American International Pictures is mostly associated with 1950’s and ’60s b-movie fare, most notably the works of Roger Corman. But the ’70s were no less of a productive decade for AIP than were the ’50s and ’60s. In that mustard yellow decade of Nixon, Ford, and Carter, AIP produced or distributed many of the notable films in the blaxploitation genre, while keeping to its horror and regular exploitation roots with such titles as The Incredible Melting Man and 1000 Convicts and a Woman. One thing all AIP flicks seem to have in common is a desire to make a quick buck while not being beholden to any higher purpose in cinema. That makes any viewer not just a customer of AIP, but something of a mark. There is a minimum expectation of quality in any random American film audience, despite what others think about our culture, and it was the rare AIP flick that managed to meet this standard, nor did they try. Meteor, distributed by AIP, is an excellent case in point.
Meteor was produced by the near-deathless Hong Kong media mogul Sir Run Run Shaw (seriously, he was 106 when he finally died in 2014), and helmed by Ronald Neame, who cut his teeth directing disaster flicks with The Poseidon Adventure. The film tells the story of a meteor on a collision course with Earth, and the efforts of former NASA expert Dr. Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) to stop it.
That’s not a bad idea for a movie, as witnessed by how many times the idea has been filmed. But it’s also a tall order, owing to the visual effects demands, for all but the most loftily financed productions. Meteor was not one of those. Sure, it had a budget of $16 million, half of 1979’s big-ticket blockbuster Moonraker, so it wasn’t peanuts, but it looks like all that money went towards big names in the cast rather than the production. Besides Connery, the cast includes Natalie Wood as Soviet scientist and interpreter Tatiana Donskaya; Karl Malden as Harry Sherwood, a bigwig at NASA; and Martin Landau and Brian Keith in supporting roles. Oh, and Henry Fonda swooped into the film for a day’s worth of shooting and a check for playing The President of the United States. He says his lines and exposits with much gravitas and little rehearsal, and then he flies away back into semi-retirement. All those names had to have sucked up a lot of that 16 mil.
That’s the only excuse I can think of for this film to look so bad. The special effects are dreadful. The meteor never integrates into shots. There is some preliminary destruction before the big show in the final act, and it has no pretense to realism. It’s just light flashing in the sky, and even that looks so fake it rips a person right out of suspension of disbelief. There’s also a fair amount of model work that takes place in space. The models, unfortunately, never look like anything but models. Contrast that with the work from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, also released that year, and it’s easy to see where that $16 million did NOT go.
As for the plot, Bradley is a disgruntled former NASA employee. He was the designer of a satellite called Hercules, which is armed with a dozen or so high-yield nuclear missiles. The satellite was designed to protect the planet against a threat like the approaching meteor, but was instead co-opted by the military as a Cold War weapons platform. That’s why Bradley left NASA in a huff. But now they need him back.
A previously unknown comet has struck a chunk of rock in the asteroid belt, and sent it careening towards us. The only way to stop it is to use Hercules for its intended purpose, which in this film means convincing the government to allow that to happen. There’s some wrangling and infighting, necessary to establish some drama in a film where the real drama won’t arrive until the finale, but it’s still stupid. At least Landau, who plays a recalcitrant Air Force General, gave life to these sequences. He’s so unhinged at points that I can’t help but believe he knew exactly the kind of movie he was in, and decided the best response was to go full ham. Quite frankly, that may be the best thing to do in any cheesy movie starring Sean Connery.
Connery wears a perpetual scowl throughout the film. Sure, his character may have left NASA over Hercules, but were this a real person, I suspect the problem might have been his personality more than anything else. Neither Connery nor the character he plays looked all that happy to be in this film, and never more so than in the finale when Neame decided to slather his cast in sticky mud. How the film got to this moment is unimportant. Just know that when the mud hits Connery for the first time, he looks genuinely pissed.
For the first half, this film is indistinguishable from a 1950s b-science fiction movie, only it was filmed in color. The sets and dialogue were that inane, and Malden actually wears a short tie. The final act is very much a 1970s disaster flick. In fact, I had forgotten Neame had directed The Poseidon Adventure before researching for this review, but it makes sense. More than once during the final act I noticed the similarities between that and this film.
No one should bother watching this movie for a satisfying experience. It’s definitely for the shitty movie fan, but even then, the experience is uneven. The slow spots in this flick make the submarine sequences in Raise the Titanic look tense and gripping. There’s just enough absurdity for the shitty movie connoisseur to get some chuckles, but it will be hard to stay focused while watching another model drift slowly across the screen. Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than Meteor.
Of final note is the science. I didn’t bring this up in the main body of the review because I’ve found the plausibility of the science in a film has zero bearing on whether or not I, or anyone else, will watch it. The science in this film stinks. About all they get right is that a meteor of the size in the film on a collision course with Earth would indeed scare every astronomer on the planet shitless. But, that’s about it. I mention it only to note that the film could still have been made while being true to how things move about in the solar system, making the ersatz depiction of science unnecessary.