A giant rock is ahead.
This is not a film. This is not a movie.
But don’t worry. We have this. NASA, at least.
Monday’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (or DART) spacecraft is expected to collide or “moon” around the nearby-Earth asteroid Didymos, Dimorphous. NASA’s main goal is to determine if using unmanned hardware to push space debris out of harm’s way will help Earth in the future.
Although it’s admirable, it feels a bit deflating after years of “Chicken Little” movies. In these movies, humankind is being threatened by cosmic clutter that cannot be sorted out except via drastic measures.
The routine is familiar. Someone finds irrefutable evidence that a) there is an asteroid, or b) there is a meteor, or c) there is a comet, or d) there’s a rogue lunar or e) that there’s a whole planet coming at us. These warnings are believed by who? Nobody, not until the skies are filled with speeding debris that slides and shoots off the looming object. We can then either panic, submit, or fly our people up there to save everyone.
Let’s take the latest example of this subgenre: “Don’t look up.” This film was released last year on Netflix and in theaters. Adam McKay, the director, is a political comedy that stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, two Michigan State University astronomers. They discover a comet that appears to have appeared out of nowhere. Within six months, it will collide with Earth hard enough to wipe out all life.
Initial reactions to their findings were incredulous and ridiculed by the government and media. Once the inevitable happens, however, the United States and the rest of the world engage in the crisis in the same way that they engage in every other aspect of 21st-century life: narcissism and denial, and blaming all the wrong people. This is enough to make it seem like the world we know has ended long before it does.
The metaphor of the looming apocalypse is a useful one for our inexorable folly. (Paging “Dr. Strangelove”?) We weren’t always so skeptical about the possibility of natural disasters coming from space. We were so focused and singularly focused on our ability to face perils from space as recently as the beginning of this century that it was often laughable.
Multiplexes were not able to show one blockbuster, but two, big “Chicken Little” blockbusters in 1998: Michael Bay’s”Armageddon” (Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact)
The first, which was threatened by a Texas-sized asteroid, was a packed, bombastic action thriller. It was full of broad humor, with even larger set pieces, and barely enough time for the audience to take a deep breath.
This movie, which was a threat, like “Don’t Look Up,” a comet, was a far more serious, thoughtfully crafted, and much less flustered version of the theme.
Both films did well at the box office, but Bey’s epic, the bombastic film earned $554 million while Leder’s more ruminative, thrill-oriented ride took in $350 million according to Box Office Mojo.
“Armageddon” addresses the danger by establishing a few space shuttles (remember them? Crewed by crack oil-drilling crews, including Bruce Willis (neck-deep in John Wayne mode), and Harry Stamper. He has the support of many, including Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, William Fichtner, and Peter Stormare, who are all NASA execs.
These complications and idiosyncrasies, along with other characters, can be distracting enough to keep our attention from watching Paris and Manhattan being leveled by the asteroid.
The central character of “Deep Impact” is Tea Leoni, an investigative TV reporter. She thinks she has caught a Cabinet member in some sex scandal. However, she discovers that Morgan Freeman (the US President) is about to announce that the comet is currently on a one-year collision course with Earth. To deflect the comet’s path, they try everything, even a Robert Duvall-commanded spaceship loaded with nukes.
Which version of imminent extinction will we see? How can we continue our lives? Those who haven’t seen the movies would be disappointed. We feel secure in disclosing that “Deep Impact’s science is more reliable and trustworthy than in “Armageddon” or “Don’t Look Up.” You can draw your conclusions.
You might be wondering if a feature-length movie about “Chicken Little” was ever made. It was made digitally by Disney in 2005, sans Pixar. The title character is hit on the head with what he believes to be a piece from the sky. Panic sets in and the “piece” of the sky is identified as an oak. Chicken Little becomes a laughingstock for many months until he discovers unexpected redemption through another more sinister falling piece of an alien spaceship. It sounds much more interesting than what the movie made it out to be.
If the DART in real life succeeds in its mission we might be able to relax more when asteroids come too close. However, that doesn’t mean that the films will abandon “Chicken Little.” themes.
The reason the phrase “The sky is coming down!” was passed down from generation to generation is that it is dependent on whether earthlings believe in or care about the possibility of disaster.