Meteor is one of those films that you can say was a victim of bad timing. The disaster genre of which this is a part was dead for years. On the flip-side, the special effects required for such a movie to be convincing and terrifying had not yet been developed for productions operating on a smaller scale budget. So, it relied on a star-studded cast to attempt to be successful, and failed miserably. Critics panned it, audiences hated it, and the film slipped into oblivion. American International Pictures went bankrupt shortly after. However, after watching it the other day, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. No, not in one of those so-bad-it’s-good kind of ways, but genuinely, sincerely liking it. Normally, a movie with a name and story like this would fall victim to my comical wrath. Not the case here. Instead, I find myself arguing why this is a good movie.
Sean Connery headlines a cast including Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Martin Landau, Trevor Howard, and Henry Fonda. He plays an astrophysicist called on by NASA (an organization he left years earlier) to come up with a plan to help save the world after a comet flew through the asteroid belt and caused a five-mile wide chunk of rock to change orbit and head straight toward earth. He has five days before it strikes. The only thing he can come up with is to confirm a top-secret satellite the USA has in outer space with nuclear missiles aimed at Soviet Russia, and attempt to turn them toward the meteor. But this is not enough firepower. They then have to contact the Soviets and get them to do the same with their satellite they have in space, whose missiles are pointed at the USA. There’s a bit of humor in the entire thing and this film is a relic of the Cold War. In any event, it’s a far more realistic story-line and execution than we see in later films like Armageddon, who drew obvious inspiration from this one.
To make a long story short, the two countries so at odds with each other work together in order to save the world. The Russians send their top scientist (played by Brian Keith) to work with Connery’s character. Their translator is Natalie Wood. She actually spoke fluent Russian in real life, and jumped at the opportunity to land this role. Meanwhile, Keith actually learned Russian for his character. I wouldn’t normally note something like that, but it does add a bit of realism rather than have everyone from all over the world speaking English. Wood remarked after production that Keith’s Russian was excellent, except for his accent.
Henry Fonda does a great job as the president. He is sincere and serious, not playing the usual movie president as a bumbling fool who doesn’t know what to do. In fact, most of the cast works out well. Malden is a bit out of place as a scientist, but performs with competence. The only real dud is Landau, who is over-the-top as a general worried about teaming with the Russians and giving them access to a secret base which they are working in. The script itself is far from perfect, but when you compare this to disaster films of the day, and even what we see now, it is no worse off.
The special effects are what draw the most criticism. Being an A.I.P production (famous for producing blockbusters on tight budgets), they quickly realized that this would require a little bit more detail…and dough. Several effects companies were fired for spending too much money, and this constant change no doubt affected the finished product. In my eyes, they are not terrible. If you’re looking at this through present-day glasses, you will be disappointed. But you can’t do that. For the time, they are average. For the budget this film had, they are not bad at all. Remember, there was no CGI back then. Everything had to be practical with models and animation. Does this show? Absolutely, but you can have a bit of fun seeing how effects and shots were constructed back then.
If anything, you might want to give Meteor a watch for one scene in particular. While the earth is indeed saved in the end (I don’t consider that a spoiler; when is earth not spared destruction in a film like this?) there are splinters of rock that do land and wreak havoc. One of the cities affected is New York. In a couple of eerie shots, we do see the twin towers of the World Trade Center get destroyed. For anyone who lived through 9/11, they will no doubt cause your eyes to widen. In some recent TV broadcasts, this scene has actually been edited out.
Meteor is not perfect, but it is far from the refuse people have made it out to be since its 1979 release. It’s a fun movie. An action-packed, old-fashioned disaster with a scientific spin. One thing is certain, regardless of the script and acting, it does not fail to entertain. I think you will enjoy it. 7.5 out of 10 stars.