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Disaster Du Jour: Meteor (1979)



Until I watched it again a few weeks back, I don’t think I’d seen the movie Meteor (1979) in 20+ years. From what I remember watching it years ago, Meteor was a decent disaster flick that was a bit slow at times. Watching it again today, I found that Meteor was a decent disaster flick that was actually paced quite well. It’s not the best Earth vs. asteroid movie ever made, but it might be the most interesting one.

meteorIn Meteor, though it’s never spelled out, it seems like the movie’s set in the (then) near future where astronauts and cosmonauts are out separately exploring the solar system far beyond the Earth. On one of these expeditions out on in the asteroid belt astronauts witness a cosmic collision that sends a gigantic meteor on a collision course with the Earth.

In just six days our planet is going to be hit, and it’s up to scientist Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) to convince both the US and USSR to use their nuclear arsenals they have aimed at each other to destroy the incoming rock. But there are disagreements, of course, and some in the US military don’t want to be unarmed afterwards against the red bear.

1288094104Will Bradley be able to convince the government that being alive is better than being dead but still having all your nukes safe in their silos? Will the Russians cooperate with the US? But, more importantly, Will Bradley and Russian translator Tatiana Donskaya (Natalie Wood) ever cut through the sexual tension to have that first kiss?

What I found most interesting about watching Meteor was the idea that in a time of global crisis global enemies the US and the USSR could work together to avert disaster.

The time period Meteor was filmed wasn’t the best time for US and USSR relations. All throughout the 1970s the Cold War had been building and building and the two superpowers were constructing and stockpiling more and more nuclear weapons that were aimed at each other. And all it would take was one little mistake that could mean nuclear Armageddon for all.

But there was also a bit of a thaw in the Cold War in the 1970s too. In 1975 the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project a US capsule docked with a Soviet one in orbit and the two countries ran scientific experiments together — which wouldn’t happen again until the 1990s when astronauts visited the Mir space station. I’m sure that it was in this spirit that Meteor was written.

Natalie Wood muddy post-impact

Natalie Wood muddy post-impact

In Meteor, Bradley learns that technology he developed to stop asteroids from colliding with the Earth was developed without his knowledge, except that rather than being pointed outward the system was pointed towards the USSR. And the Soviets had developed their own similar weapons system and aimed it at the US too.

Much of Meteor is spent with Bradley trying to get the Americans, who don’t trust the motives of the Soviets, to work with the Soviets, who don’t trust the motives of the Americans. And Bradley finds an ally in the most unexpected of places; with Soviet Dr. Dubov (Brian Keith) and his translator Donskaya.

Sean Connery and Karl Malden

Sean Connery and Karl Malden

I think it would have been easy to make Dubov the bad guy but instead he actually has the best interests of the planet at heart. If there’s a villain of Meteor, other than, well, the meteor, that would have been General Adlon (Martin Landau) who’s more fearful of the Soviets than any darn space rock and tries to derail the alliance whenever he can.

We do get the standard scenes of disaster in Meteor. Here, there are massive avalanches that takes out a ski resort, a tsunami wiping out Hong Kong and the destruction of New York by a smaller pieces of the rock. While the special effects used in Meteor all have a certain level of charm, the low budget of Meteor shows through in these pieces that only serve to bring the movie down as a whole to modern eyes.

But the central idea of Meteor, that perhaps our massive arsenal of Armageddon weapons might be used to actually avert Armageddon, is actually very interesting and a bit subversive too for the time too. I guess the overall message of Meteor is that nuclear weapons are necessary, if they’re in the right hands. Grade: C+




Disaster Du Jour: I Am Legend (2007)



Know this — most of this article deals the the theatrical and alternate endings to the 2007 movie I Am Legend. So, if you’ve never seen that movie before and you don’t want to know how Legend ends it might be smart to look away now. And if you haven’t seen Legend before please run out and see it immediately!

You have been warned.

Robert Neville seeks shelter from the noises outside

Robert Neville seeks shelter from the noises outside

I’m a big fan of the book I Am Legend and when a Legend movie was released in 2007 I was ecstatic. The ’07 version of Legend follows Robert Neville (Will Smith), the last survivor of a plague that kills most but turns some into blood-thirsty sun-phobic vampire-mutants. Neville spends his days wandering New York City, looking for supplies and capturing some of the vampire-mutants to run experiments on to try and find a cure for the disease and rescue humanity.

Along the way not quite last survivor Neville finds two other survivors, Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), who are passing through New York heading to a survivor colony nearby. But their family is short lived; the vampire-mutants follow the group back to Neville’s house/fortress and attack looking to eliminate the last of the non-infected people from the island of New York.

One of the vampire mutants

One of the vampire mutants

In the ending of Legend that was released in theaters, the vampire-mutants have forced Neville, Anna and Ethan into Neville’s basement lair, err… I mean lab. The group is somewhat protected by a blast shield down there, but the vampire-mutants are strong and are slowly breaking down the barrier. As things are looking the bleakest Neville realizes that he’s finally found the cure to the disease from one of the vampire-mutants he’s experimented on. He takes a blood sample and gives the vial to Anna and Ethan, whom he hides in an old furnace/fireplace. Neville has one last look at a photo of his wife and daughter, grabs a hand grenade and when the vampire-mutants finally break through the barrier he charges them blowing everything to smithereens leaving Anna and Ethan to escape to the survivor colony with the cure.

Neville, Anna and Ethan

Neville, Anna and Ethan

Which is a bit of a letdown. Not because the Neville character dies, he dies too in original book and the other two Legend films too, but because it goes against everything that the rest of the movie had been setting up of regret and redemption for the Neville character.

In the much better alternate ending that was released along with the theatrical cut on home video, the movie’s essentially the same to the point where Neville’s group are trapped in the basement. Except here there’s a pause in the action when the head vampire-mutant takes a moment to smear what looks to be a butterfly on the barrier in his blood. And in that moment Neville realizes that these might be vampire-mutants, but they’ve also got a bit of their humanity left intact too since the one he’s been experimenting on has a butterfly tattoo and the vampire-mutant outside just wants his girl back.

Neville realizes what he’s done. In a world ruled by vampire-mutants it’s Neville who’s the monster, snatching these creatures from their hideaways to take them back to his lab and experiment on them.

i_am_legendAnd in this moment is where Legend comes to its own as a film. The original version ends with a lot of screaming and “ka-booms!” with Neville sacrificing himself to save humanity. The alternate version has Neville coming to the realization that no matter what he wishes, there is a new world order which can’t be changed no matter how many hand grenades he has.

Left by the vampire-mutants after Neville gives up the one he captured, the final moments of the alternative Legend has Neville, Anna and Ethan driving out of the city. They might be headed towards a survivor colony or they might be heading towards their own doom at the hands of other vampire-mutants. Leaving their fates to our imaginations and simply not having a definite end to the story is what makes this version of Legend so darn great.

Theatrical I Am Legend, Grade: B. Alternative cut, Grade: A-

The alternate cut of I Am Legend is available on Blu-ray, DVD as well as to rent/buy on iTunes and Amazon.




Disaster Du Jour: Maximum Overdrive



Gruesome poster for a DVD release of Maximum Overdrive

Gruesome poster for a DVD release of Maximum Overdrive

I can declare that Maximum Overdrive is almost, very nearly, but not quite, a great movie. It’s close to being in the same league as the original Night of the Living Dead and Halloween films but comes up just a bit short. Writer/director Stephen King is nearly able to give Maximum Overdrive an underlying message to make the movie more than just the sum of its parts while at the same time delivering the gore and scares but in the end falls short.

In Maximum Overdrive, when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet all the machines on the planet spring to life, go crazy and seemingly have the singular goal of murdering everyone in sight. If it’s not the mower cutting the dad instead of the lawn then it’s the pop machine shooting out sodas at unsuspecting little leaguers or the semis prowling the interstates looking for their next unsuspecting car to squish.

Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington

Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington

The movie follows a group of random survivors who find themselves at a truck stop just off the interstate and learn that if they want to survive they must feed a never ending fleet of big rigs lined up on the road needing gasoline to fuel their destruction of the human race.

Maximum Overdrive is the kind of movie where if you can accept that one of these semis can silently creep up on a man, then have the magical power to accelerate to a speed fast enough to catch said person off guard and run them down then you’ll probably enjoy the movie. If you are not down with that logic, it’s probably best that you find your entertainment elsewhere.

One of the murderous trucks

One of the murderous trucks

I was most certainly down with the logic of Maximum Overdrive.

Essentially, Maximum Overdrive is a re-imagining of Night of the Living Dead but with trucks in the place of the zombie ghouls. Seriously, no joke. Here, instead of the survivors holing up in an abandoned farmhouse, they hole up in the Dixie Boy truck stop. And instead of the group coming to rely on African American Ben (Duane Jones) for survival, they rely on ex-con turned short order cook Bill (Emilio Estevez).

Deliciously campy Maximum Overdrive poster

Deliciously campy Maximum Overdrive poster

Where King is nearly able to transcend the genera is that he’s almost able to tie in the idea that our dependence on machines and oil makes us slaves of the machines and not, as we like to think, the other way around. There’s an interesting little speech Bill gives at one point about the gas at the truck stop that’s “practically uncut” like drugs, but it comes off so ham handed and over the top it’s more of a comedic than a dramatic one and it fails to give the movie any deeper meaning.

It’s almost like King was on the verge of saying something interested but pulled back at the last moment hence the comedy rather than drama.

Emilio Estevez in Maximum Overdrive

Emilio Estevez in Maximum Overdrive

That being said, I did think Maximum Overdrive was a fun movie, if plagued with logic problems. Like, how exactly does one of these semis that’s sprung to life drive itself? Is there some weird ghost driver or is it something in the mechanics? And why do some machines spring to life and not others? If  (spoiler alert) all the machines are under the control of this force, how do the Russians use one of their satellites (aka a machine) to stop a coming alien invasion and deactivate the murderous machines?

It would help the movie too if the characters weren’t so broad and ill-defined. There are several characters here who have the annoying habit of shouting most of their lines — “WE MADE YOUUUU!!!” springs to mind. The most well drawn character of the bunch is “Bubba” (Pat Hingle) who seems to be having a ball with his character of an unapologetic slimy southern gun-loving cigar-chomping owner of the Dixie Boy. If only everyone else were having as much fun here as Hingle.

Still, Maximum Overdrive is a decent enough movie that’s probably best enjoyed watched in the dark, late at night preferably with a group. Maximum Overdrive is available on DVD. Grade: C.




Disaster Du Jour: By Dawn’s Early Light



bdel2Fear of a global thermonuclear war was very real in the 1980s. At the height of the cold war the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at the US and NATO countries and we had just as many aimed at Russia and Warsaw Pact countries too. What people feared was that some minor conflict between the US and the USSR would spiral out of control and we’d fire our missiles at them and they at us which would essentially send what was left of mankind back to the stone age. Movies like The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) and Testament (1983) explored life post nuke war and the picture they painted weren’t nice ones.

But after the Soviet Union began to collapse and the cold war started to wind down in the late 1980s and early 90s fear of a nuclear war between “us and them” began to diminish. Surly with the United States and the Soviet Union on good terms a nuclear war would be out of the question. Right?

The main crux of the movie By Dawn’s Early Light (1990) was that no, in fact the possibility of a nuclear war was actually GREATER now that controls over these weapons were slowly being relaxed in the Soviet Union.

Martin Landau as the President

Martin Landau as the President

In By Dawn’s Early Light, separatists steal a missile from Russia and fire it back into the country from Turkey making it seem like that NATO was at fault. And an automatic Russian defense program fired off a few nukes of their own towards the US in retaliation for this strike.

What follows are the President of the US and the Russian Premier trying to deescalate the crisis, even as Washington DC it nuked, the President presumed killed and the Secretary of the Interior, the highest surviving member of the government left alive, takes the reigns of the country. And if the real President who is still alive wants to stop the war, the first question the new Secretary of the Interior President asks the military commanders is if we’re winning the war or losing it?

Rebecca De Mornay as Moreau and Powers Booth as Cassidy

Rebecca De Mornay as Moreau and Powers Booth as Cassidy

The other side of By Dawn’s Early Light is of the crew of a B-52 bomber on the way to deliver their payload of nukes to Russia, and them debating the merits of killing millions upon millions of people for a war that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Eventually (spoiler alert) they turn their bomber around and head back home which causes the Russians to turn some of their bombers around too. And while the real President and the Premier see this as their chance to stop the war, the Secretary of the Interior President sees it as a sign of weakness and orders the B-52 shot down.

Darren McGavin as the Secretary of the Interior President and Rip Torn as Colonel Fargo

Darren McGavin as the Secretary of the Interior President and Rip Torn as Colonel Fargo

I originally saw By Dawn’s Early Light when it premiered on HBO and bought the VHS of the film when that came out a few years later. But honestly I hadn’t checked out the film in many years since a DVD version of it had only recently become available. While the special effects of the movie do look a bit dated, I did find that even 20+ years on the tension of By Dawn’s Early Light slowly builds and is maintained throughout the film right up until the very end.

James Earl Jones as Alice, yes really, Alice cause his plane is called "The Looking Glass"

James Earl Jones as Alice, yes really, Alice cause his plane is called “The Looking Glass”

Even though the movie is simply staged – there are really only a few sets in By Dawn’s Early Light and I think the whole story could easily be told as a stage play – I still found myself tensing up as the crew of the B-52 slowly comes to the realization that tonight’s flight isn’t a drill or the real President debating the Secretary of the Interior President on why it’s not a good idea to continue a war where everytime one side fires a shot tens of thousands of civilians die.

“Sir, do better next time sir.” Grade: A-.

While we’re probably not facing a situation like By Dawn’s Early Light in our immediate future, we still live in a world where there are thousands of nukes here in the US and thousands more overseas. And all it takes is one of those falling into the wrong hands to ruin everyone’s day. By Dawn’s Early Light is available on DVD.




Disaster Du Jour #3: The Swarm



The 1970s were a time chock full of real-life terrors; from communist world domination fears, to nuclear proliferation around the globe, oil embargoes, terrorism… And all these fears were translated into a golden age of disaster films throughout that decade. Back then there were disaster films about runaway planes, earthquakes and global ecological catastrophes to name a few. But one of the most bizarre of these disaster films has to be The Swarm (1978).

Click here to continue reading this column on the movie The Swarm.