Summer thriller is long on special effects, but comes up short on issues of morals and character

There are times when contemporary Hollywood seems good only at awesome, computer-generated special effects. Certain screenplays seem conceived merely as a way to exploit this technical expertise, with the product then dumped into several thousand theaters during the summer.

Deep Impact is such a project, but director Mimi Lederer (The Peacemaker) and screenwriters Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) also try to do more than concoct thrill-seeking disaster scenes. They make each of their characters ask the question: What would you do if you had only a year left to live? The result is an uplifting, if somewhat contrived, drama of personal interactions in which the bright side of human nature manages to shine through all the catastrophes.

Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) is an ambitious researcher at MSNBC who wants to get on the air. She is bitter that her father (Maximillian Schell) has recently remarried a woman half his age, and that her mother (Vanessa Redgrave), scarred by the divorce, has taken to drink. Jenny drowns herself in work to the extent that she has nothing in her life but her career.

She believes she has the scoop on the recent resignation of the secretary of the treasury (James Cromwell). Suspecting an extramarital affair, Jenny callously confronts the man in front of his pre-adolescent daughter.

“I know you're a reporter, but you used to be a person,” he cracks, pleading with her to go away.

Jenny has stumbled onto something more important, however; what the ex-cabinet official describes as “the biggest story in history.” A year earlier, high-school science whiz, Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood), had discovered a comet heading toward earth. It's seven miles long, the size of Manhattan, and weighs 500 billion tons, about the same as Mt. Everest. The U.S. government has been secretly preparing contingency plans to survive the collision, using the code name Ellie, which Jenny wrongly assumed referred to the treasury secretary's mistress.

With Jenny forcing his hand, President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) announces that a specially constructed spaceship called Messiah is being launched to destroy the comet. It carries nuclear devices that are to be implanted deep below the surface of the celestial object and detonated. Messiah's commander is Fish Turner (Robert Duvall), a veteran of several moon landings. His youthful, multi-racial and multi-national crew believe he is too old for the mission and has been chosen mainly for public relations value.

Turner proves he has the right stuff, but Messiah's mission fails, losing one crew member (Jon Favreau) and blinding another (Ron Eldard). The explosions merely split the comet in two.

In a televised address, President Beck warns the nation that the smaller part will land in the ocean off Cape Hatteras, creating a huge tidal wave that will sweep across the eastern seaboard. The larger section will strike Canada soon thereafter and release toxic cosmic dust that will destroy all life forms on the planet within several months.

To preserve the nation, limestone caves in Missouri have been hollowed out to hold a million people — 200,000 top government officials and scientists, and 800,000 randomly selected citizens under the age of 50. The project, which has been fashioned after Noah's Ark, will also include animal and plant species that otherwise would become extinct.

President Beck concludes his address by stating, “I believe in God, and I believe he hears all prayers even when he says ‘no.‘”

Things don't look good. Thus far the filmmakers have created a hard-edged, cynical but perhaps realistic portrait of America, in which everyone looks out for number one. The media is shown to be corrupt and self-serving. The public laps up what it dishes out, and media-derived fame has become the highest value. Even its best and brightest seem uneducated, materialistic, and proud of it.

Turner complains that Messiah's young crew is “only scared about looking bad on TV.” They seem tone deaf to the larger issues involved in their mission and proud of their ignorance of literature and other non-scientific sources.

“Hey, I'm just a child of the movies,” one crew member brags.

A teammate resists being married because he doesn't like “the Church thing.”

The other characters seem just as bad. High-school classmates of Leo, the comet's discoverer, are impressed more by the fact he's a celebrity than by what he accomplished to get all the attention. Jenny, who becomes the network's anchor after her big scoop, seems a shallow narcissist. Both she and her parents are unable to relate to the pain of others.

The possibility of end times brings out the spirit of self-sacrifice in all the major players though, and the audience is swept up in the suspense because initial expectations were that everyone would behave badly. Turner is able to inspire his crew to undertake one final, possibly suicidal mission; Leo, who's been chosen for the Noah's Ark project, refuses to save himself until his true love (Leelee Sobieski) has been taken care of; and Jenny shows that beneath her hard-charging exterior she has both a heart and a conscience.

Deep Impact gives us plenty to cheer for, but it all seems too easy. When confronted with major crisis, none of the characters is tempted to do evil. What's more, despite all the religious nomenclature (the Messiah mission, Noah's Ark project, etc.), none of the spiritual issues involved in a consideration of the apocalypse is explored in any depth.

The filmmakers succeed in taking the meteor-disaster genre beyond its B-movie origins (When Worlds Collide and The Day of the Triffids), but whether the world ends in a whimper or a bang, difficult moral decisions must be faced. Deep Impact speeds past them to get to its mind-blowing special effects and its carefully contrived melodramatic climaxes.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

Deep Impact is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.