Wednesday, April 6, 2022

What a disaster: What comes after "Cenozoic"?


Directed by Ronald Neame
Written by Stanley Mann and Edmund H. North

Spoilers: moderate

It's belaboring the point by now, but disaster cinema flamed out mightily as the decade came to a close, and, to be sure, the last theatrically-released disaster flick of 1979, Meteor, was part of that process.  And even so, I'm kind of protective of it: to begin with, I love that a 70s disaster movie at least made an attempt to take on a subject this big, though no matter what it was about, I would've had to root for it.  For Meteor was the return to disaster cinema of Ronald Neame, the director who seven years prior had made for Irwin Allen the 70s' true-blue disaster masterpiece, The Poseidon Adventure, and, occasionally, you can even tell that this is the case.

The problems, at least, were pretty plainly beyond its director's control, starting with a screenplay that's ambivalent about what story it's trying to tell and doesn't make a final decision till pretty late in the day, and continuing with a production that I expect must have gotten away from Neame, though even that's scarcely his fault.  I guess you could lay the responsibility for astoundingly shitty effects work on a director, but it's easier and probably more accurate to blame a co-production between a pair of studios that had absolutely no institutional competency for this kind of filmmaking.  The things Neame could oversee himself, namely the practical destruction of his sets and the practical immiseration of his actorseven if this is given a disappointingly low priority by this scriptare, in fact, decent.  But to the extent that Meteor is remembered at alland it mostly isn't, besides for the fact it stars Sean Connery in the doldrums of his mid-career and for its status as one of those foggily-recalled disaster movies at the end of the fadit's as the result of an ocean-spanning alliance between those titans of east and west, the Shaw Bros. and American International Pictures (with the balance seeming to favor Shaw), to produce a movie more expensive, probably multiples of times more expensive, than any movie either studio had ever made.  It arrived with a frankly incredible pricetag of $16 million, and, nevertheless, looks clown-shoes most of the time.

This begins immediately: Meteor's very first gesture is some (not all) of its opening credits flying alongside a cometso should the movie have been called Comet? we'll circle back to thatwhich is represented by a volleyball-like spheroid object with dry ice flying off of it, careening into the distance, whilst "Samuel Z. Arkoff presents" and other words skim across it like a low-calorie version of Superman's opening credits, and leaving aside the sheer generation-before-last chintz of this effect, it's also weirdly stretched and smeary, like maybe the effects artist wasn't actually told it was supposed to be shot in Panavision.  (I can find very little about Meteor's production history, but one item on its Wikipedia page fills me with ineffable terror: that its release date was actually delayed for effects reshoots, which means somehow there were once worse effects attached to this film.)  Well, this image of a comet is replaced in a curious two-step, with an Academy ratio 50s-style classroom short about various astral bodies, and the you-can-almost-see-the-strings quality of these effects comes off slightly better, so that when the Academy square expands into Panavision to give us the (ahem) "real" asteroid belt, you at least get some sense of the idea that (presumably) Neame had been going for.  Now we get our actual title card, and give the movie this much credit: that is one bad-ass font.  I'm also embarrassingly impressed by the long dissolve transition that briefly makes it seem like a boat is floating across a starscape, and this is in fact one of approximately five or six "effects" that genuinely come off, even graded on the curve you grade junk sci-fi on, I expect because it too was probably overseen by Neame as an in-camera process shot.

The boat belongs to our hero, rocket scientist Dr. Paul Bradley (Connery).  He's engaged in a yacht race with his pals, but he's not going to finish it, for as soon as he readies the sail a Coast Guard cutter arrives and yanks him off the boat and packs him off to D.C., where his old friend Harry Sherwood (Karl Malden) is there to gravely welcome him.  Bradley, it turns out (and, while I'm not the biggest fan of this script, I do like how his backstory is mostly permitted to organically arise out of conversations, and is not the subject of some immediate infodump), walked away from his work for NASA five years back.  He was embittered that his grand project, the orbital nuclear missile station "Hercules," wasget thisrepurposed as an American weapon, in contravention of the Outer Space Treaty (the movie also more-or-less assumes you already know what the "Outer Space Treaty" is!) and in defiance of Bradley's own purpose, which was to give humanity the means, should the need arise, to deflect the trajectory of dangerous asteroids or comets if they happened to threaten the Earth.  It takes Bradley a surprisingly long time to fully comprehend why he's been so brusquely summoned.  But in conference with other military and civilian officials, Sherwood lays it out for him.  Not long ago, a mission to Mars was repurposed and sent to the asteroid belt (and it's right here that the intelligence factor of the movie declines precipitously, not just because it posits a distractingly science fictional 1979, but because the speculation it presents is so scientifically indifferent).  They were tasked with observing a new comet that had entered the asteroid belt, and observe it they did, up close and personal when that comet slammed into the asteroid Orpheus, destroying their ship with a hail of debris, but also blasting a five-mile wide chunk of Orpheus into the inner solar systemand, of course, on a curve that intercepts Earth and at a speed that will bring it into collision with Earth in just a few short days.  From Orpheus's previous orbit, 470 million kilometers away (and this is the minimum), because, as noted, this is the "willfully stupid" phase of the script.

Sherwood drags Bradley to the President (oh yeah, Henry Fonda, one more time!).  Sherwood's banking on Bradley's barking charisma to shake loose the commander-in-chief's reluctance to reveal the existence of Hercules, but President Fonda does him one better, charging Bradley with the whole mission and giving him back command of his creation as the USAF laboriously recalibrates its orbit to put it in firing position against the Orpheus fragment.  The problem that Bradley soon identifies, however, is that Hercules is not enough.  They need even more space nukesbut Bradley has long suspected that if he could do it, so could the Soviets.  Upon reaching out to America's Cold War rivals, Bradley's suspicions are confirmed with a smirk by Dr. Dubov (Brian Keith) through his translator Tatiana Donskaya (Natalie Wood), after they arrive to coordinate the joint operation of Hercules and the USSR's own orbital weapons platform, Pyotr Velikiy, at Hercules's super-duper very top secret base under the AT&T building in New Yorka state of affairs that American general Adlon (Martin Landau) refuses to allow to stand.

Well, that's the idea, and, for a solid hour, Meteor is premised more on the prospect of U.S.-Soviet hostilities forestalling any cooperation, alluding to this dire possibility in the form of cynical, scowling Soviet officials, but embodying this prospect principally in Landau's performance as a shrieking xenophobic lunatic.  It's miscalibrated as hell in this particular form (and Laundau's performance having nowhere to left to go from pretty much his first scene onward is the one big problem with Meteor that we can say that Neame completely owns), but it's not at all a bad spine for a disaster movie this global in its scope.  There are some intelligent and thorny complications that Stanley Mann and Edmund H. North's screenplay strongly appears to be seeding into this first hour, resting the drama on your awareness of the first-strike capabilities of an orbital nuclear weapons platform and the notion of two belligerent states that are compelled to trust one another without actually trusting one another, and are therefore constantly recalculating their respective strategies in the background, especially as Bradley declares that, for reasons that are scientifically sound but should be terrifying to the paranoid mind, the Soviets really need to fire their missiles first, while one imagines Gen. Adlon rubs his palms together in glee.  None of this pans out, like, whatsoever.  (The denouement for the hard-liner in their midst is not to sabotage the process, but to apologize for being an asshole!)  And there's something really, wonderfully generous about that, so that if Meteor were strong on its experiential disaster fundamentals, I would almost be willing to celebrate the optimism of it.

Of course, it isn't especially strong on those fundamentals, mostly on account of the aforementioned effects.  There's also the way the disaster kicks off, a comet plowing into an asteroid in a cosmic billiard game, that just seems, I don't know, unnecessarily inefficient from a screenwriting standpoint.  But it also looks terrible, and it's worth mentioning that Meteor came out the same year as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and despite the extremely similar concepts their effects teams were asked to render, you would never, ever guess they shared the same vintage if you screened them side-by-side.  It is, however, a comparison you're very likely to make thanks to Laurence Rosenthal's score, which sounds somewhat like if Jerry Goldsmith had been asked to score a Star Trek amusement park ride rather than a Star Trek movie.  I don't mean that in the worst way possible; I actually like the cosmic metallic "bongs" and the streaking laser gun noises that characterize it, though it's possible to argue that Neame and his editor Carl Kress, son of Poseidon editor Harold Kress, maybe overuse unexpected transitions to the meteor in space, along with blasts of Rosenthal's score, to goose their movie's tension.  (I approve of this, myself, though I'm not quite sure if I approve of Neame and Kress's 2001 transition from a dubious 70s chandelier to Bradley's orbital missile station.)

In any event, a lot of this film's disaster sequencesthe big five-mile wide dinosaur-killer is, naturally, heralded by a spray of smaller debris that can generate fun disaster modulesare rendered as nothing more impressive than optically-printed red splotches.  The sequences that aren't, meanwhile, give Sybil Danning a vanishingly small role as a skiier in the Alps, threatening her with a fate worse than death: stock footage from Avalanche.  Not even Avalanche Express, which isn't a "disaster movie" as such but does have a damn fine avalanche.  No, Avalanche, Roger Corman's entry into disaster cinema, which already underwhelmed us once with one of the lamest disaster sequences in the genre's history, and is now here to do so again.  There is, too, a conceptually-strong sequence shot in Hong Kong (it's a Shaw production, recall), involving a tidal wave triggered by a meteorite, that in the grand style of East Asian cinema can bring the desperate crowds fleeing through city streets, but can only bring optically-printed water that's unfortunately not quite as persuasive as the double-exposed water in movies about floods from the 1930s.

 starts to redeem itself only once the locus of disaster comes back to New Yorka little convenient, that, but I will absolutely accept itin a sequence that feels less like it's trying to compete with post-Star Wars VFX and humiliating itself in the process, and leans more on older-school techniques, with montaged shots of exploding miniatures culminating in a pretty superb background painting of the fanciful ditch where Manhattan used to be.  (And extra future edgelord points for destroying the World Trade Center in an image unsettlingly premonitory of 9/11.  Fireball through the side and everything.)  This is also where Neame gets to work with production designer Edward Carfango and the stunt coordinators to rather more identifiably Poseidony ends, as he grimly trashes the Hercules command center set that's been the film's central hub and kills the featured extras we've come to recognize over the last hour and a half, giving the film its single best shot, a look at the aftermath and the one "safe" place we've known rendered uncanny and sepulchral beneath a layer of white concrete dust, the one note of color across the whole frame being the Air Force's sad binders full of plans and schemes, destined to be abandoned forever.  (Neame was, after all, a pretty good filmmaker when he could be.)  Things settle into a scene of extended, quiet thrills, the survivors attempting to reach safe haven before the walls collapse and the Hudson River drowns them in their bunker, and we still have the final boss Orpheus shard to deal with, so in addition to the "will they soak?" question, we have the clammy dread of wondering whether the nukes will actually work.  Bradley and company cannot know: they're left in the dark in the ruins of the technology that moments earlier had made them godlike, or at least demigodlike.  (And so there is an all-time great version of Meteor, weaknesses and all, where we sit in the dark and die with our heroes and never learn whether they saved the planet or not, and briefly Meteor really looks like it could go in this direction, though ultimately it's only using it to amp the tension.  It's difficult to blame a disaster movie, even in the 70s, for being too commercially-conventional to kick its audience in the ballsbut then, Meteor might as well have, considering audiences only gave it about half its budget back anyway.)

I have made very little mention of the human element of Meteor, because there isn't much of oneit's focused on scientific and diplomatic procedurebut it seeps in anyway, perhaps more credibly than if it had been forced.  There's stuff here I like quite a bit, like the tangential introduction of Bradley's ex-wife early on, which miraculously only ever winds up texture for his character, for against formula it actually doesn't matter, and is barely even mentioned again.  Connery (I don't know this for sure, I'm assuming) didn't give much of a shit, but that somewhat plays in his favor in his stilted interactions with Wood, which have the shape of a "flirtation" but seem tentativenot quite mechanical, but obligatory, the mere result of sharing a room together while they comtemplate the end of the world, and therefore far more melancholy than they ever are sexy.  (Wood, a child of Ukrainian immigrants, is fairer casting as a Soviet translator than you would necessarily expect, too.  I can't tell you if her Russian's "good" but it's confident and believable.)  Meanwhile, Neame finds notes of trauma and tragedy, even in a screenplay that isn't really that enthusiastic about providing them, and there are moments where the maker of The Poseidon Adventure reveals himself.  The Hong Kong sequence is let down by its effects, but I appreciate any disaster film that has the guts to kill a kid, let alone (as this one does) a dog.  And Neame has been careful to forward a pair of lovers (cutely, a female administrator and her male assistant), not so much that they've ever stolen the spotlight from the screenplay's heroes, but always so we know they're present, and when the time comes you remember that this was the guy who killed half of his cast in front of the other half of his cast and then made them sit with it in Poseidon.  For the most part, this isn't even close to that film in quality.  But nothing in it is so bad as to justify its trashbin reputation, and it's good often enough to be a reasonably worthwhile sit for the disaster cinema fan.

Score: 6/10

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