Throughout motion picture history, there have always been "disaster" movies. From Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy facing the great earthquake in "San Francisco" to John Wayne trying to rescue an airliner in distress in "The High and the Mighty". However, the disaster movie didn't emerge as a genre until the 1970s. Most people credit "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) with being the first major entry among these kinds of films during that era, but arguably the genre began two years earlier with "Airport". That blockbuster flick set the standard for all of the disaster movies to follow:
An all-star cast ranging from top boxoffice attractions to respected veteran stars and popular character actors
Big production values
State-of-the-art special effects
Majestic musical score (and, if possible, a Top 40 hit shoe-horned into the proceedings)
A well-regarded director at the helm to preside over the mayhem
For the most part the formula worked fairly well. "Poseidon" was a major boxoffice smash and that film begat the short-lived genre's best year, 1974, which saw the virtual back-to-back release of "Gold", "Earthquake" and "The Towering Inferno", the latter being the "Citizen Kane" of disaster movies. However, the genre was to burn brightly but briefly. In the wake of "Inferno", there was nowhere else to go. The 1977 film "Black Sunday" was excellent, but despite a blimp crashing into the Superbowl stadium, it is not a "disaster movie" in the traditional sense. Most of those films that were, flopped badly. Producer Irwin Allen, who struck pay dirt as the producer of "Poseidon" and "Inferno" found the formula had grown stale by the late 1970s. His 1978 release "The Swarm" is generally referred to as the worst "Bee" movie ever made. His 1980 anemic attempt to blend cast members with elements of "Poseidon" and "Inferno" was released as "When Time Ran Out", an appropriate enough title for the flop that ended his big screen career. Another costly casualty of the disaster genre ebb was "Meteor", a 1979 production that top-lined an impressive cast: Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Brian Keith, Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Trevor Howard and Henry Fonda. It was produced by Gabe Gatzka and Sandy Howard (among others), two veterans with very respected backgrounds in the film industry. The film was directed by another highly respected individual, Ronald Neame, the man who had helmed "The Poseidon Adventure". On paper, the project must have looked like a "can't lose" proposition. Yet, "Meteor" turned out to be a major flop at the boxoffice as well as a critical disaster. What went wrong? To start with, it was probably ill-advised to entrust the production to American-International Pictures which specialized in making low-budget horror and teeny bopper exploitation films. The AIP association branded "Meteor" with a "cheesy" stigma even before cameras rolled.
Connery stars as a cynical, world-respected scientist whose warnings about the possibility of earth being hit by a destructive meteor have largely gone ignored. When the film opens, he is summoned to Washington by government officials who tell him the top secret bombshell disclosure that his worst nightmare is about to come true. A gigantic meteor is racing towards earth and there is only one way to stop it: by having the USA and Soviet Union join forces to synchronize their nuclear missiles in the hopes of blasting the meteor out of the sky. Brian Keith plays the Soviet foreign minister who meets up with Connery and his colleagues at a secret underground New York City command center located adjacent to the subway system(!) Natalie Wood is his comely interpreter, which allows for some mildly suggestive byplay between Connery and her. There's little time for romance, however, as advance particles from the meteor are already hitting earth and causing widespread damage. With time running out, the US and Soviet technicians scramble to employ their nuclear arsenals in a last ditch attempt to save earth. This scenario might seem stale today, but it was a relatively fresh concept back in '79. However, the film was undermined by the apparent shortage of production funds for use in the special effects. The sets are elaborate and impressive but the key sequences showing the missiles in action are laughably poor. Equally bad are the shots of the presumably menacing meteor hurtling towards earth. No matter how much the filmmakers try, it never looks much more terrifying than a large rock you might encounter in your garden. (Sean Connery once referred to the meteor special effects as making the titular objects resemble "little balls of shit".) The screenplay is a scatter shot affair. Apparently concerned that concentrating on the key characters who are locked into an underground command center might prove to be too claustrophobic, the decision was made to "open up" the scenario by showing various international locations being destroyed by meteor fragments. In doing so, the screenwriters cram in completely extraneous characters who are given approximately ten seconds each to develop personalities in the hope we can sympathize with them when they are pulverized. Thus, we see a young father in Hong Kong scrambling to get his child before a tidal wave engulfs the city. People in a ski resort in Switzerland are given equal opportunity for brief character development before they are buried under an avalanche. The sin of it all is that the production company really did film on location in these places but, aside from a few impressive snippets of crowds running frantically through the streets of Hong Kong, there is limited to value to the expenses incurred in shooting in such disparate areas of the globe.
Yet, for all its cheesiness, "Meteor" somehow plays better today than it did at the time of its initial release. This is primarily due to the fact that we can appreciate seeing the great cast members interacting on the big screen. Connery, middle-aged and handsome, makes for a fine leading man.Natalie Wood is given little of substance to do here but, given this was one of her last films, it gives us a precious opportunity to at least see her natural beauty. Brian Keith, long underrated as a leading man in feature films, steals the show, playing against type as a witty and funny Soviet diplomat. Only poor Martin Balsam comes across awful in an unintentionally funny performance as a fussy U.S. general who refuses to trust his Soviet counterparts (Fritz Weaver played essentially the same role very well in "Fail Safe" fifteen years earlier.) The finale of the film is truly impressive as a sea of mud descends upon the underground command center. The sequence was indeed a challenge to film and, if it looks like it was dangerous for the actors, it indeed was: several cast members were injured during this elaborate sequence.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is superb in terms of overall quality. As with so many special effects-laden films of the past, today's technology tends to expose the shortcomings in this pre-CGI era, but that only adds to the charm of watching a flick like this. The only bonus extra is the original theatrical trailer.
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