In the same way that movie execs can’t keep their damn hands off of superhero films, no matter how many times we slap ‘em away, the 70s marked an historic decade in summer blockbuster films: total fucking disasters, very literally. While Irwin Allen was considered the god of all disaster films—producer of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Flood!, Fire!, and The Night the Bridge Fell down, among many others—alongside him was Ronald Neame, a carefree, whiskey-loving director who once said The Poseidon Adventure was his very favorite film, because he made a whole lot of money. So in 1979, American International Pictures knocked on Neame’s door with a film script based on a 1967 MIT student project that was based on a 1964 film (Fail-Safe), and Neame ostensibly said, “Sure, what the hell else am I doing?”
To put this film in context, consider that Apocalypse Now, Being There, The Deerhunter, All That Jazz, Norma Rae, Alien, and Kramer vs. Kramer were all honored that year in film. Looking at the plywood sets and chocolate milk mudslides of Meteor, it’s difficult to believe these films at one time shared the same ecosystem, but such is Hollywood. API made Meteor to be a blockbuster with a low budget and star-studded cast, which was one of many tried-and-true methods for them, resulting in so many amazing(ly bad) films (Beach Party, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, Gas-s-s-s, Blacula, Foxy Brown), it’s difficult to believe they failed (the above list isn’t even including their lifetime of collaborations with Roger Corman), but somewhere along the line, the formula finally failed, and Meteor was largely to blame.
With a budget of 16M, Neame got creative with his disaster footage, even cutting corners and taking some footage of an avalanche directly from the 1978 film Avalanche. Presumably, the budget wasn’t spent on set decorations, as you can see the same globes, wall art, and maps in almost every room depicted, which is ingenious, because of course NASA scientists cover their homes in globes. Most likely, the budget went to multiple star salaries and a huge supporting cast. The only problem was instead of banking on the new Hollywood era and appealing to their usual market—nineteen-year-old males—API cast a decidedly older crowd, including Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Martin Landau, and Henry Fonda, the latter of whom actually played almost the exact same role as an unnamed president in Fail-Safe.
At the time, Connery’s most notable roles to Americans were his portrayals of James Bond, but he had already been replaced there by a much-revered Roger Moore. Natalie Wood was 39 when the film saw release and was already working her way down the terrible Hollywood drain, being relegated to TV movies, including a remake of From Here to Eternity that aired in 1979 as well. Fonda had fallen on dry times and had already made a disaster film with Irwin Allen (The Swarm), but his work outside of this was also only on television. And Landau, a perennial character actor, had to speak Russian for the entirety of the film (Landau and Wood were actually both fluent in Russian). It’s not exactly clear what API was thinking in casting these four leads, especially with zero charm in the script that could give them anything to do. In fact, Connery spends most of he script telling Wood that she’s attractive, pretty much ignoring the fact that she’s an astrophysicist. In a landmark year for women in Hollywood — Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Sally Field — Wood being catcalled while trying to save the world from a meteor collision may not have satisfied audiences (it’s also interesting to note that the other woman in the story is the first to go in the chocolate milk mudslides, because, OH WELL!).
Meteor only made around 8M at the box office and was blown away by a new school of film that embraced the über-harsh realisms of the world. The public shied away from disaster films, which were seen as overdone already, and the early 80's marked a new blockbuster moment in film when the idea of four-quadrant movies prevailed, meaning they appealed to men, women, boys, and girls equally (read: E.T., Star Wars, Ghost Busters, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Strangely enough, API also released The Amityville Horror that same year with James Brolin and Margot Kidder, which blew the box office away, and their remaining funds went into a little ol’ Australian film called Mad Max that launched many careers. Yet, despite this, Meteor was able to kill the Hollywood giant that could not recover from its one last disaster.
Hollywood still hasn’t totally learned its lesson; Deep Impact and Armageddon, both based on Meteor, premiered the exact same year in summer blockbuster season. And in 2009, a terrible TV mini-series sharing the same title premiered and promptly flopped on NBC. When will the disaster end? With a host of apocalyptic fantasy films produced in the past decade, who the hell knows—a lot of people die, and we really seem to like it!