Independent of aliens, movie pales Preview: 'Asteroids' plays on our fears of what's Out There. Alas, there's little in here to be afraid of.

February 15, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Asteroid" wants to be the television version of last summer's hit film "Independence Day."

Only one problem: They forget the aliens. The villain in this piece is a bunch of big rocks falling from the sky headed straight for Dallas.

Ask me if I care. I hope they hit Jerry Jones, the obnoxious owner of the Dallas Cowboys, right in the ego. Maybe, if they explode on the grassy knoll, Oliver Stone will make a real movie out of it, reshaping the biggest, baddest rock to look like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson in profile -- depending on whether he wants an archvillain for the liberal or conservative version of the American psyche.

I'm sorry, I tried to get psyched over this self-proclaimed "must-see-NBC," four-hour miniseries, which starts tomorrow night, but it simply wasn't compelling enough to put big rocks falling from the sky on my list of 10 million things to worry about today. "Asteroid" didn't rock my world.

Which is not to say that "Asteroid" is a laughable, big-event clunker either. In fact, on one level, it is one of the more interesting made-for-TV movies of the year and may, possibly, even have something to tell us about ourselves. That level involves the kinds of heroes this film offers and the anxieties and hopes it seems to be trying to exploit.

The big heroes are Dr. Lily McKee (Annabella Sciorra), an astronomer from Colorado, and Jack Wallach (Michael Biehn), director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The trouble starts when McKee discovers an approaching comet that has dislodged several giant asteroids, which are now headed for possible collision with Earth.

One of the asteroids is as big as Manhattan and could cause an Ice Age that will make all of America feel like Green Bay on a bad day. This is, of course, after it burns everything to cinders. Sound the "dun-dun, dun-dun" from "Jaws."

McKee calls FEMA and convinces Wallach of the danger. He rushes to her observatory in Colorado with his assistant, Adam Marquez (Carlos Gomez), where they are informed that the first batch of rocks is likely to hit Kansas City in about 48 hours.

So, it's off to Kansas City to evacuate 2 million people in two days. In Kansas City, we meet another hero, firefighter Ben Dodd Don Franklin), and his family. Dodd risks his life to help make the evacuation a success.

But, just when everybody starts to breathe a big sigh of relief, McKee's telescope picks up an even bigger asteroid headed this way. This time, McKee and Wallach take off for a secret U.S. Space Command post in Colorado, where the 29-year-old astronomer is essentially given control of secret Air Force "star wars" technology. She and her computer-head assistant, Max Jensen (Brian Allen-Hill), use lasers launched from F-16s to blast the asteroid and avert a global disaster -- for the moment, anyway.

Just when you thought it was safe, guess what: McKee finds out that the laser blast created an enormous meteor shower of Texas-size, white-hot rocks that is now headed straight for Dallas. Coincidence of coincidences, McKee's 8-year-old son, Elliot (Zachary B. Charles), is in Dallas staying with her father, Dr. Charles Napier (Anthony Zerbe), a physician at a hospital that is supposed to remind us of Parkland and 1963.

Ultimately, all roads lead to Dallas. Even the Kansas City firefighter, Ben Dodd, and his family somehow wind up there as America battles back from the rubble. But, then, Dodd had to be there if the deeper cultural messages of "Asteroid" were to have any chance of resonating.

While some will likely dismiss it as the filmmakers simply trying to be "politically correct," the makeup of the hero team in terms of gender and race is fascinating. McKee is the single mom and working woman who's clearly the brains of the outfit now that she has equal opportunity. Wallach is the brave and decent white guy who's in charge but acknowledges that he can't succeed without the help and heroism of others, such as his Hispanic aide (Gomez) and the African-American fireman from Kansas City (Franklin).

In some ways, the team is a modern-day version of the World War II combat platoon that seemed to be made up of one soldier from each ethnic group and region of America -- the Italian kid from Philly, the country boy from Georgia and so on -- the Army unit as melting pot. But we're way past believing that our differences can be melted away.

While the threat comes from outer space, "Asteroid" is really trying to speak to all sorts of such inner fears. There's a mini-narrative of young, self-centered doctors becoming compassionate healers that aims to connect with the anxiety thousands of us have as we are herded into managed care.

McKee's ultimate rescue of her son is intended to make working moms feel that they are not abandoning their kids. Wallach's symbolic role is to address our fears about the character and compassion of the baby boomers now running the federal government.

In that sense, "Asteroid" could have been an important moment in the television season. If only NBC had first covered the basics and found a villain scary enough to make us care.

'Asteroid'

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: WBAL, Channel 11

Who: Annabella Sciorra and Michael Biehn

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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