Monday, August 18, 2014

Meteorites! (1998)

A disaster TV Movie that's so bad its actually good!

A blogger friend of mine tells me that Tom Wopat, the heroic family-man protagonist in this Sci-Fi Channel original movie, was once the hunky Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard. This seems appropriate since Meteorites is an instance of what I call the The Dukes of Hazzard Phenomenon: to wit, a cultural event-be it a film fad, a television show, or a famous scandal-enjoys massive popular attention even though any particular person will tell you he or she has no interest in it whatsoever. In my experience, The Dukes of Hazzard was this curious phenomenon's prototype; for several seasons the show enjoyed fabulous ratings even though, at least publicly, everybody said they thought it was stupid. 

So too with the spate of asteroid movies, the anchors of which-Deep Impact and Armaggedon-both suffered horrible reviews and much popular derision in the remarkable year of 1998. These movies nevertheless did well enough commercially to earn the flattery of t.v. and direct-to-video filmmakers, who wooed them with Asteroid (a terrible film targeted to Blockbuster's shelves) and our current offering, Meteorites

"What are the chances of a meteor hitting Leroy [our provincial town]?" Tom Johnson (Wopat) asks the local astronomer. "None," is the answer. Meteors don't hit the Earth by definition, the astronomer explains. But meteorites are a different question altogether. This game of semantics underscores the fact that both of these made-for-the-living-room movies are named after the celestial rocks themselves, whereas their cinematic inspirations take the central event-the rock's ultimately-averted act of hitting the Earth-as namesakes. This semantic game also covers up the fact that names don't matter. The point is that enormous rocks might be hurtling toward Earth to end our way of life in a fiery cataclysm. Call them what you like, you blind fool. 

The film opens as Tina McConnell (Tracey-Louise Smith), first in this movie's procession of featured adolescents, bitches out her parents for not letting her take illegal drugs. "I wish you would all die," she shrieks, "so I could do what I want." She storms out of the house and sulks on the swings in the backyard, thus procuring survival when a meteor (meteorite, sorry) slams into the McConnell household and kills everybody else. 

John Whitehorse (Pato Hoffmann), Leroy's native-American sheriff, calls in the hunky-though-old Tom Johnson to help him investigate the McConnell wreckage, because Tom has a background in explosives. Tom's son Mac (Darrin Klimek) is trying to have sex with Crystal Cassidy (Amiel Daemion), the Mayor's daughter, and Tom's daughter, Rene, is a finalist in Leroy's Miss Teen UFO competition. Crystal's dad, Mayor Cass Cassidy (Marshall Napier), has cooked up an insurance scam to pay off various creditors, because the Cassidies have feuded with the Reigerts for decades and this has spurred Mayor Cassidy into a number of bad investments to live up to his father-legendary around Leroy for his "Midas Touch"-and thus maintain the family reputation. Crystal and Mac start having sex at the Mayoral mansion but are interrupted by the burglars (who are, incidentally, Reigerts) Mayor Cassidy has hired to rob his own home. The Reigerts hold Mac and Crystal hostage and fuss over them for a while, but then meteorites start landing on everybody and they have to think fast. I probably forgot to mention that Rene's (Tom's daughter, Mac's sister, are you getting all this?) Miss Teen UFO contest is but a single event in Leroy's annual UFO Festival, which is being investigated by an unscrupulous reporter for a tabloid called "The National Interrogator." Mayor Cassidy ignores Tom and the Sheriff's entreaties to cancel the festival in light of the impending meteorite shower because the festival generates revenues for the town. Oh, and Tom is riddled with guilt because years ago someone named Tony perished when Tom and Tony were partners in a bomb squad.

I spent all this time explicating the complicated character relationships in Meteorites-well, for the most part because I was bored, really, but also because of the role these character relationships play in this movie, which is similar to the role they play in Deep Impact... as well as Outbreak, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, The Day After, The Poseidon Adventure, et cetera. That is, a maze of complicated human dramas is established, only to have an enormous, blazing non-sequitur (comet, hotel fire, nuclear war, sinking ship) come barging unannounced into the storyline and disrupt it all, making it largely irrelevant. Occasionally a pre-disaster plot point or character element will resurface--Tom's experience with explosives pays off, for instance, as do his protective, paternal instincts-but generally all these soap-opera human relationships amount to a sandcastle that is swept away in the tide of disaster. 

So why go through all the trouble of learning about these characters' personal lives, if in the long run these films aren't actually about them so much as they are about a comet, fire, or earthquake? It's a difficult question, I imagine, but an important one. Armageddon is the miserable failure that it is because it paradoxically gives the disaster too much screen time, focusing for the most part on the mission to destroy the Texas-sized asteroid and not so much on the characters' personal lives. Meteorites, whatever its made-for-t.v. flaws (fair to poor performances, conspicuous exposition, awkward cinematography, implausible plot developments), delivers that most precious disaster-movie commodity: its disaster rips apart not a half-realized fictional world but an elaborate and complex one. 

And maybe that's part of why these movies are such guilty pleasures (millions of people watch them but later aren't willing to admit they liked them). The catharsis these movies offer seems juvenile: this childishly destructive pleasure of watching the filmmakers work hard to create something only to then blithely destroy their creation. It's hard to say why so many people, myself included, find this enjoyable. It'll probably continue to be hard to figure out until we actually admit to ourselves that we enjoy it.


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