Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Meteor
As we reach deeper into the recesses of cheesy movie making, there is one company we’ve been amiss in not mentioning before: American International Pictures. Long before the Go-Go Boys at Cannon and ages before Dino De Laurentiis came to the US, AIP made low-budget pictures by the bushel. Founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the company’s operating theory — as later defined by Arkoff — was to produce double bills of pictures aimed at nineteen-year-old white males. As one of the first film companies to utilize focus groups, they learned just about everyone would watch a movie aimed at that demographic while other demos failed to create crossover appeal. Today, we might call this the “four-quad” theory of movie making, but AIP was there first. And in doing so, the company defined a number of film genres like beach party pictures and biker movies. They also spearheaded an interest in horror films during the 1950s; aided by Roger Corman, who directed a number of the company’s productions. In the 1960s, he convinced Nicholson and Arkoff to give him bigger budgets for a cycle of films based on Edgar Allen Poe short stories and novels. The films would mostly star Vincent Price and give AIP something of a rep among the lower-tier production houses. In fact, Nicholson and Arkoff expected to become a smaller major studio.
But by the 1970s, Nicholson had left the company for a development deal at 20th Century Fox and Corman had his own company. Arkoff soldiered on with blaxploitation pictures like Foxy Brown and more expensive productions like the 1977 Island of Dr. Moreau and this weekend’s cheesy movie, Meteor, which proves that even with name stars and big budgets, some producers cannot escape their cheesy roots.
The plot concerns Dr. Paul Bradley (Sean Connery), a retired NASA engineer called back into service when a Mars mission discovers a 5-mile wide meteor is headed for Earth. As it happens, Bradley devised a missile shield for such an occasion, but resigned when his project was used to put a number of illicit nuclear devices in orbit over the USSR. Displeased by the whole situation, Bradley declares there is only one solution: admit to the missiles above Russia and convince them to use their illicit orbital missile platform in a joint effort to destroy the meteor or push it into a safe orbit.
Despite some blowback from the military on both sides, Dr. Alexei Dubov (Brian Keith) is dispatched from the Soviet Union to assess the situation, but not commit their missile platform that most certainly does not exist (it does). After Bradley and Dubov size each other up — and a smaller fragment from the asteroid belt wipes out a Swiss town filled with holidaymakers — the two countries agree to use their orbital arsenal against the big space rock. And while they slowly get the missiles into alignment, more smaller-scale meteors hit parts of Hong Kong and New York to various levels of devastation.
And if the plot sounds a little dry, that’s part of the charm. Despite previous AIP’s more raucous past, Meteor aspires to be a classier film with stars like Connery, Keith, Karl Malden, Martin Landau and Natalie Wood. The result is often quite stagey, with the name actors watching news reports of devastation in other parts of the world. The disasters, meanwhile, attempt to be mini-movies with recognizable faces like Sybil Danning and Clyde Kusatsu caught up in the tumult, but each disaster sequence fails to build the characters enough for the viewer to care when they are caught up in the laughable special effects disasters. More on that in a moment.
Back at the missile command center, Connery and Wood attempt to ignite a tepid romantic subplot while Landau hams it up as the warhawk general unconvinced he should hand over his orbital missiles to the cause. It’s a hilariously outsized performance considering the tone of the film, but it is often a welcome respite from the cooler heads trying to avert an extinction level event. In fact, the film’s lack of panic may be one of the cheesier and yet most unsettling things about it. But the fact Landau’s freakouts, the Connery/Wood affair and even Keith’s interactions with a few other performers on the set underlines just how cheap this more expensive AIP production really is. Nearly all of the scenes with the main stars occur there, creating a fascinating dissonance between their work and the effects disasters outside. Even when New York gets leveled, the damage to missile command — hidden deep beneath AT&T’s New York headquarters — seems mild in comparison to the devastation happening above. And that disconnect shows on the faces of the named characters as they languidly escape from the command center to a nearby subway station.
In fact, this disconnect between the featured players and the disasters portrayed is a quality it shares with Avalanche. And in each case, it makes both films poor examples of the disaster genre as you need a character you’ve invested some time with to be at the center of the chaos. If you don’t, then you’re riding on just the effects; which is another thing Meteor shares with Avalanche. On the Kino Lorber Avalanche Blu-ray release, Corman makes an oblique reference to an old colleague buying disaster footage from Avalanche to complete his own disaster movie. And if one happened to watch Avalanche a week before seeing Meteor, one will recognize a surprising amount of Meteor‘s avalanche in the Swiss Alps as scenes from Avalanche. Curiously, Corman’s recollection made it sound as though AIP had purchased raw snow storm effects. Instead, a few key moments, including Bruce’s tumble into the snow drift, appear in Meteor. It is truly stunning to see and indicative of just how cheaply Arkoff made this picture. Despite an injection of cash from Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, it seems Arkoff sunk most of his budget on secure star talent.
Which, honestly, isn’t the worst idea. 70s Connery is pretty damned dependable; as are performers like Keith, Wood, Malden, Trevor Howard, Richard Dysart and Joseph Campanella. In fact, the only person clearly on Quaaludes here is Henry Fonda, who makes several appearances as the President of the United States. As in Tentacles, Fonda’s thoughts are a million miles away, but even that has a charm to it. As do the silly model effects made specifically for the film.
Also aiding the film’s cheese factor is its premise. Despite a legitimate fear — in fact, the film was itself based on a 1968 M.I.T. paper about anti-meteor defense options — no movie using the concept has been creatively successful. Even when the dueling films Deep Impact and Armageddon were released, they were stuck with many of the same problems seen in Meteor. The concept is too vast for a conventional action movie and seemingly too silly for a more upscale drama. And as Meteor itself proves, it can lead to a stupefyingly slow, but cheesy, experience.
Meteor is available for rent on Amazon Prime and for sale on Blu-ray.