Don’t look up: Close encounters of the disaster movie kind

This is not a movie. Or a drill press.

But no worry. Apparently we have. Or at least NASA has.

On Monday, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft is scheduled to collide with Dimorphos, a small “moon” orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Didymos. NASA’s big idea here is to see if using such unmanned hardware to clear incoming space debris will protect Earth in the future.

It’s admirable, but somehow it feels a little draining after decades of films I call “Chicken Little” in which humanity is threatened from above by cosmic disorder that can only be reasoned away by drastic means.

you know the routine Someone finds definite evidence of a) an asteroid, b) a meteor, c) a comet, d) a rogue moon, or e) an entire planet approaching us. Who believes these warnings? Exactly nobody, until the sky is riddled with frenzied debris, skid and shoot from the threatening object. Then we either a) panic, b) submit, or c) fly some of our own humans over there to save us all.

Consider the most recent example of this subgenre, Don’t Look Up. Writer-director Adam McKay’s unruly political satire, which released in theaters and Netflix last year, is triggered by two Michigan State University astronomers (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) discovering a comet that appeared out of nowhere appears to be happening and within six months will collide with our planet hard enough to wipe out all life.
The satire "Don't look up"  shows Jennifer Lawrence, second from left, and Leonardo DiCaprio, far right at far back, as astronomers trying to warn officials about a comet on a collision course with Earth.

Their findings initially provoked disbelief and even ridicule from the government and the media. But once the inevitability sets in, the world in general, and the United States in particular, is embracing the crisis as it seems to be blending with everything else in the 21st. It’s enough to make you think that the world as we know it , has already gone under before it does.

The looming apocalypse has always been a useful metaphor for our seemingly inevitable folly. (Shouts “Dr. Strangelove”?) But we haven’t always been so cynical about confronting natural disasters from space. As late as the turn of the century, we were so solemnly and single-mindedly confident in our abilities to meet threats from above that at times it was, well, ridiculous.

In 1998, multiplexes had not one, but two big fat “Chicken Little” blockbusters: Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact.”

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The former, whose threat was a Texas asteroid, was an overflowing, bombastic action-thriller teeming with broad humor and even broader set pieces, barely giving viewers time to catch their breath.

Which will be visible when the DART spacecraft crashes into a tiny asteroid

The latter film, whose threat, like Don’t Look Up, was a comet, was a more serious, carefully composed, and far less edgy twist on that theme.

Both did well at the box office, although Bey’s bombastic epic grossed about $554 million, while Leder’s more thoughtful thriller grossed about $350 million, according to website Box Office Mojo.

“Armageddon” manages the danger by fielding a couple of space shuttles (remember them?) manned by crack oil drilling teams, the crackest of whom is Bruce Willis, who plays Harry Stamper neck-deep in John Wayne mode sits. His motley support comes from the likes of Billy Bob Thornton (by far the coolest cat in the room as a NASA executive), Steve Buscemi, Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, Peter Stormare (short-tempered as the only guy left one Russian Space Station), Ben Affleck (who is dating Willis’ daughter, much to his father’s displeasure), and Liv Tyler (the daughter).

'Don't Look Up' delivers a scathing satire that occasionally strays off course

The complications and quirks of these and other characters linger around long enough to distract us from watching parts of Manhattan and all of Paris being leveled by parts of the asteroid.

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The main character of Deep Impact is an investigative television reporter (Téa Leoni) who believes she has implicated a cabinet member in a sex scandal, but finds out that the US President (Morgan Freeman, of course) is about to announce that the comet mentioned above is on a year-long collision course with Earth. They try everything, including a space shuttle commanded by Robert Duvall, loaded with nuclear weapons, to deflect the comet’s trajectory.

Robert Duvall, right, with Ron Eldard, commands a spacecraft attempting to plant nuclear weapons on a comet in Deep Impact.  (1998),

So, in what version of impending extinction can we get on with our lives? That would spoil things for those who haven’t seen either film. All we can say for sure is that the science in Deep Impact is far more reliable and trustworthy than it was in Armageddon. Or, by the way, in “Don’t Look Up”. Draw your own conclusions from this.

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By the way, I bet you’re wondering if a full-length Chicken Little movie was ever made. There sure was a digitally animated movie released by Disney (sans Pixar) in 2005. This version begins with the titular character getting hit on the head by what he thinks is a piece of heaven. After panic sets in everywhere, the “piece of heaven” is identified as an acorn, making Chicken Little a laughingstock for months until he finds unexpected redemption at the hands of another, more menacing, falling piece of alien spacecraft. All I’m going to say here is that it sounds a lot more interesting than the movie turned out to be.

The title character in the 2005 animated film Chicken Little is ridiculed after warning that the sky is falling.

If the real DART completes its mission, maybe we can relax more when asteroids get too close. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the films will abandon the “Chicken Little” themes entirely.

After all, the reason why the original “The sky is falling!” The phrase, passed down from generation to generation, is that at some point, the story revolves around whether we earthlings believe or, worse, worry that a cataclysm may be imminent.

Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, film, and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour.

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