Meteor

Command-Center Salad Bar
★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1979
Director: 
Ronald Neame
Starring: 
Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Martin Landau
The Setup: 
There’s a giant asteroid heading smack-dab toward Earth!
Discussion: 

From purveyor of really fun trash Samuel Z. Arkoff comes this late disaster movie, which was pretty much the last gasp of the already dying genre. I read several users on the IMDb describing the “Star Wars meets Superman” opening credits, and all I can really say is: You’ll understand exactly what they mean when you see them. Now we see our requisite all-star cast led by Sean Connery and Natalie Wood, and also including Karl Malden, Henry Fonda and Martin Landau. After the credits we have a middle-school educational film style voiceover telling us about comets, and how they sometimes fly through asteroid belts. Then we meet Connery as Paul Bradley, cantankerous scientist in the midst of a yacht race. He is pulled from the race by the Coast Guard who has something very important to tell him: his fly is open. They whisk him off to an important government meeting where his briefing is interrupted by flashbacks so that we don’t have to miss action scenes. We see a spacecraft obviously modeled after Skylab [big-deal space station of the 70s] approach these perfectly motionless asteroids. Then a comet comes through the field, there’s an explosion, and one of the fragments destoys the station. Only it’s difficult to piece together exactly what happened because the special effects and compositing are so incredibly cheap and primitive. Then a huge asteroid is sent hurtling toward Earth. We see multiple shots of it, and you’ll notice that in some it is traveling in a straight line, like a ship, and in others it is tumbling.

Paul is pissed because he developed this giant nuclear warhead system in space to protect against just such an occurrence, but the evil government used it as a weapon and has turned it against Russia! Which Paul is more than a little bitter about. But he swallows his pride, since the fate of mankind is at stake, and agrees to work with Karl Malden as Harry to fix the situation. They brief Fonda as the president that if it hits Earth, it'll send us into another ice age. However, Martin Landau as General Adlon is on hand to say that they cannot allow the public to know that America has a nuclear arsenal hovering above Russia! Landau's performance starts at 11 and just keeps rising, and is one of the biggest sources of amusement in the film. Then we have some footage of the American missle system as triumphant Americana music sounds. Turns out the Russians also have a similar system aimed at the US, which is also supposed to be a secret. Can these two suspicious nations overcome their xenophobia and work together to save humanity? Oh God, I hope so!

After some hugger-mugger they get the Russians to agree. We have some character development when Paul calls his lonely wife to tell her she'll be even lonlier for a while, thenliterally hangs up on her with a curt “Tell the kids I love them” when she starts getting emotional and needy. Then we start having our periodic shots of the asteroid [note how I very accurately refuse to refer to it as a meteor] on its approach, and can't help but note that it is accompanied by a V'Ger-like guitar sound, and also seems to be breathing heavily. Noisy asteroid! Then we find that the government's high-tech command center is located just beneath Manhattan, because none of their enemies would ever think of looking there. AND it makes it more convenient to have our heroes RIGHT at such an obvious meteor target, since we know from prior films that meteors only strike large urban centers and tourist attractions.

Russian bigwig arrives, accompanied by his lovely translator, Natalie Wood as Tatiana. There is a silly scene in which Landau has appointed his own translator in case that shifty-eyed Ruskie translator doesn't speak accurately—making the idiotic assumption that the Russian president would tell the truth, but his TRANSLATOR would lie and twist his words. Luckily it ends after this scene. Then—Eskimo apocalypse!

Yes, our scene abruptly shifts to a little Eskimo igloo, where two cute little Eskimo kids to what they always do in movies: stare blank-eyed as they stuff some sickening-looking gruel into their mouths. Mini-asteroid strikes nearby, they're all killed. Because all killer asteroid movies facethe same structural challenges—and all seem to find the same conclusion. They have to destroy the big asteroid, or our heroes would be losers. But, they lured the audience into the theater with the promise of mass destruction. So what they always do [see Armageddon and Deep Impact] is have a bunch of mini-asteroids that can deliver the destruction while still allowing the heroes to save the day.

One of my favorite things in this movie is this HUGE sign in the control room that conveys exactly one piece of information—TWICE. It tells how many days til the asteroid reaches Earth, TWO ways. And nothing more. Seems like an awfully big sign for such a meager mount of information, but it's really intended for the movie audience, and we do indeed cut to it several times. We also have some shots of the Russian space weapon, and it's hard not to notice that the music during these sections has a vaguely mocking tone, in contrast to the boldly heroic music we hear upon seeing the American nukes. Also evoking curiousity is Woods' accent, which is supposed to be Russian, but sounds like an overly-refined Victorian Brit. She and Paul are having a slow flirtation, including him flat-out telling her she's “very attractive.” I'm sorry, isn't this a WORKPLACE?

Well, now it's time for the “realigning” sequence, in which we seriously spend FIVE FULLMINUTES of movie time watching first the Russians', then the Americans' missiles get aimed toward the asteroid. Meanwhile, Tatiana puts on her extra-special scarf to go flaunt her wares before Paul, who compliments the scarf right away. They repair to the salad bar where—wait a minute, TOP SECRET COMMAND-CENTER SALAD BAR?!?!? Yeah, pretty much. We also see some pinball machines in the background [do America's top intellectuals really blow off steam by playing pinball?], but even though I was looking, we never see the salad bar in the background again, once Paul and Tatiana have removed their meals. They talk and flirt then—tidal wave hits Hong Kong!

But wait, we forgot to talk about the avalanche. There's some idyllic Swiss village just chillin' when this huge superimposed light travels overhead. It hits a distant mountain, which explodes, then an avalanche comes from... OVER THERE? The avalanche comes in at a right angle, far distant from where the meteorite actually struck, but who knows, I guess the impact musthave shaken the whole area. The avalance sequence isn't that bad, and word on the street is that it is recycled in its entirety from the film Avalanche! Then the salad bar, then the tidal wave hits Hong Kong. And I have to say the whole flood sequence isn't that bad... making me wonder if it too was recycled from another movie. In these scenes we notice this movie's tactic of diverting to a specific couple—here a man fighting the crowds to get to his wife and baby—and then watching those people tragically die. Anyway, time to wrap this shit up.

The Russian missiles are launched. Then Paul hears of a large asteroid splinter headed right toward them but arriving at an indeterminite time [right now? 3pm? Can you be specific?], so there's some tension as to whether they'll be able to launch the American missiles before they get squished. They do—you'll notice that we spend a lot more time on the American missile launch than we do on the Russian launch—and then a big, cheesy light flies over Manhattan and pretty much destroys it. Only you'd be hard-pressed to say what is happening, given the assemblage of found footage this film is trying to pass off as a major destruction sequence. We have one (1) model made specifically for this movie, which is used several times, and the rest of it is made up of generic explosion footage and red-tinted footage of buildings undergoing controlled demolition. The only way you know what is happening is at the end, when there is a matte painting showing that the meteorite carved a trench through Midtown and finally created a giant crater in Central Park. And, presumably, millions of people died.

Underground the set falls apart, and when Paul finally tries to get out, he sees the true foe they will face: MUD. That's right, a ton of mud starts flowing in, meaning we have already passed our big climax and the movie is still going on, and the big menace our heroes have to face is... MUD? And we have to spend the last few minutes with our characters seeing them completely covered in mud? That's pretty much the situation. It is about as exciting as it sounds.

Intercut with this is footage of the missiles heading toward the asteroid. Russian missiles heading toward it! American missiles heading toward it! Russian... American... [repeat]... until we finally see them side by side—Russian and American missiles flying TOGETHER!--until they start flashing red and white [Russian! American!] and one group hits. Explosion. Another group hits. Explosion. Then the final group hits. BIG explosion! Only we don't see the asteroid being broken up, we just see an unidentifiable red fiery blaze that goes on a LONG time, as thoughits very length will convince us that the asteroid has been destroyed. It was—and although it has been broken into a million smaller shards, NONE of those hit Earth! Pretty amazing! Paul andcompany make it upstairs, whereupon they instantly hear on the news that the asteroid has been destroyed! Unfortunately, no more nice Manhattan restaurants to have a nice celebratory meal at.

The trailer is also on the disc and, well, trailers were different back then. This one contains fully 'Superman' titles, although they're red instead of blue, and there's this whole one-minute sequence of titles and build-up about the deadly asteroid, then just when you think it's ending, it goes into a whole different section with footage from the film. It's a huge disjointed mess.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie much more than I expected to. I remember seeing it at the theater back in the day, when I was 14, and even then realizing it was CRAAAAAAAP. I remember being especially contemptuous of the shitty special effects at the climax, feeling cheated to the extent that I forgot all about the avalanche and tidal wave sequences. So I wasn't expecting to enjoy it at all—I was just watching out of that bizarre movie masochism I've developed—but turns out, it was a lot of fun! You have Connery being blustery [although he does not remove his shirt and slowly rub hot oil on his body], Natalie Wood NOT looking like a drag queen from certain select angles, Karl Malden actually being kind of, somewhat GOOD, and Martin Landau acting like he needs to pass a Rublik's Cube made of splintered glass. Then you have a lot of genial silliness, a few scenes of mass destruction, a lot of trumped-up drama, and there you go, a relatively fun way to pass the time. However, I think they key to this enjoyment is to completely banish any thoughts that this might, in any way, be good. But this probably won't work for everyone. Ask your doctor if Meteor is right for you.

Should you watch it: 

If you like bottom-of-the-barrel disaster movies, you bet!