is available to buy or rent on VOD. Armageddon is streaming on Disney+.