Monday 22 February 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: Meteor

There is a solution to every problem. This fundamental truth should pacify us all, particularly when a five-mile wide lump of rock breaks free of the Asteroid Belt and heads our way.

Nuclear weapons get a bad rap, on the whole. Generally speaking, when the nukes get dusted off, there's a feeling of resignation and defeat in the air. How refreshing it is, then, when bulk-watching disaster films to get to one featuring a celestial body threatening all life on earth. All of a sudden the Manhattan Project looks like an insurance policy. Robert Oppenheimer lightens up and appears on The Graham Norton Show joshing with his other guests, Chris Martin and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Problem: five-mile wide asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Solution: Hercules! Hercules is the United States' contribution to world peace, a satellite in geostationary orbit with 14 100-megaton nuclear warheads pointed at the Soviet Union. It's the kind of thing that makes everyone feel that bit safer. Fortunately, Hercules can be rotated so that its payload points outward and make that asteroid feel the cut of our collective jib.

Uh-oh. Supplementary problem. The USA's top space flotsam science man, who improbably looks and sounds just like noted Scotsman Sean Connery, says that Hercules' death load will be quite insufficient for the task at hand. Like taking Gwyneth Paltrow to an all-you-can-eat chicken buffet.

But remember, there's always a solution. In this particular case it is Peter The Great. Peter The Great is the name of the USSR's peace initiative, floating somewhere above the United States, biding its time and packing serious heat. Of course, these are Hollywood movie Soviets, so they are shifty no-good bastards who initially deny it. But once Sean explains the gravity of the situation, the Russians fess up and a multinational death force of unimaginable destructive magnitude is assembled to blast some serious rock ass.

Of course, the true joy in films like Meteor is that the writers get to have some fun poking holes in the preposterousness of Cold War politics when projected across a broader backdrop. Martin Landau, now seemingly high up in the US military is flabbergasted. You can't let the Soviets into our control centres. They'll steal all the upload codes, not flush the toilet and besides, this measly god damn rock will just break up in the atmosphere. Not even Sean's growling or the firm hand of President Henry Fonda on the tiller can convince him otherwise.

He is not alone. Even after the announcement is made to a largely indifferent world, people seem able to get on with their business with admirable coolness. This air of calm persists until the rock begins to splinter, sending smaller but still devastating meteors crashing to Earth. A Swiss skiing marathon is quite severely disrupted, causing Martin Landau to cast his doubts aside.

As impact day - December 7th, a date which really would live in infamy - arrives, there's much more palpable tension. Sean is swapping his wig for one which is slightly more progressively grey on an hourly basis. Just as the US launch their missiles, a further splinter decimates New York City. First to fall is the World Trade Center, something which could never happen in real life. Unfortunately, New York is also the location of the centre for Earth-saving operations and our heroes are quickly thrust into an unseemly bonus battle for survival with a spectacularly muddy Hudson River.

Meteor is actually a really good little film. I was surprised. Surprised because I've seen enough big budget disaster movies from their golden age of the 1970s to know what to expect. Crap, essentially. Big name stars phoning in a performance, shoddy dialogue and trite situations. Which is not to say I don't love them all; but finding one that is a little better than the norm was a treat nevertheless. My favourite thing was that for once, the all-star cast was, on the whole, very well used. I would certainly have voted for Henry Fonda to be President and the multiple requirements of the Soviet interpreter to be able to speak fluent Russian, be a woman, bewitch Sean Connery AND be a famous film star were admirably met by Natalie Wood. It was a toss up between her and Yul Brynner, presumably. But with Sean Connery already on the payroll, they probably couldn't stretch the wig budget. And of course Trevor Howard is a beknighted astrophysicist ensconced at Jodrell Bank. Of course Trevor Howard! Of course Jodrell Bank!

The only potentially shaky bit of casting is Sean Connery, who I think is supposed to be an American. But we've been here with Connery before. Sean Connery doesn't have a nationality or an accent, per se. He is just Connery. Got to love a bit of Connery. Meteor gets a bold SEVEN out of 10 disaster points.

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