Cold War Tensions Turn to Unintentional Comedy in ‘Meteor’

Meteor is one of a breed of '70s disaster flicks, but only real standout about this new re-release is its large price tag.

Meteor (1979) was one in a long stream of big screen disaster films from the ’70s, almost all of which shared plot points and story elements like fixings at a Thanksgiving Dinner. Disaster films from the ’70s generally seemed to have been written with a copy of Mad Libs in hand. The only major differences being the cause of the disaster (in this case, the giant space rock of the title), the stars (in this case Sean Connery, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden), and who cameos as the President (in this case, Henry Fonda, for some reason). Squint hard enough and you might confuse Meteor with any number of its brethren including Airport(1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974) and, surprisingly, Raise the Titanic (1980).

The plot, though familiar, surely will feel exciting to many. A chain reaction in space causes an asteroid field to send out a ton of space rock (and not the Pink Floyd kind) toward Earth, including but not limited to an enormous five-mile long meteor of the title, which threatens to destroy much of life on Earth and cause the equivalent to a nuclear winter. This, of course, would be a very bad thing because like you, Earth is where I happen to keep all my stuff. If this sounds remarkably like Deep Impact and Armageddon (both 1998), you’re not wrong. Sadly, Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact did not handle the formula much better and Michael Bay’s Armageddon executed it much, much more poorly.

Meanwhile “the big one” is preceded by a series of smaller “splinter” meteors that start to wreak havoc on Earth just as the tiny blue planet is rallying to defend itself.

Lucky for Earth, Henry Fonda’s President doesn’t need to hire a bunch of drillers led by Bruce Willis to blow this meteor up. Instead, they have an orbiting satellite built by Sean Connery’s Dr. Paul Bradley, which houses an array of nuclear warheads. “Hercules”, as it has been dubbed, was designed for just such disaster aversion. Sadly, as this was made during the height of the Cold War, none of the missiles are pointed toward outer space. Instead, the satellite is aimed at the Soviet Satellites. (Don’t feel too bad for the Russians; they have their own competing satellite named “Peter the Great” ready to take out everything red, white and blue.)

There are some engaging moments in Meteor. Connery is usually more humorous than dramatic, but Natalie Wood (whose parents were Russian immigrants) does a fine job as a Russian government translator. Strangely, when speaking English, she affects a British accent. There are some moments of real tension as solutions are discussed, but mostly this is lost as the proceedings prove to feel rather cheap as opposed to convincing.

To be sure, low-budget films can survive greatly with the right direction, lighting, acting and originality. That’s not quite what we get in Meteor. There are some impressive uses of miniatures in space once in a while, aided by some decent lighting effects, but generally these look more like toys and models with suspended rocks on a black background.

Some of this results in a bit of unintentional comedy as the competing USA and USSR missiles race to destroy the title meteor first. Sure, I get that director Ronald Neames wanted to appeal to American audiences by showing the US “missiles” as bigger and more capable than their Soviet counterparts, but when half of the Red rockets droop and sink before their job is done, it’s hard to avoid imagining Sigmund Freud laughing in his grave.

The impact of Meteor is also lessened by its use of stock footage and scenes from other films, such as the previous year’s Avalanche. A tidal wave scene set in Hong Kong is meant to be touching but fails to convince. Even the more devastating scenes of destruction fall short of the mark and might leave one looking for Godzilla’s giant rubber foot amid the chaos.

Some of this transparency of SFX is aided by the fact that the 2014 Kino Lorber Blu Ray of Meteor is very high definition and easily reveals the flaws of the film. This doesn’t excuse the dramatic scenes, which further suffer from the fact that none of the actor seem to truly believe the film they’re starring in. The distributor also seems to have only minor faith in the title, considering the fact that the only extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer. Then again, Kino Lorber has enough faith in the product to release the Blu Ray with an MSRP of $29.95.

Perhaps Meteor is enough of a rarity that the disc will sell, however, the precedent isn’t in the distributor’s favor. When released in 1979, Metor earned slightly over half of its $16 million budget back at the box office and this heavy loss contributed to the meteoric downfall of studio American International Pictures.

That said, it’s not the worst film of its kind, and there is enough of an all-star cast here to make the experience enjoyable enough for fans of the genre at least. At best, however, Meteor is a time-passer worth spending an afternoon with when the film lights up basic cable. Even re-mastered, however, Meteor doesn’t quite warrant the price tag for the Blu Ray.

RATING 4 / 10