Before science came along and told us otherwise, our ancestors thought that meteors, shooting stars or comets were either sent by God, or were portents of doom. And thanks to cinema, we now know that, in a roundabout way, the latter is true.
In almost every instance, the sighting of an asteroid, meteorite or comet in a movie means certain doom for its cast. Whether the astral object in question is a gigantic killer meteor bound for Earth, or a comet whose tail hides a race of dormant space vampires, their presence is always bad news.
With Roland Emmerich set to unleash all kinds of revenge against rocks from outer space in his forthcoming videogame adaptation, Asteroids, here’s a list of ten memorable comets, meteorites and falling stars in cinema.
Before Deep Impact or Armageddon, there was Meteor, the most astral of the long run of disaster movies that sprang up in the late 70s. As a child, I seem to recall there being a long period in the mid-80s where a disaster movie was on television every single night of the week.
In 1979’s Meteor (one of the few disaster movies of the time that wasn’t produced by Irwin Allen), Earth is menaced by a gigantic chunk of space rock. A scientist (played by Sean Connery) attempts to obliterate the projectile with his arsenal of orbiting nuclear warheads, but the meteor ploughs on regardless.
This results in a procession of disasters and terrible special effects. In spite of its healthy eight-figure budget, Meteor looks like a far cheaper film than it really is, with generous usage of stock footage and dodgy scale miniatures. The meteor itself is represented by a large ball of light and emits the sound of a jet engine as it falls to Earth.
Sean Connery, meanwhile, no doubt hoping his wig doesn’t fall off, cowers as fake rocks and dust are dropped on his head.
The first of a pair of rival disaster movies released in 1998, Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact beat Michael Bay’s Armageddon to the screen by about eight weeks. Both films deal with the subject of big objects from space colliding with the Earth, but Leder’s film is the cheaper and more cerebral of the two.
Deep Impact makes an admirable attempt to imagine what might happen if astronomers were to discover that an ‘extinction level event’ was going to take place. High ranking characters (among them, Morgan Freeman as the president) agonise over what to do next. Underground shelters can be hurriedly built, but can only house a tiny percentage of Earth’s population.
Attempts to land on the surface of the inbound comet and destroy it with bombs merely break the projectile into similarly deadly chunks, one of which causes a gigantic tsunami that looks a bit like a digital version of the one in 1979’s Meteor.
Meanwhile, lots are drawn to decide which of America’s citizens can join the two hundred thousand clever people already chosen to hide in an underground bunker, while the crew of the spaceship, Messiah, agonise over whether to sacrifice themselves to save humanity.
With its emphasis more on relationships than special effects (though disaster flick fans are still treated to plenty of collapsing buildings and fleeing crowds), Deep Impact is more mature and sombre in tone than Armageddon, and could have been a far better film were it not for its languid pace and moments of overwrought, soap opera-like drama.
Michael Bay never was a director interested in moments of quiet introspection, and his killer meteor movie was bigger, louder and more crowd-pleasing than Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, and made a fair bit more money at the box office as a result.
Armageddon is so loud and macho, in fact, that its script was probably printed entirely in uppercase. Bruce Willis heads up a Dirty Dozen-like crew of oil rig workers who are blasted into space to drill into the meteor and blow it to smithereens.
Where Deep Impact‘s tone was mournful and languid, Armageddon‘s is more like a party during the last days of Rome. The film may be full of heroic self-sacrifice and slow-motion shots of heroes trudging barrel-chested into action, but it’s obvious from the opening reel that Earth is far too testosterone-filled to be bothered by something as inconsequential as an astral boulder the size of Texas.
The film’s highlights include the bit where Ben Affleck pokes Animal Crackers in Liv Tyler’s belly button, Will Patton shouting, “This is turning into a surrealistic nightmare!” and the conclusion, where the meteor is finally obliterated by playing an Aerosmith track at top volume. Or maybe I’m remembering that bit wrong.
The Day The Sky Exploded
Italy’s first ever foray into big-screen sci-fi, produced by the prolific Samuel Z Arkoff, The Day The Sky Exploded benefited from the presence of master cinematographer, Mario Bava (here wrongly credited as Mario Baja), who would later direct the classics Black Sabbath and Planet Of The Vampires.
Anticipating the disasters of Meteor by more than twenty years, an exploding atomic rocket booster sends a group of asteroids careening towards Earth, resulting in all kinds of imaginative disasters. Our planet’s greatest minds attempt to find a way to avert the worst of the threat, though one scientist loses the plot in the process (“Your rocket has brought destruction from outer space!”). Fortunately, the scientist’s rant gives his colleagues the idea of firing Earth’s entire nuclear arsenal at the approaching killer rocks.
A film positively packed with exposition and chatter, The Day The Sky Exploded is surprisingly light on explosions and special effects. While this lends the movie a somewhat more mature air than, say, Meteor or Armageddon, it also makes it one of the most ponderous entries in the 50s wave of science fiction flicks.
The Day The Sky Exploded does rally in its closing scenes, though, with a quite impressive shot of a gigantic asteroid being pounded with thousands of nuclear warheads. The presence of Mario Bava also ensures that the film’s shot and lit with genuine class.
Night Of The Comet
A great, low-budget apocalyptic zombie horror sci-fi comedy, I remember seeing this on late night TV in the early 90s, and being completely enthralled by it. In what might be a nod to The Day Of The Triffids, the titular comet turns the population of Earth into slathering zombies. Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney play a pair of survivors, who wake to find the sky blazing red and the streets apparently devoid of life. That is, until a tribe of talking zombies emerge. It’s a bit like an 80s, jokey version of I Am Legend.
In spite of its low budget, these early scenes of a quiet Earth are quite effective, with only a pile of clothes and some sprinkles of ochre dust left of the world’s inhabitants.
A true 80s relic, Night Of The Comet‘s full of big hair, baggy clothes, loads of cheesy rock, and a welcome cameo from classic arcade game, Tempest.
The Monolith Monsters
Long before Night Of The Comet, and long, long before James Gunn’s Slither made its homage to myriad sci-fi and horror films, along came The Monolith Monsters. An unforgettably odd film, directed by John Sherwood, the movie was based on a story by Jack Arnold, who directed such classic B-movies as The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
The Monolith Monsters is quite possibly the earliest ‘terror inside a meteorite’ movie, predating the better-known The Blob (1958) and the films mentioned above. The terror spread in Monolith Monsters is a quite original one: giant, crystalline rocks begin sprouting all over a US town, turning its unlucky inhabitants into petrified statues. Sucking up all water in their vicinity, these black monoliths spread by growing and shattering into thousands of pieces.
The movie tackles its bizarre concept with admirable earnestness, and its pre-credits crash is preceded by a brief lesson in exactly what meteors are and where they come from. “A very few meteors have struck the earth and caused craters. Craters of all sizes, sought after and pored over by scientists of all nations for the priceless knowledge contained within them,” actor Paul Frees tells us.
Its meteor-borne mayhem aside, The Monolith Monsters is also memorable for its use of the same town square in Univeral’s back lot that would later be prominently on display in the Back To The Future movies.
The Day Of The Triffids
The first chapter of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel is perhaps the most nightmarish in all sci-fi literature. As the population of Earth stands in awe of a shimmering meteor shower, Bill Masen is holed up in a hospital, having undergone an operation on his eyes after an unpleasant encounter with the killer plants of the title. Masen awakes the next day, head still bandaged, to the sound of society in total meltdown. The light of the meteor shower has blinded everyone who’s seen it, and the panic and confusion of the situation is beautifully captured in Wyndham’s prose.
The full-scale killer plant apocalypse that follows is rather less gripping, yet the influence of the novel has been justifiably huge, with Night Of The Comet, Maximum Overdrive and 28 Days Later all displaying a number of similarities to Wyndham’s novel.
The Day Of The Triffids was adapted for the big screen in 1962, and as has been the case in the various TV adaptations that have arrived since, its makers struggled to come up with a scary visual rendering of Wyndham’s rampaging fauna.
The movie’s opening meteor shower, however, is colourfully brought to life, though it’s still not as intense as the one in the original novel.
The Empire Strikes Back
Along with the astonishing Hoth opening, the asteroid belt sequence in The Empire Strikes Back ranks among my very favourite Star Wars moments.
With their hyperdrive out of order, the fleeing Millennium Falcon is forced to evade the Empire by ducking into a nearby asteroid field. The sequence that follows, where TIE fighters crash into space rocks as Han skilfully pilots the Falcon, is a masterful combination of cinematography, sound design and special effects.
The tail of a comet causes more mayhem in Stephen King’s first and only film as director, Maximum Overdrive. While not billed as a comedy, the film certainly plays out like one, as the electrical items of Earth come alive and turn on their human masters. One character is hypnotised and then electrocuted by the classic coin-op, Star Castle, another is bludgeoned to death with tins of pop blasted from a vending machine, and a small boy is crushed by sentient steamroller.
One of the daftest apocalypses ever envisioned until M Night Shyamalan came along and stole the King’s crown with the astoundingly ridiculous The Happening, Maximum Overdrive is nevertheless quite a lot of fun, especially if you’ve been drinking.
As is the case in Night Of The Comet and Day Of The Triffids, it’s never properly explained how the comet produces the effect it does. Instead, King simply cranks the AC/DC soundtrack up to eleven and lets the machines have their fun.
Emilio Estevez plays one of the survivors holed up in a roadside diner, while angry vehicles circle outside, and look out for the distinctive tones of Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson), who spends much of the film screaming.
Another movie, another comet, and this one’s the famous Halley’s Comet. Lurking in its tail is an alien spaceship, which contains dozens of apparently dead bodies. Visiting astronauts sling a couple of these in their shuttle and bring them back to Earth, oblivious to the mayhem they’re about to unleash. As scientists poke and prod the aliens, one of them, memorably played by Mathilda May, springs to life and begins sucking the life force out of everyone she meets.
In spite of the lure of a naked vampire from space turning the population of London into zombies, Lifeforce was a flop for director Tobe Hooper. There were numerous problems during shooting (it overran, and at one point, the production ran out of money), and the movie was cut down for its US release.
Overall, Lifeforce is a bit of a space oddity, with a script written by Alien scribe, Dan O’Bannon, and a pre-Next Generation appearance from Patrick Stewart.
There are some quite good special effects courtesy of John Dykstra, including an exotic alien spaceship that was reportedly modelled on the shape of an artichoke, and at one point, a colonel screams, “She’s destroyed worlds!”