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Deep Impact
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 1998 / 77m

The summer 1998 “asteroid hurtling towards earth” movie that was not Armageddon, Deep Impact will forever be in the shadow of Michael Bay’s atrocious film even though it’s much better (it’s daft but has held up surprisingly well).  Robert Duvall leads the charge against the destructive force, Elijah Wood is the youngster who discovered it was coming, Tea Leoni is the journalist who stumbles upon the truth, Morgan Freeman is the president.  Wait… a black president!?  Preposterous.

The filmmakers probably saved themselves a pretty penny by signing up James Horner at the time he was working on James Cameron’s vanity project Titanic, which everyone knew was going to be the biggest box office disaster of all time, rather than waiting for it to be released and seeing him briefly becoming the most famous composer on the planet.  It was the first Horner-scored film released after Titanic in fact, which meant an unusually large number of people probably bought the album.

James Horner

James Horner

The score opens with “A Distant Discovery”, a twinkly, sparkling piano motif the focus of the first half, all light and airy.  The cue’s second half offers a preview of the action music to come – very Apollo 13-like, the trademark Horner urgent strings, piano, percussion, a desperate feeling to it.  The second theme, primarily used for the astronauts despatched to prevent the comet reaching earth, is then introduced at the opening “Crucial Rendezvous” – this one blessed with a kind of heroically stubborn resolve, hints of what was to come later in The Perfect Storm.

“Our Best Hope…” (now there’s a James Horner cue title if ever there was one) is one of those lengthy pieces he loved writing (13 minutes) and needless to say he packs a lot into it.  Hope is actually notable by its absence in the early parts of the cue, the synthesised choir initially adding a rather forlorn feel; suddenly a brassy flourish heralds what sounds like the start of the resistance, some of the action material that follows distinctly similar to parts of Titanic.  Horner builds the suspense well, the impending doom obvious, the snippets of the astronauts’ theme interpolated expertly – and it builds to the most frenzied of conclusions, panic setting in.  That continues in “The Comet’s Sunrise”, frantic and surprisingly dissonant action opening the cue before a slow, tragic arrangement of the astronauts’ theme (you can guess what’s happened in the film).  When it passes between horn and flute late in the cue, it’s very moving.

“A National Lottery” has a subdued opening – this isn’t a lottery which might give you a few million bucks, it’s one that might give you a place in the bunker being filled with the lucky few who will end up having to repopulate the species.  So it’s quite important and Horner being Horner recognised that of course what it’s really about is those that don’t make it and have to start preparing for their imminent demise, and so it’s a sad piece, but towards its end Horner offers just the briefest glimpse of what is essentially the score’s main theme, used mainly to represent the various characters we follow on the planet and their fate.

The score’s most popular cue is “The Wedding” and it’s not difficult to see why.  The twinkly piano theme (which has a kind of childlike wonderment to it) alternates with the main theme; it’s lilting and beautiful, an innocent portrait of young love, for these few minutes away from the stresses and terror.  “The Long Return Home” is similarly light, but the main theme this time is used as a kind of representation of resignation, coming to terms with the inevitable.  Of course it turns out not to be so inevitable after all and the steely resolve shows itself again – albeit in muted fashion – as the astronaut’s theme returns.

“Sad News” – despite its title – actually has a somewhat hopeful tone, again a kind of acceptance of the fate to come.   The brief “Leo’s Decision” opens with a passage of dramatic weight before the main theme emerges once more, and we’re back in business.  “The President’s Speech” is not the kind of rousing music you would normally expect a piece of music called “The President’s Speech” to contain, primarily because in this speech the president is essentially telling everyone they’re going to die, and so the music reflects that.  There’s another twist of course, and that comes midway through the first of the remaining two cues, which both run over ten minutes.  The score’s trademark feature – the way Horner manages to musically express the steely resolve that follows people accepting their fate – is back heavily in “Drawing Straws”, the melody (not culled from the trio of themes) that appears around three and a half minutes in full of such tragedy.  Then the twist – strident action, rousing strings – the day is saved.  Horner’s skill in getting from one place to a very different one so seamlessly within a single piece of music is pretty astonishing and while it’s probably not a track that is on a lot of “Best of Horner” playlists, within the film it’s so effective.  There’s still time for a lengthy end credits piece, “Goodbye and Godspeed”, which is truly beautiful and has what I think it’s the score’s most spine-tingling moment, when for the first and only time a real choir is used for the most soaring arrangement of the main theme; towards the end of the cue there’s a brass chorale which is just sublime.  The twelve-minute piece includes lengthy versions of all the main themes and this one certainly deserves a place on those playlists.

I must admit that when I first heard Deep Impact back in 1998 I was somewhat underwhelmed and that initial impression stayed with me.  It has only been under recent reexamination that I’ve begun to appreciate what a clever, multi-faceted piece of music it is, and it’s so important in the film, aiding considerably the viewers’ empathy with the characters.  Along with a lot of others, I guess at the time I was expecting more of an action rollercoaster, but that’s not what the film was, so it couldn’t be.  The thematic base is strong and while the album could do with a bit of trimming, the music is so elegant it makes for a rather luxurious listening experience.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Brendon Kelly (Reply) on Thursday 13 August, 2015 at 21:56

    Very good review of an underrated score. Drawing Straws is a masterpiece of scoring and is on my Best of Horner playlist!

  2. tiago (Reply) on Thursday 13 August, 2015 at 22:22

    Like I said on Facebook, I wasn’t impresssed too when I first heard this score, maybe because I was unimpressed with the main theme. But I heard this yesterday while I was working, and it’s indeed a really beautiful score, combining the drama and the action music from Apollo 13 and Titanic with some more innocent and romantic music from scores like Casper and Bicentennial Man. Anyway, it’s a typical Horner score from the 90s/early 00s, and that itself is enough to make a good listen (although I’m still not a big fan from the main theme).

  3. Mike (Reply) on Friday 14 August, 2015 at 02:22

    I just wish this score was louder or at least mixed better! I feel like I can’t hear the quiet parts at all, then the loud stuff blows out my speakers 🙂

    I enjoy “The Wedding” that was rerecorded on “The Great Disaster Movie Album”, by Silva Screen I think, more than the actual OST version.

  4. T. Webb (Reply) on Friday 14 August, 2015 at 03:15

    James, I had the exact thoughts you did… I was underwhelmed initially, but closer repeated listenings to this recently have shown this to be something of a hidden gem. It’s not one of his best, or even great, but it’s a good, solid score worthy of more attention.

  5. tvrts (Reply) on Friday 21 August, 2015 at 05:30

    “Our Best Hope…” (now there’s a James Horner cue title if ever there was one)…”

    I thought the same thing with “Through The Fires, Achilles…And Immortality”, “The Prize of One’s Life… The Prize of One’s Mind”, and, specially, the absurdly cheesy “The Wind Gently Blows Through the Garden”.

    Was he the only composer who named his cues with a “…”?