...reports of an interstellar invader... ...which coincide with the release of space flicks Deep Impact and Armageddon... ...have Hollywood saying 'Nice Asteroid!'

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The sky is fa…never mind. There was more than a whiff of Saturday Night Live surrounding the recent all-too-brief news cycle during which a group of prominent astronomers issued — and then almost immediately revoked — a dire warning that in 30 years, a one-mile-wide chunk of interstellar debris could mortally wound our planet. (No, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince won’t be exhorting us to ”party like it’s 2028” in a charity-benefit rewrite of ”1999.”) But the dubious story’s 24-hour lifespan proved long enough for Hollywood flacks to rush in. Caught by surprise but quick to gird for battle, they managed to raise the profile of two dueling disaster flicks with plotlines almost identical to the dire ”scientific” prognostications: the $70 million Deep Impact, which bows May 8 from Paramount (in collaboration with DreamWorks SKG), and the $100 million-plus Armageddon, opening July 1 from Touchstone. Welcome to the summer movie-meets-silly science season.

”I hadn’t seen TV reports or read the papers when the BBC called my house,” says Deep Impact director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker), who’s still laying in effects sequences of burning debris and mile-high tidal waves hitting the Hamptons. ”I called my assistant and said, ‘Would you please go on the Internet and find out what the hell is happening?”’ Once filled in, Leder was reluctant to play spokesperson. ”I’m no comet expert,” she says. ”I’m a movie director. I felt like, I won’t know what I’m talking about.”

Of course, spotty information didn’t stop the astronomers from holding forth. If you like media-conspiracy theories, try this one on for size: Grant-starved scientists might well be eager to beat Hollywood at its own exploitative game. After all, the government allotted only a meager $1.8 million in funding last year for comet-tracking work (less than one one hundredth the cost of the asteroid movies), and many astronomers — including Brian G. Marsden, who led the alarm from his post at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. — have made pleas for better equipment in the recent flurry of news stories. (Marsden, incidentally, contributed background research several years ago to writers working on early drafts of Armageddon and Deep Impact.)

Besides, this isn’t the first time a scientific quasi-breakthrough has surfaced as front-page news in suspicious proximity to a major movie. In 1993, just as the dinosaurs-cloned-from-DNA flick Jurassic Park opened, The New York Times ran a prominent story declaring that real dinosaur DNA had been discovered — by the very scientist who’d served as director Steven Spielberg’s inspiration in fleshing out the film’s anthropologist hero.

But Marsden’s colleagues insist there was no Hollywood-Cambridge collusion. ”This is too serious a matter to want to cash in like that,” says Tom Gehrels, who runs the Arizona lunar lab where asteroid 1997 XF11 was first discovered and named back in December (XF doesn’t stand for X-Files; it’s an alphabetized dating system). ”We just don’t live that way.”

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