Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Meteor Crashes!

Once the disaster ball got rolling, in the wake of successes like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, producers were tripping over themselves to come up with the next calamity to strike the world. It wouldn’t take very long for this cycle to burn itself out, whereupon it lay dormant for quite a few years until the early 1990s saw another resurgence (that time featuring many CGI effects and an almost complete lack of fun.)

Low-rung AIP Studios got in the game in 1979 with Meteor, a film that was intended to be a blockbuster and fill the company’s coffers with dough. Far more money was spent on this film than any other in the studio’s history and there was a promotional blitz that included everything from tie-in comic books to Viewmaster slides (remember them?) to even pinball machines. Riding the waves of Star Wars, this film was a “sure thing” as it not only involved various disaster scenarios as the title object, along with little pieces that landed ahead of time, hurtled towards Earth, but also had the whole sci-fi angle going as the U.S. tenuously paired with the Soviets to use missiles against it.

But then the film opened. Audiences tittered at the title object as it lumbered through space, with some folks referring to it as looking like a giant turd. The script kept introducing various ordinary folks around the globe who would then typically be struck dead as a result of the calamities that shards of the meteor were causing upon impact.

Top-billed Sean Connery played a U.S. nuclear missile expert who has to work with Soviet scientist Brian Keith (who replaced a prior actor at the last minute) as well as his English-language interpreter Natalie Wood. Rounding out the obligatory all-star cast (this is yet another of the infamous “box movies” I’m so fond of) are Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Trevor Howard and Mr. Henry Fonda as The President.

Ten years prior, the pairing of Connery and Wood would have been white hot. Here, they struggle to attain even a modicum of chemistry. Sean is dressed deliberately demurely, being a scientist, in tweeds and cardigans (considering his 1974 turn in Zardoz, wearing a red diaper for the bulk of the film, this may be a good thing, though I find the look strangely appealing!) and Nat, in turn, probably never appeared more dowdy in a film. Here you have one of the screen’s loveliest and most attractive actresses, aged only 41, looking not only like a frump in practically every scene, but also for some reason staring blankly at nothing in almost every still shot from the film! Was she that bored? Catatonic from some unknown medication? In shock from the knowledge that she was stuck in a catastrophe apart from the one depicted in the movie?

Malden somehow manages to do a pretty decent job in the film, but Landau is exasperatingly over-the-top and obnoxious. Howard only appears on TV screens and could have done his role in a day or so. Fonda was at a stage where he seemed hell bent on appearing in every rotten movie he could think of! He also appeared in Tentacles, The Swarm, City on Fire and the, comparatively, less hideous Rollercoaster during the 70s. Amazingly, Connery, Fonda and Landau each went on after this film to win Oscars. While wallowing through this thing they couldn’t possibly have imagined such a delightful fate.

Speaking of wallowing, Connery completely blew a gasket one day during the filming of the climactic mudslide. An understandably difficult thing to set up and time properly, he was in the middle of a line when someone unleashed the “mud” early and he was completely swamped, with the gunk going into his mouth! Note how Natalie is covered in the stuff here, yet her face is completely blemish-free! The director must have wanted to make sure people watching could tell it was HER in there watching her career go down the drain, literally. The primary reason she took this role was because it afforded her the opportunity to speak Russian in a film, which is where her family originated. Fortunately, she had a chance in her final film, Brainstorm, to retain some of her dignity and allow herself to look better on film again prior to her horribly premature death.

It’s hard to believe that the man at the helm of this film is the same man, Ronald Neame, who directed The Poseidon Adventure! Of course, the prior film had the benefit of a salty script by Stirling Silliphant that was full of amusingly sarcastic lines and passionate diatribes. Here, it is mostly Dullsville, though Connery does get to bark one howler when he’s decided that the government is asking too much of him and controlling his actions, “Why don't you stick a broom up my ass? I can sweep the carpet on the way out.”

To be truthful, there are some aspects of the movie that are enjoyable, even sort of good. The effects vary in quality, but for their time many of them are decent. The flood scene and the mudslide scene are both arresting. The trouble is, there’s so little sense of urgency despite the oncoming calamity. Wood is always sitting around, occasionally doing something pedestrian such as pecking at a sandwich or accepting a scarf from a female associate. (That associate, by the way, figures into one of the more goofy segments of the movie when she and her secret romantic interest, a fellow techie, reach out secretly to each other to express their love. It doesn't end well as you might guess!) Then you have the finale when the mud-caked survivors come up to face an enclosed subway stop where they are trapped with NYC's finest citizens, including two bewigged hookers.

The destruction scenes of New York are fairly well handled, though it’s not easy for most of us to sit and be entertained by the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. These buildings seemed to be the target of all sorts of cinematic trauma (see the 1976 remake of King Kong) before really being destroyed by terrorists in 2001. Their decimation was featured right on the lobby cards for this film.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, Meteor can be reasonably amusing, but it’s certainly not very good and was savaged by critics upon release. Within one year, NO ONE, not even Mr. Irwin Allen, would continue to try to make disaster movies happen at the box office. The genre was bled dry.


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