It’s hurtling through the atmosphere. It’s going to change life as we know it. And there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s…the womanly action thriller, a new breed of summertime entertainment in which scenes of speed, suspense, frantic keyboard punching, and computer-generated destruction serve as testosterone infusions between the nurturing of relationships!

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Con Air pretty much crashed the all-thrills-all-the-time approach into the ground, and Independence Day cornered the market on big-budget tongue in cheek. Meanwhile, there’s that movie about the ship, the one that sinks, and although the effects are stirring, it’s not for the part where the boat snaps in two that folks are returning again and again to the theater — it’s the people thing. In Deep Impact (Paramount/DreamWorks), the impending disaster is a grabber: A colossal comet ”the size of New York City” races toward Earth, and an E.L.E. — an extinction-level event — seems likely. So everybody might as well get their houses in order. Oh, sure, the President (Morgan Freeman, who I swear would be elected if he ran for real, he’s so blessedly dignified in the job) announces a plan to send astronauts into space to blow the thing up (Robert Duvall plays the team elder). But really, it’s time to reach out and touch someone.

For a fast-rising TV news reporter (Tea Leoni), that means sorting out her feelings about her father (Maximilian Schell), who left her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) for a much younger woman. For a teenage astronomer (Elijah Wood) it means marrying his high school girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski). Meanwhile, the countdown continues: Comet crash minus two weeks, one day, one hour, boom.

Deep Impact has been directed by Mimi Leder, who made a cautious feature debut last fall with The Peacemaker, but who really swings with power in the episodes she’s done of NBC’s ER. On a medical series that, in its moments of tension and accelerated action, is just as complex as many big-deal features (if not more so), she’s gifted at keeping the personal dramas of human beings in focus. When she’s in the groove in Deep Impact (populated, by the way, with familiar ER faces Laura Innes and Ron Eldard), Leder establishes a syncopated rhythm unlike anything we’re used to in a catastrophe spectacle. After a taut, attention-getting opener, she pulls back — whoa, wait up there, the much-advertised postimpact tidal wave will come soon enough — and slows down the thrills to an old-fashioned pace; this could be On the Beach, or one of those twin nuclear-holocaust movies from the early ’80s, Testament and The Day After. On the other hand, when the action became too touchy-feely, even I felt like pawing the ground and chanting Big bang! Big bang! Big bang!

For a giddy moment halfway into the story, I thought, Maybe this time the earth really will be done in by the big rock. Wouldn’t it be darkly, creepily, unexpectedly thrilling if doom prevailed and even mothers and babies were in peril? But of course, that’s not the movies. Some had to die — okay, millions — so that there might be resurrection, rebirth, hope. Damn. There’s always Armageddon. B-

Deep Impact
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