NBC's Remake of 'Meteor' Leaves a Bad Impression

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

Trashmaster John Waters, the cinematic "Bard of Baltimore," has said that remakes are objectionable only when the film being copied is a classic, or at least very good; it's the bad films that should be remade. Although that sounds reasonable, the adage "be careful what you wish for" applies again: NBC's remake of the 1979 bomb "Meteor" is even bombier, and definitely balmier, than the original.

The film goes beyond mere mediocrity to a gratuitous, mean-spirited ugliness that makes watching it not a campy hoot but a near-sickening ordeal. A two-parter that launches a Sunday night series of summer sci-fi movies, "Meteor" is barely five minutes old when guns are being brandished, violence perpetrated, head-bashing threatened and murder and rape plainly in the offing.

What has any of that to do with a huge swarm of meteors high-tailing it on a collision course with embattled Planet Earth? Answer: Far too much, and certainly enough to discredit the picture as pleasant, popcorny pulp.

The original film had a surprisingly stellar cast, all of them slumming, probably for quick and cushy paychecks. Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Trevor Howard, Martin Landau, Karl Malden and Henry Fonda as the president found themselves trapped not so much by a meteor shower as by a trite scenario, ploddingly put together.

NBC's version plods, too, when it isn't involved in bloodletting, torture, murder and other forms of social perversity. The filmmakers take the occasion of a disaster movie to portray Americans largely as a pack of jackals who face a crisis by behaving as abominably as possible -- whether hoarding necessities and selling them at wildly inflated prices or instantly turning uncivilized and taking shots at one another.

Leader of the pack is Michael Rooker as a homicidal maniac who shoots everything in sight and kidnaps a teenage girl, whom he viciously brutalizes. Roughly a counterpart to the creep played by Marjoe Gortner in "Earthquake" (like "Meteor" a tacky Universal production), he's the kind of monster who keeps bouncing back and gets the bulk of the screen time.

Stacy Keach plays his pot-bellied polar opposite, a small-town sheriff who appeals to the locals to please help, rather than slaughter, one another. Billy Campbell is his son; he spends most of his time behind the wheel of one vehicle or another.

Though a token effort is made to show the many, many meteors crashing down in such places as Moscow, Paris and New York, it's Southern California that bears the brunt. The special effects are good by TV standards, but some corners have obviously been cut. We're told a meteor collided with a plane in the sky, but this spectacular sight isn't in the movie. Considering how many times the Earth's major cities have been leveled by special-effects disasters in movies of the past decade or so, it seems chintzy to show meteors approaching, yet not quite striking, the Eiffel Tower, among other prominent targets.

Ground zero, oddly, is the tiny California town of Taft, to which the characters and the narrative keep returning. No matter how many times we go back there, however, the town is always politely identified with the on-screen caption "Taft, California," just in case it's slipped our minds. The entire movie is likely to slip your mind even as you watch it.

The cast isn't as stellar as the one in 1979's "Meteor," but it does include such relatively big names as Jason Alexander (George Costanza no longer pretending to be an architect, now pretending to be a general), Ernie Hudson, the aforementioned Billy Campbell, and Marla Sokoloff as the daughter of a brilliant if eccentric scientist played by Christopher Lloyd, essentially reprising his "Back to the Future" shtick, albeit a toned-down version.

Sokoloff's character is particularly confounding in that she wanders all over Mexico, unable to get a lift back to the States or simply make a phone call -- even though she alone possesses the essential information on how to battle the big meteor and its dozens of companions. Nearly raped in a Mexican jail, greeted with snarls and loaded guns wherever she seeks assistance, she manages to commandeer a police car and then stupidly stops at a border crossing just so she can be captured again.

Although most of the people Sokoloff meets nearly froth with meanness, she finally encounters a sweet little old lady who lets her use the phone and thus save the world. First, however, the dear girl expresses justifiable hopelessness: "I think we're all going to die," she moans, to which the Little Old Lady responds, "I've come to terms with who I am and how I've lived my life, and I'm surprisingly happy."

Fine, but who asked for her autobiography? Whatever, it's enough to jolt the heroine out of her funk and set her back on the path to Earth's salvation. "I can't," she says pluckily, "I can't just give up! Not if there's still a chance!" Shouts the Little Old Lady: "Then you go, girl!"

It's the only really good laugh in the picture.

Meteor (two hours) premieres tomorrow night at 9 on NBC. Part 2 airs next Sunday at 9 p.m.

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