How do movies get inspired? Sometimes, they come to us whole cloth. Other times, they’re inspired by a book, a comic or an old TV show. And in other occasions, they’re based on crazy theories, like 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow taking a cue from the speculative science tome The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber.
1979’s Meteor finds its inspiration in a similarly strange source: the 1967 MIT report Project Icarus. Yes, when casting about for a way to top the increasingly insane disaster epics of the 70s, the producers of this film went collegiate. How else do you top killer bees, burning skyrises, giant rats and cockroaches that shoot fire out of their ass?
The story? Asteroid Orpheus gets smashed by a comet, which means a five mile chunk of space junk is headed right toward Earth, but everyone is too concerned with politics. That is — until small pieces of asteroids start wiping out cities. Luckily, our government has a super secret nuclear missile platform called Hercules, which was once created for just such an event. Of course, this being the 70s and the Cold War, Hercules’ fourteen missiles are now pointed directly at Russia. Wouldn’t it have been cooler if there were twelve of them, one for each of his labors? It’s a moot point — those missiles won’t be enough.
Luckily, Russia has their very own satellite pointing back at us — Peter the Great. And even luckier, The President, played by Henry Ford doing the exact same character as he did in Fail-Safe (I can’t emphasize this enough, it’s like they copy and pasted him into this dreck), just blurts out on TV that both nations have the satellites and they just need the best scientists to work together: Dr. Alexei Dobov (Brian Keith of The Parent Trap and Family Affair) and Dr. Paul Bradley (Sean Connery of Zardoz and Outland*).
They interrupt Bradley as he attempts to win a sailboat race and he reacts to being called upon to help save the world the same way an elderly housecat would: by being a total asshole about it. I realize that Sean Connery’s whole schtick at times was to be somewhat contrary, but he’s like the worst movie riffer ever, constantly talking down to people and huffing and puffing his way through every single conversation. Yes, he’s also the hero of the film — but maybe that’s how they did things in the 70s. Asshole heroes and killing off Donald Sutherland.
Everyone meets in the NASA control center, located beneath Broadway. It’s a cavalcade of your favorite actors, as all disaster movies must be: Harry Sherwood (Karl Malden, The Streets of San Francisco), Major General Aldon (Martin Landau, Ed Wood and Space:1999) and interpreter Tatiana Donskaya (Natalie Wood of Brainstorm and Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Russia refuses to cooperate until more of the world gets destroyed. One only imagines if a Russian cut of this film existed, the Americans would behave much the same way.
By the time everyone gets their shit together, Hong Kong — home of the producers of this film — and the Swiss Alps both get annihilated. The latter is a particular tough loss, as a young Sybil Danning (pretty much every movie I ever had uncomfortable feelings during puberty to, but let’s just say Battle Beyond the Stars and Young Lady Chatterely 2) has decided to ski during the Apocalypse and pays the price. Just as the missiles are launched, the disaster part of this disaster film kick in, with New York City being struck and the subways being flooded, putting our main characters in peril.
Luckily, the missiles do their job and just as the good news hits Earth, everyone gets rescued. I’ve struggled to write a more exciting ending to this review. Honestly — that’s the movie.
Meteor was a BIG deal when released — tie-in toys, a pinball machine, a Marvel comic book — everything that a major 70s blockbuster needed. Some blame American-International Pictures name being on this as a reason for its failure, as people instantly expected cheese from AIP. Some blame the completely boring script. Others just think that everyone was sick of disaster films, as the 70s themselves were pretty much a disaster.
Nevertheless, Meteor is competently directed by Ronald Neame, who also helmed The Poseidon Adventure. But the characters never get much to do other than have a few minutes of development and then try and survive.
The real disaster of this film was the muddy subway scene, which was shot in the swimming pool sets that Esther Williams once swam in. Connery suffered a respiratory infection that shut down the film for two days, Mudlen was buried alive TWICE and Wood was almost sucked into a pump and killed. In fact, during the filming of these scenes, the actors had to stuff their openings with cotton and wash their eyes out between each take. You’d think Natalie would have the good sense to stay out of the water after this. Sorry — too soon?
Some closing trivia — Natalie Wood spoke fluent Russian, as she was born to Russian immigrant parents and originally named Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko. Brian Keith also was fluent, but he taught himself the language. He was a last-minute replacement for Donald Pleasence.
And the buildings that get destroyed? They’re a series of apartments in St. Louis that were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Center. If 9-11 triggers you, maybe don’t watch Meteor, because the WTC gets blown up real good in it.
If it wasn’t for Meteor, we wouldn’t have Armageddon. At least we now know whom to blame.
*Yes, we realize he was in some other movies, too.