For cinephiles the 70s was the heyday of the disaster movie beginning in 1972 with Irwin Allen’s excellent film The Poseidon Adventure and ending with today’s feature the less than stellar Meteor. Directed by Ronald Neame this movie blends the Cold War political thriller with the elements of your standard disaster movie, and for that the movie gains points for originality, but then loses those points for it also being tedious and downright sexist at times.
The plot centers on Dr. Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) formerly of NASA who is yanked out of retirement by the government because a colossal asteroid named Orpheus is heading to Earth and only his space based missile platform named Hercules has a chance of stopping it.
The problem is that Bradley quit NASA when the U.S. Government decided instead of using his missile system to ward of dangerous space debris it would suit them better if it were pointed down at Earth and by Earth we mean Russia. Bradley begrudgingly agrees to help realign the missile platform despite the ravings of General Adlon (Martin Landau) who doesn’t want anyone to use the missiles as it will be admitting to the world that the United States broke all treaties about arming space.
Harry Sherwood (Karl Malden) of NASA is able to talk The President (Henry Fonda) into putting Bradley in charge and making Adlon step aside. This doesn’t sit at all well with the General who later practically storms out of the Command Center holding his breath like a two year old who didn’t get his way.
Of course crazy military nutbars are not the only problem facing our heroes it seems that Orpheus is too big for even America’s awesome Hercules missile platform to take care of all by itself so they have to go to the Russians and get them to admit they have their own nuclear missile platform in space and then combine it’s explosive power with Hercules to nudge the five mile wide asteroid into an orbit that would no longer threaten Earth. The Russians hold off admitting owning any such device but they do send over their head astrophysicist Dr. Dubov (Brian Keith) and his interpreter Tatiana Donskaya (Natalie Wood) to consult “theoretically” on what can be done.
This is where the uncomfortable sexism rears its ugly head as General Adlon has insisted on having his own interpreter present to ensure that Tatiana is properly translating what he says, this apparently makes him an asshole, and Bradley steps in saying that’s redundant and that we only need one interpreter and we should, “Keep the pretty one.”
At one point Tatiana chats with Jan Watkins (Katherine De Hetre), one of the Hercules staffers, and their conversation is about getting nice bed linens, good soap and how awfully nice Jan’s scarf is and not about their jobs or the current crisis as one would hope two professionals would do. Later Tatiana finds the scarf she admired cleaned and pressed in her room as a gift. *sigh* If this was supposed to be some kind of character building moment the writers should be taken out and slapped soundly. But it’s okay because Jan is the one they chose to kill off at the end to make the audience realize the horror of it all.
An issue that every movie that deals with an asteroid threatening the Earth has to overcome is the fact that if the heroes succeed the audience doesn’t get to see all that awesome wholesale destruction that they paid their $5 bucks for. The solution is precursor attacks; in this case “splinters” of Orpheus will hit the Earth at random throughout the movie’s running time to keep the audience from nodding off or leaving.
What these events pretty much always fail to do in these types of movies is garner any emotional response from the viewer as none of these scenes contain any characters we have come to know or care about. We just sit back and “Oooh” and “Ahhh” at all the hard work the special effects teams and stuntmen went to. If well done it can still be entertaining but in this film any disaster shot that involved an optical effect looked just terrible with only the odd practical effects shot and stunt work looking respectable.
Meanwhile our team has aligned both Hercules and the Russian’s missile platform Peter the Great, which the Russians finally admitted to having, and prepare to launch them at Orpheus, but just as things are going well another splinter is spotted and this one is going to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The shit just got real.
Lucky for us the team at Project Hercules were able to launch the missiles seconds before the splinter hit Manhattan but I call bullshit on the idea that a button had to pressed as the whole thing had to be co-ordinated with the Russians space platform to within a fraction of a second so there is no way any human being would be pressing any stupid trigger anywhere, it would all be computer controlled. We are then treated to shots of missiles flying through space. In fact we get lots and lots of shots of missiles flying through space.
It is at this point that the film becomes your tried and true disaster film as the Command Center was severely damaged by the splinter hitting the city above and our cast of characters must scramble heroically to make their way to the surface. Bradley takes the lead as the survivors must trudge through damaged subway tunnels while the Hudson River starts to pour in.
Trivia Break: A million pounds of mud were used for this sequence and the eight to fourteen day shoot could not have been pleasant for anybody. Sean Connery was off for two days due to a respiratory condition caused by the mud, Natalie Wood was almost sucked into one of the pumps, and Karl Malden was buried in the mud twice! At least this was all for a good…oh right, never mind.
Eventually the missiles from Hercules and Peter the Great reach their target and blow Orpheus to smithereens, wait…what? It was clearly stated earlier in the film that the plan was to shift the orbit of the asteroid not destroy it as even the combined nuclear might of the Americans and Russians missiles wouldn’t have a chance of actually blowing the thing up, yet it seems that the screenwriters forgot this little nugget of information as we clearly see Orpheus being blown into space dust.
This movie failed to catch fire with audiences and critics alike and with its 16 million dollar production budget it only managed to take in a little over 8 million domestically at the box office. Thus came an end to the 70s era of disaster films and not with a bang but with a whimper.
Later films like Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Deep Impact would make serious bank with the killer asteroid sub-genre but even those have serious dubious science moments and cartoon like characters but Meteor gets credit for being first so that’s something…right?