The astonishingly strong opening numbers for Deep Impact prove that a well-positioned marketing campaign and a few knockout special effects can do wonders for a mediocre movie. The first of the summer's wayward-comet movies, this Paramount/DreamWorks collaboration is surely the more earnest of the two, delivering few of the visceral thrills that are likely to be the raison d'etre of Jerry Bruckheimer's upcoming production of Armageddon. Written by two screen scribes with past cosmic pretensions, Michael Tolkin (The Player, The Rapture) and Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Jacob's Ladder), Deep Impact wants us to fully ponder the spiritual ramifications when a rock the size of Manhattan hurtles toward Earth. But the characters they've chosen to focus on are so thin and uninteresting (and sometimes downright irritating), all you're left to root for is the comet's speedy arrival.

The film begins promisingly enough with the discovery of said comet by a high-school astronomy student, Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood), and an observatory scientist who is killed in a car crash while racing to spread the news. But then, the story becomes curiously mired in the career trajectory of whiny TV news reporter Jenny Lerner (Ta Leoni), who thinks she's investigating a political scandal involving a mistress named 'Ellie' when what she's really uncovered is an 'E.L.E.'-Extinction Level Event. Will Jenny, coerced into secrecy by none other than the President (Morgan Freeman), get her big TV break when the Commander-in-Chief finally announces the existence of the threatening comet and America's radical emergency plan? Who cares? Despite the space rock's imminence, the movie continues to dwell on Jenny's debut as an MSNBC anchor (unlike in every other movie where mass media plays a role, Ted Turner's CNN is nowhere to be found) and on her anger at her father for dumping her mother for a much younger bride. Once again, who cares? There's a huge comet heading our way!

The President's plan for America involves sheltering one million citizens-mostly selected through a national lottery-in a network of specially constructed caves in the Midwest. But before that happens, the crew of a spaceship dubbed 'Messiah' hopes to rendezvous with the comet and, as John Candy used to say on 'SCTV,' 'blow it up real good.' The portrayal of the space mission is fairly suspenseful, though a bit perfunctory, and at least it removes us for a while from the trials of Ta. The nuclear assault on the comet, however, only manages to split it in two, resulting in double trouble for Planet Earth.

After more kvetching between Jenny and her father, and between Leo and his Helen Hunt-lookalike girlfriend-turned-bride (who opts to stay with her lottery-loser family), the big day finally comes. The smaller of the comet pieces lands in the Atlantic Ocean, causing a 350-foot tidal wave that decimates New York (which would have been destroyed two weeks later by Godzilla, anyway). The most impressive shot is in the trailer-the wave toppling the skyscrapers of the Financial District like so many dominos. The most amusing shot is almost worth the price of admission: a old man nonchalantly reading his newspaper in Washington Square Park, his back to the approaching tidal wave, which promptly sweeps him off the right-hand side of the screen.

The visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic are admittedly spectacular, but, like certain theme-park attractions, it's a long wait for an awfully short ride. Of the main cast, Robert Duvall does honorable work as a veteran astronaut condescended to by young hotshots, and Freeman makes a grave and authoritative President. Leoni, who has shown some comic spark in the past, looks ill-at-ease throughout, and it's hard to believe her movie mom, Vanessa Redgrave, would have a daughter so unimposing. Director Mimi Leder created more excitement in any 15 minutes of her TV alma mater, 'ER,' or, for that matter, in her feature debut, the solemn but muscular The Peacemaker.

--Kevin Lally