It seems like only yesterday that "Meteor" was shaping up as an entertainment more presentable than the ragged turkey now embarrassing itself on several neighborhood screens.
A budget of $17 million was reportedly lavished on this premise: A comet streaking through the asteroid belt knocks a gigantic meteor, Orpheus, into collision course with Earth, compelling the Soviet and American governments to pool nuclear arsenals in an 11th-hour effort to avert disaster.
Sean Connery was enticed into the project and was followed by Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Henry Fonda (again cast as president of the United States), Trevor Howard, Martin Landau and others. Not exactly fresh faces, but still a reputable ensemble. At least $3 million was reportedly reserved for the "spectacular" special effects.
Far from making a splash as a disaster thriller, "Meteor" looks like a cheapie and just goes splat.
The vaunted special effects -- optical tricks and miniature work -- turn out to be of fly-by-night quality. The dreaded meteor resembles a harmless piece of driftwood. Perhaps the most impressive "special effect" is a tinted newsreel shot of an office building being dynamited, an image inserted to illustrate the damage done by a smallish meteor that turns most of Manhattan into a smoldering crater.
Still, "Meteor" may be enjoyed as a harmless clunker, no better or worse in its moronic way than obscurities like "Avalanche" or "Tidal Wave," but not to be compared with transcendent absurdities like "The Concorde -- Airport '79."
For example, I adored the opening credits, which copied the style of "Superman" but ran the names in the opposite direction. I've certainly never seen the name "SAMUEL Z. ARKOFF" loom as large and sizzle at me, too. I also admired the sound of a highfalutin prologue -- "The Universe! An infinite playground for that occasional blazing visitor, the comet!" -- and the way Karl Marden, cast as the director of NASA, brought deadpan urgency to such elegant expository dialogue as, "There's a chunk of Orpheus headed toward Earth, a pretty big one. And there are a lot of little pieces coming along with it. But it's the big one we're worried about."
According to the L.A. Times, Connery was signed for a salary in "the high six figures." On screen he looks as if he would gladly trade all six for directions to the nearest exit.
Informed that the planet may face obliteration in less than a week, Connery still insists on holding grudges against Malden -- one for interrupting his weekend of yacht racing.
Brian Keith and Natalie Wood have it much better as the Russians who arrive to help, a genial astrophysicist and his efficient translator. Enjoying the joke immensely, Keith speaks all his lines in phonetic Russian while bestowing foxy grandpa smiles left, right and center. Affecting a Russian accent appears to give Wood, whose parents were Russian immigrants, a vocal style and control she's never seem to have before.
One of the few bright ideas in the script is the gambit ascribed to Fonda's president, who nudges the Russians into cooperating by revealing that both countries have secret orbiting nuclear installations, adding the astute white lie that the missiles have always been pointed away from Earth, anticipating just such an emergency as the approach of Orpheus.
The greatest dumb idea is the moment when Trevor Howard, manning the Jodrell Bank Observatory, calls Connery at the command center, located in a Manhattan bunker, to warn that a little meteor is headed straight for them. "When is it due?" Connery inquires. "Just about now," Howard airily replies.
Martin Landau also merits a crisp salute for his frothing-at-the-mouth portrayal of the stiff-necked American general who loathes the very idea of trusting the Russians. It's a triumph of hackneyed paranoia.