Asteroid Movies: A Cinematic History

A history of asteroid movies...

After yesterday’s unexpected run-ins with meteors in Russia and San Francisco, together with that supposedly unrelated apartment building-sized asteroid’s “near miss” (saying we were in no danger from a 17,000 mile swish is a bit like saying “you were in no danger from that bullet that creased your forehead”), maybe it’s time to take a look back at Hollywood’s long standing love affair with rogue meteors. 

Destruction on a massive scale, deat, and human misery have always made for slam-bang entertainment and because of this, disaster films have been a reliable cinematic standby since the silent era. From 1913’s The Last Days of Pompeii (which has been remade roughly every 20 years since then), audiences have flocked to films about floods, earthquakes, fires, plagues, volcanoes, sinking ships, nuclear mishaps, plane crashes; anything, really, in which hundreds, or better yet thousands, of people find themselves simultaneously in grave peril. While earnest filmmakers might like to believe the genre’s popularity lay in its depiction of the ultimate triumph of the human spirit when confronted with impossible odds, I’m more inclined to think they bring in money because we’re just a bunch of bloodthirsty dogs who like seeing buildings crumble. 

Be that as it may, since the 1970s, one particular disaster film subgenre has proven more popular than any other. At least it’s spawned more films . For some reason we seem particularly fascinated with the dread possibility of a massive asteroid striking the Earth. But in a way it makes sense, as it would essentially involve all those disaster films we’ve seen before rolled into one, but with an added bonus. Instead of a single city, a single country and a mere few thousand people facing imminent doom, a massive asteroid could very well mean the extinction of all life on the planet. A meteor may have been responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs, so it only makes sense one could obliterate us, too. And what’s more exciting than that?

This is why we’ve seen A Fire in the Sky (1978), Meteor, Asteroid, The Green Slime, Without Warning,  Deep Impact, Armageddon and well over a dozen other features and made-for-TV films in recent years. 

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The problem with these pictures is that they all share exactly the same storyline. The big name stars (from Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Richard Crenna and Anthony Zerbe to Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman) may change, but the plot remains constant: an asteroid is discovered on a collision course with earth. It’s kept a secret to avoid panic. With only a few days left the dire news is finally announced and an impossible evacuation begins as global mayhem spreads. An effort is made to destroy the asteroid but fails. Another more successful attempt is made but part of the asteroid still destroys a major American city. The stars survive and vow to rebuild as the closing credits begin to roll. The inevitability of this model can be blamed on two films from the 1950s, When Worlds Collide and The Day the Sky Exploded. Together they set out the rules that would govern all subsequent asteroid pictures, with only a few minor variations.

George Pal’s 1951 Technicolor sci-fi epic When Worlds Collide was, as usual, loaded down with Pal’s typically heavy-handed religious subtext. It was directed by esteemed cinematographer Rudolph Maté and based on the novel by the sadly forgotten Philip Wylie (which in turn was inspired by Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet).

While innocently delivering a packet of photographs to an observatory, hotshot pilot and ladies man Dave Randall (Richard Dare) simultaneously falls for the chief astronomer’s engaged daughter (Barbara Rush) and learns that the End of the World is Nigh. It seems a new star, Bellis and it’s solitary planet, Zyra, are on a collision course with Earth. In just a few months, Zyra will pass close enough to prompt earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanoes massive and devastating enough to wipe out most of humanity. Two weeks later Bellis will obliterate the planet completely.

After checking and re-checking his calculations, astronomer Dr. Hendron (Larry Keating) presents his findings to the U.N. where he is mocked by fellow scientists and politicians alike.

After the findings are finally confirmed by other astronomers and the inevitability of it all becomes clear, a global panic begins to spread. But the film draws back, focusing exclusively on Dr. Hendron’s efforts to build a rocketship that will carry a lucky 44 passengers to Zyra moments before the Earth’s destruction. There they will begin a new life and, with any luck, Barbara Rush’s sticky romantic entanglements will finally be resolved.

Apart from a few scenes of grand-scale destruction (including the obliteration of New York by a tidal wave), the focus remains tightly on the team building the rocket, with hardly a thought given to the doomed billions around the rest of the planet. But given that even attempting to save the planet would be hopeless, you can’t divert a star, pausing to reflect on all those countless lives about to be snuffed out would have been a real bummer. Nevertheless (and despite the inescapable “Noah’s Ark” analogies), it remains a gorgeous and grand film in the usual Pal style. It would also prove (without the spaceships) to be a major influence on Deep Impact some 50 years later.

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Seven years after When Worlds Collide Italian director Paolo Heusch (together with Director of Photography Mario Bava) gave us the low-budget  film that would become the true model for all the disaster films that followed. 

Released in the U.S. in 1961, The Day the Sky Exploded begins like one of the Quatermass films of the same era, with American astronaut John McLaren (Paul Hubschmid) being launched into space as part of an international effort to orbit a man around the moon. Something goes wrong just prior to leaving Earth’s orbit however and McLaren jettisons his capsule and returns home, leaving the rocket adrift in space with a fully activated nuclear reactor aboard.

Well, a few days later the rocket collides with a meteor shower and the resulting atomic explosion creates up a magnetic field that pulls all those little asteroids together into one big asteroid headed straight for Earth. From that point on it’s a very familiar picture.

Overall, The Day the Sky Exploded is a strange, twisty and exciting film that establishes all the character types, moral dilemmas, Cold War drama and strained romances that would be recreated in later films with much larger budgets. The only thing missing, really, is the inevitable destruction of a major city. Even without that, however, strange as it sounds, this remains the best of the lot, so long as special effects aren’t your primary focus. And without this one, none of the others would have existed.

Meteors and the like certainly played a role in films long before these two came out and science fiction authors like Jules Verne had certainly contemplated the possibility of Earth’s destruction via space debris, but it wasn’t until 1951 that an asteroid (or in the case of When Worlds Collide, a planet) threatened to destroy the Earth right up there on the big screen.

It seems surprising there wasn’t anything earlier, but I think there are two reasons for that: 

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First, there was the simple issue of special effects. Recreating a plane crash, a flood or an earthquake in miniature was one thing; but prior to 1950 outer space remained enough of a mystery that the idea of trying to recreate a burning asteroid falling from the sky and destroying a city (or an entire planet) represented quite an undertaking.

More importantly though was the matter of real world technology. If you present a threat, you also need some way to stop that threat. If you want to make an at least semi-realistic drama about what might happen should a giant asteroid head our way, you need some way to divert that asteroid and  save the planet, otherwise you’re going to end up with an awfully grim movie. And the only way to save the planet would be to have something; missiles, a spaceship, a ray gun; that could intercept the asteroid before it reaches the atmosphere. By 1950 America’s rocketry program was still in its infancy, but it had advanced at least far enough to give filmmakers some idea where things were headed and how we might save the Earth should, y’know, a giant rock come hurtling at us. Now I just wish filmmakers (or NASA for that matter) could come up with a few new possibilities.

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