Does mass matter? If it does, Deep Impact could be in trouble. Opening May 8, the $80 million DreamWorks-Paramount coproduction has the advantage of being the first of two ambitious comet/asteroid-disaster movies blasting into theaters this summer. The other, Disney's Touchstone release Armageddon, won't blaze its $100 million-plus vapor trail until July 1. But clearly the Mouse House has built the bigger trap: After all, in Deep Impact, the President reveals that a hunk of frozen space debris ''the size of New York City'' is headed toward the earth. In Armageddon, a NASA chief handily outdoes that warning: ''Mr. President...it's the size of Texas.''
The filmmakers responsible for Deep Impact have an answer for such covertly anatomical one-upmanship: It ain't the meteor. It's the emotion.
''Their picture is more a Die Hard version of this situation,'' says Richard Zanuck, who has teamed up with ex-partner David Brown to produce Deep Impact. ''I'm not saying anything derogatory about theirs,'' spins Zanuck. ''But it's...a comic-book take. Ours is a realistic drama. It doesn't have the conventional, good-guys-win-all ending.''
What it does have is plenty of soul-searching and anguished sobbing, thanks in part to director Mimi Leder. ''We didn't want things exploding to be the star,'' says the veteran ER helmer. Plucked from the NBC hit show in its second season by executive producer Steven Spielberg to direct DreamWorks' 1997 debut feature, The Peacemaker, Leder, 46, was again recruited personally by the studio cochief for Deep Impact. ''It's about what you'd do if you were told you only had a year to live,'' she says. ''I want the audience to walk away from this thinking about their own lives.''
Will that be what audiences want too? In a fluff-oriented season, Deep Impact strikes a mighty somber chord. Its three plotlines an ambitious TV reporter (Tea Leoni) tries to reunite her divorcee mom (Vanessa Redgrave) and remarried father (Maximilian Schell), a teenage astronomy student (Elijah Wood) discovers the comet, and an aging astronaut (Robert Duvall) leads a team into space to blow the thing up involve enough wrenching moments of loss and trauma to have sentimental viewers salting their popcorn with tears. So laugh-free are the proceedings (except perhaps for the straight-faced descriptions of the comet's flare-ups as ''explosive outgassing'') that in previews the movie's sole intentional gag hit a jarring note: An early cut featured the President (Morgan Freeman) at a press conference warning would-be profiteers and looters, ''There will be no Armageddon.'' Test audiences tittered at the Disney slap, so Zanuck and company decided they had ''ruined the scene for the sake of an inside joke'' and dropped it.
For Leder, the relentless comparison of Deep Impact to Disney's effort has grown exasperating. ''When I took this movie, we weren't in a race,'' she says, ensconced in an editing suite two months before opening day. ''At least not that I'd heard. Maybe [DreamWorks] knew and they just weren't telling me. By the time I did find out, I'd invested too much in preproduction not to do it. Now it's really hard to hear 'Hey, did you know about this thing or that thing in Armageddon?'''