We all like a little camp, right? Right?
I grew up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you aren’t in the know, it’s a show where a man and a couple of plastic robot puppets watch low-budget science-fiction-adjacent films and riff on them. If this introduction has any takeaway at all, it is that I have a tolerance for bad movies and that I like to wax nostalgia.
Asteroid, the 2021 movie that comes from the conspiracy mongers behind Loose Change, is an independent film that is a bad movie and centers around a silly topic that will be very dear to a few tens of thousands of people.
That sounds more impressive than it is, and maybe I need to do a better job checking my perception, but when a small college town in the middle of Upstate NY is your main character and the only character with any sort of believable arc, you are definitely pandering. Or maybe you are like me and never strayed too far from where you went to college. One or the other, it’s probably not good.
Asteroid has a very Simon-Pegg/Douglass Adams premise to it. A man buys a house for his family out in the country and learns in the first act that the titular asteroid is on a trajectory to hit his house. Heck, I used a similar premise to start a grand adventure in my high school talent show standup special (except the object from space was a giant slug or something – either way, it landed on my house which was in my name-dropped stomping ground). Alright, so I can get behind it so far.
The trailer was well-cut. With a flick of dry humor combined with some fun cinematography and b-roll of Oneonta, NY, I knew that this was going to take up 84 minutes of my time whether I liked it or not.
I already covered the premise, but let’s talk about the main character. No, I’m not talking about Spence, played by Cuyle Carvin. I’m not referring to Spence’s wife, Lynn (played by Mattie Jo Cowsert), or their 27-year-old teenager Zoe (Miley Rose). In fact, these characters seemed to meet each other for the very first time in the very first scene, while moving into the new house. Their chemistry is so hamfisted that Lynn needs to remind Spence that their daughter is a teenager, and I’m not sure if that message was for me as an audience member or not.
The main character, as I eluded to earlier, is the city of Oneonta, NY. The 13820 zip code gets premier billing as b-roll footage slowly skips around town showcasing famous Oneonta hotspots like Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q, the Novelty Lounge, and Royal Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram.
Throughout the movie, Spence travels from his new home (which is, canonically, at 113 Herrick Hill Road and incidentally the business address of the studio that made the film).
Wait, let’s talk about that for a minute. That has big dick-waving CEO energy all over it, doesn’t it? I just used my money to buy a gorgeous home, so let’s make a movie about it! This is the movie version of getting to write off a vehicle and having several staff meetings in it over the next several days on everybody’s lunch break.
Each time Spence takes a trip, he shambles into another familiar location in or around Oneonta. He finds himself in a local computer shop, hastily rebranded as “The Internet Store.” He shares an early morning beer at the Red Jug Pub. Zoe and Lynn make an appearance outside of the Applebee’s in Southside mall to visit “The Phone Store.” These are real-world locations rebranded with hastily-printed signage on inkjet printers.
There are plenty of small-town inconveniences portrayed that, while not untrue, are seen as major conflicts while reports of a devastating asteroid are hinted in the background. Meanwhile, Spence is determined to see the bright side of rural life. Again, I love this premise. It deserved so much more effort. Unfortunately, most of the jokes don’t land.
One joke, in particular, might be seen as pretty funny for locals. In the bar scene, a television newscaster announces that the asteroid will land on “One-Onta” New York. She pauses and struggles with the pronunciation in a way oh so familiar to me. Spence’s reaction is “You have to be shitting me.” while the bartender dryly responds with “Right? It’s not that hard to pronounce.” Bravo. A fun inside joke.
There were also “Stoneonta NY” t-shirts, and the use of the phrase “One on Tap,” which was proudly quipped more than once during my stay at SUNY Oneonta.
Eventually, the family meets up with Oneonta Mayor Mueller (Elise Rovinsky) who is by far, the most earnestly written and performed character in the entire film. She’s in over her head, trying to evacuate the town of Oneonta in the wake of Armageddon. I know people exactly like her; attempting to forge community from indifferent, self-serving individuals, with astoundingly little support. Mayor Mueller is the underappreciated fuel that runs the towns that otherwise rely on Dollar Generals.
Spence’s best friend, Kenny (LeJon Woods), and local conspiracy theory guy Wilson (Richard Waddingham) follow an unbased white rabbit which leads to an accidental LSD trip and a consequent-free police chase up and down Airport Road. Meanwhile, Zoe and Lynn decide to move back to “the city” while Spence feverishly yells about everything he’s learned the last 24 hours on a live news broadcast, going viral.
It was an honestly good premise that felt a little intimate because it showcased the area I live in, and, much like the area I live in, it thinks a little too highly of itself. The plot falls apart and makes no sense, and all the side characters were unironic cringe.
I can’t really recommend that people see this movie unless I want to give them a really weird tour of the area before they come to visit, in which case I’ll have them skip huge parts of it, not comment on how there’s only one black guy, and avoid the scene in Nick’s Diner. Thinking about it, that’s all pretty solid advice for anyone visiting Oneonta.
Asteroid, as it turns out, is a good metaphor, but not a good movie.