Wednesday, May 11, 2011

ELE vs. EE

This is the story of how two acronyms denoting the apocalypse, each prominently using the letter E, chilled me to the bone.


Last night I watched Deep Impact for the first time since the late 1990s, and I'm happy to say it really held up. Held up? some of you will ask, since you're probably of the opinion that the movie didn't hold up even back in 1998.

Well, you're wrong, and part of that may be because you lump it in with Armageddon as one of the two asteroid movies that came out in 1998. But aside from the fact that both movies feature a deadly asteroid hurtling toward earth, and both movies feature teams of astronauts trying to drill nuclear devices into these asteroids to blow them apart, Deep Impact and Armageddon couldn't be more different. While Michael Bay's movie is all about jingoism, machismo and action, Mimi Leder's movie is actually a drama set against the potential end of the world, supported more by acting and characterization than by big set pieces. (Though it does have a really big one at the end, and it's worth the wait.)

But I think part of the reason I was more primed to enjoy Deep Impact than Armageddon, even back when I watched them both for the first time (and only time for Armageddon, I can guarantee you), comes down to a little three-letter phrase from the beginning of Deep Impact that always chilled me: ELE.

You see, a reporter played by Tea Leoni (who's quite good in this film) gets wind of what she thinks is a scandal involving a cabinet member having an affair with a woman named "Ellie." It turns out, Ellie is not a person but an acronym, ELE. She and the president (Morgan Freeman, great as usual), who she's quite surprised to see after being essentially kidnapped by FBI agents, have an entire conversation about ELE without being on the same page -- he thinks she knows that the earth is going to be hit by an asteroid, she thinks he's stalling and covering up a sex scandal. However, the movie's not trying to make her out to be a dummy -- she catches the president say "Ee-El-Ee" rather than "Ellie," and she realizes everything is not what she originally surmised. She does the 1998 equivalent of a Google search (the difference in technology reminded me how far we've come in 13 years) and finally comes up with the following meaning for ELE:

Extinction Level Event.

Did you just get the same chills I got?

There are few three-word phrases that can more quickly convey the gravity of a situation than "extinction level event." Like, this shit that's going to happen is going to wipe out everybody -- all humans. And who knows how many other species as well. And you can pretty much forget about the plants. The rocks may be okay, and possible the water.

Better get those astronauts on that shuttle to try to blow up that rock.

It wasn't until watching last night, however, that I realized that ELE shares letters with another acronym, this time only two words, that I saw in the movie Knowing two years ago. That also chilled me to the core in that context, in another movie dealing with the potential end of the earth.

Knowing is definitely a more ridiculous movie than Deep Impact, so I won't try to wade into its plot or fact-check myself for accuracy. But suffice it to say that Nicolas Cage's character has found, in a time capsule from the 1950s, a series of numbers that appear to be predictions of disasters around the world, incidents in which a significant number of people (more than 20) die. These handwritten predictions show the date and then the number of people who die in each incident, including such famous incidents as September 11th. However, the numbers run out at some point. The last date -- a date still in the future of the movie's present tense -- shows the date in question and then the number 33.

Except it isn't the number 33. It's the letters EE. Cage's character reads it as 33 because it's consistent with the pattern, where all the other incidents include only numbers and no letters.

But he eventually figures out what EE stands for, and I'm again getting chills as I write this:

Everyone Else.

That's right, on the last date predicted, an event occurs in which everyone else on the planet will die.

Everyone Else. The biggest number there is.

The woman who discovered this pattern of disaster and death went crazy. They find a room where she stayed, where every surface in the room was covered with the scrawled letters "EE" and the scrawled words "Everyone Else." Wouldn't you go crazy, if you discovered a pattern of death that continued to prove its 100% accuracy over the course of time, and the last incident involved the death of all human beings?

I would.

Damn, maybe I should watch this movie again this week as well.

I want to end with a few more words about why I like Deep Impact so much. It could be the feminine sensibilities director Mimi Leder brought to the project, but it's the best kind of disaster movie -- one where getting to know and care about the characters is of paramount importance, not showing explosions or other types of destruction. And in order to do that better, they cast good actors, actors who can actually make you feel.

One of the reasons I wanted to revisit this movie is because I did feel when I first saw it -- I felt a lot. In fact, I don't (but probably should) mind telling you that I got a little teary during Deep Impact. Not once, but several times.

Over the years since then, I decided that I must have been caught in an emotionally vulnerable place in my life, and that the movie couldn't be both as subtle and as affecting as I remembered it. Nope, wrong. It is subtle, and it is affecting. I'm pretty sure the same moments that got me last time got me again (more spoilers):

1) When Leoni's reporter (now anchor) reads on the air that no one over the age of 50 will be part of the lottery to see who gets government protection in underground caves. She's just been handed this text for the first time on air, and she pauses after reading the sentence, realizing what it means. Leoni doesn't go to some big emotion, she just sits there, looking down, thinking about what she's just said. Leder stages this scene perfectly, because we see it from the perspective of her mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who's watching her daughter read the announcement on her home TV. Redgrave doesn't go to a big emotion either, she just shifts her body in a way that indicates she knows what this means: She will not survive the asteroid strike. I tell ya, that combination really got me.

2) When Leoni gives up her spot on the helicopter to her friend and mentor, played by Laura Innes. The look of gratitude on Innes' face on the other side of the helicopter window, as it lifts into the air, at this moment that they know they'll never see each other again, is priceless. Sure, this moment or a moment like it occurs in hundreds of movies involving life-and-death scenarios. It's a tribute to these actors and this director that they got it just right in this one.

3) When the teenager played by Leelee Sobieski must make a split-second departure from her parents, just hours before the asteroid is set to strike. The amateur astronomer who discovered the asteroid (Elijah Wood), who's Sobieski's neighbor and new husband (they married so she could be saved along with him), has made a selfless trip on motorcycle back to find his wife. When the military convoy came to pick them up, she impulsively stayed with her parents after they weren't on "the list." Now he's come back for her, and her parents make her go with him, and take her baby brother/sister, knowing that it's their children's only chance to survive. Sobieski is wonderful in this anguished scene, where you realize how young she is -- "No, Mommy, I don't want to go!" Her frantic tears are just the kind of thing you can imagine happening in a moment when you have to leave your family, now, and you know you will never see them again. You don't even have time to formulate a proper goodbye. I was probably struck more by this scene even than I was the first time, now that I'm a parent. As her parents watch her disappear on the back of the motorcycle, it's devastating. Her mother breaks down in tears and her father, barely holding them back himself, hugs her from behind. It's emotional gold.

Going even further than recommending Deep Impact, I'm going to say that it should be used by any filmmaker trying to make an effects movie without sacrificing character. I've just hit on three really good, really gut-punching moments, but the whole thing is remarkable for its ability to involve you in the inner lives of its characters. It's not what studio execs demand first and foremost from a movie like this, but maybe they should.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out so well for Deep Impact -- it made $60 million less domestically than Bay's emotionally fraudulent competitor, and Leder has only directed two features since then: the 2000 flop Pay It Forward (talk about emotionally fraudulent), and the 2009 film Thick as Thieves, which also features Morgan Freeman.

Well, it had a deep impact on me, at least.

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