A tale of two space rocks: The year 'Deep Impact' and 'Armageddon' smashed onto the silver screen

Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998) movie posters side by side.
Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998) movie posters side by side. (Image credit: Touchstone Pictures/Paramount Pictures)

1998 was a bad year to be planet Earth. Call it a quirk of fate, call it multiple Hollywood studios having the same idea at the same time, but somehow humanity found itself on a collision course with two oversized lumps of rock and ice. One was a comet named Wolf-Biederman, the other an asteroid known simply as Dottie, and each had the potential to wipe out all life as we know it. Just two years after "Independence Day" had rained down an apocalypse from giant alien spaceships, watching the skies remained seriously bad for your health.

First to arrive in Earth's orbit was "Deep Impact", followed two months later by "Armageddon." Like "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano" – a pair of disaster-tinged Hollywood doppelgangers that landed the previous year – the two movies looked remarkably similar on paper. 

However, despite both films featuring missions to avert the apocalypse via the use of nuclear weapons and similar musings on mortality, they couldn't have taken more contrasting approaches to the end of the world (and only one of them had a smash hit theme song from Aerosmith).

In Armageddon (1998), parts of the impending asteroid strike Paris. (Image credit: Touchstone Pictures)

Both "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" were perfectly timed to capitalize on Hollywood's pre-millennial taste for destruction, as filmmakers relished the opportunity to throw epic budgets at killer viruses ("Outbreak"), volcanoes ("Dante's Peak," "Volcano"), extreme winds ("Twister") and giant, city-stomping lizards ("Godzilla"). Besides, by 1998, nearly two decades had passed since a post-James Bond Sean Connery had battled a rogue asteroid of his own in the largely forgettable "Meteor" (1979). In other words, there was a crater-sized gap in the market, so it's really not surprising that two blockbusters stepped in to fill the void.

Related: Best sci-fi movies of all time

Looking back with 2023 eyes, a quick skim of the respective call sheets tells you everything you need to know about the chalk-and-cheese nature of the movies. In the director's chair for "Deep Impact" was Mimi Leder, a respected T.V. veteran who was one of the leading lights on "ER" and had made her feature debut the previous year with "The Peacemaker," a George Clooney/Nicole Kidman vehicle most notable for being the first ever release from Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio.

The cast was a mix of respected Oscar-friendly veterans (Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell), familiar faces from "ER" (Ron Eldard, Laura Innes) and several up-and-comers (including a pre-"The Lord of the Rings" Elijah Wood and future "The Mandalorian" creator Jon Favreau). It also had the good sense to cast Morgan Freeman as U.S. president Tom Beck – announcements about the world's imminent demise go down much easier when they're delivered by that voice.

From left to right: Jon Favreau, Mary McCormack, Aleksandr Baluev, Ron Eldard, Robert Duvall, and Blair Underwood and in Deep Impact (1998). (Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

As you'd expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie (the uber-producer who, along with his late partner Don Simpson, had turned slick blockbuster action into an artform with the likes of "Top Gun," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Crimson Tide"), everything about "Armageddon" was just, well, bigger. 

Behind the camera was Michael Bay, the former music video director who'd worked with Bruckheimer on "Bad Boys" and "The Rock," and whose signature overblown, slow-mo heavy style would go on to define the "Transformers" franchise. In hindsight, the presence of a certain J.J. Abrams as a co-screenwriter – a filmmaker who's rarely let logic get in the way of a good story – was also an indication of things to come.

The cast was similarly A-list. Back in 1998, stars didn't come much bigger than Bruce Willis, and he was joined by two of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood in the form of Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. The supporting cast was populated by a bunch of credible indie stars – such as Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare – who were just as likely to be seen in a Coen brothers’ film as a summer tentpole. The production even hired the legendary Charlton Heston to deliver a brief opening narration about the dinosaurs' own close encounter with a meteorite 65 million years ago.

Bruce Willis was a big star name in the 90s. In Armageddon (1998), he plays the role of oil driller Harry Stamper. (Image credit: Touchstone Pictures)

All that megawatt star power was entirely appropriate seeing as "Armageddon" is built around spectacle and shameless, popcorn-friendly entertainment. From space shuttles that fly like X-Wings to meteorite fragments blessed with the uncanny ability to crash into famous landmarks, the script had clearly never been anywhere near an astrophysics textbook. Indeed, the movie took such a loose approach to the science of the situation that NASA has reportedly used as a tool to help train engineers in what not to do. It’s safe to say that Armageddon did not make it onto our 5 most realistic space movies list.

Although sending a team of rough-and-ready oil drillers (with zero flight training) into space makes no logical sense, somehow it works in the context of the movie's implausible quasi-sci-fi world, where every action is accompanied by a wisecrack and problems are generally fixed with a generous helping of deus ex machina. Even more importantly, Harry Stamper (Willis) and his team come over as cartoonish-but-relatable everymen, even in the midst of their impossible mission to split Dottie in two by planting a nuke at its core.

With the possible exception of Morgan Freeman's aforementioned commander-in-chief, there isn't a single character in "Deep Impact" who lingers in the memory. In a plotline that evaporates away into oblivion, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) is simply a hack from the standard Hollywood mold. She just happens to stumble on the story of the century – and, let's be honest, all time – when the White House sex scandal she's investigating turns out to be a cover for an extinction level event. Meanwhile, the astronauts entrusted to save us all by launching into space on the "Messiah" clearly have the right stuff, but none of them – not even Duvall's former Moon lander Spurgeon Tanner – has an ounce of personality. Even "Armageddon"'s clunky Animal Cracker sex scene is preferable to "Deep Impact"'s relentless onslaught of bland.

Deep Impact (1998) feels like it is more in touch with real life. (Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

"Deep Impact" also plays out more like a T.V. movie than its rival, with pokier, clearly studio-based sets, and – on the rare occasions we get to see them – significantly inferior visual effects. And, while you could make a strong argument that Leder's film feels more real than the outer space adventures of Bruce and the gang in "Armageddon", is that really what we want from a disaster movie? After all, from "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" to "The Core" and "The Day After Tomorrow," this is a genre where if you can't go big, you might as well go home – as "Armageddon"'s vastly superior box office seemingly proved. 

Yes, "Armageddon" is frequently ridiculous, overloaded with overblown histrionics and sometimes funny for all the wrong reasons. Neither movie comes anwhere near our list of the best space movies, but when it came to dealing with a pair of killer comets/asteroids back in 1998, we always knew who we wanted in our corner – in fact, we didn't want to miss a thing.

  • "Armageddon" is available to stream on Disney Plus in the U.K. and Max in the U.S.
  • "Deep Impact" is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.K.
  • "Deep Impact" isn't currently available to stream in the U.S., but at the time of writing the cheapest place to rent "Deep Impact" in the U.S. is the Microsoft Store for $2.99.

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Richard Edwards
Space.com Contributor

Richard's love affair with outer space started when he saw the original "Star Wars" on TV aged four, and he spent much of the ’90s watching "Star Trek”, "Babylon 5” and “The X-Files" with his mum. After studying physics at university, he became a journalist, swapped science fact for science fiction, and hit the jackpot when he joined the team at SFX, the UK's biggest sci-fi and fantasy magazine. He liked it so much he stayed there for 12 years, four of them as editor. 

He's since gone freelance and passes his time writing about "Star Wars", "Star Trek" and superheroes for the likes of SFX, Total Film, TechRadar and GamesRadar+. He has met five Doctors, two Starfleet captains and one Luke Skywalker, and once sat in the cockpit of "Red Dwarf"'s Starbug.  

  • Macadoodle
    Always enjoyed deep impact more as it was plausible science fiction instead of pure Hollywood make believe. Armageddon is entertaining but it’s so unrealistic that it’s more like a parody.
  • Alien8
    Watched both fairly recently, Deep Impact is definitely the better of the two movies overall. Armageddon is just so ridiculous that it really takes away from the experience. I guess it appeals to the less mature audiences who just want stupidity and loud explosions and machoism...