Sunday 5 September 2010

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009)

Director: Ace Hannah
Stars: Deborah Gibson, Vic Chao and Lorenzo Lamas

You can accuse the Asylum of plenty of things but originality certainly isn't one of them. As you might imagine, the plot of this movie, the first Asylum production to be released theatrically, can be summed up by the title alone and anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot. It's about a mega shark and a giant octopus and a surprising lead star, Debbie Gibson, though apparently she's serious nowadays as she's going by Deborah instead. Maybe she should fire her agent as this wouldn't appear to be a good choice of movie in which to start being serious. I've read plenty about the Asylum but hadn't seen any of their films until now. They specialise in making knock offs of bigger budget Hollywood movies, but on occasion manage to outdo the big studios and make a better product. That's not too apparent here, as this is just another bad modern monster flick to go along with Dinocroc, Megaconda, Reptisaurus and all the rest.

'There's poetry here,' says Gibson, as she manouevers the Aquanaut through a stretch of ocean off the Alaskan coast, but she's not talking about the truly insane setup that the film begins with. She's Emma McNeil, something of a rogue oceanographic surveyor given that she borrowed this minisub without permission just to watch the plethora of hammerheads, manta rays and whales in the Chukchi Sea. By sheer coincidence, the American military is conducting illegal sonar tests there and fires an LFAS, an illegal low frequency active sonar device, into the water to float past them and stir up the whales. The pilot explains how the government will cover up everything if it goes remotely wrong, you know, like you do. The LFAS causes the whales to slam into a glacier, and so free both a giant octopus and a mega shark, frozen for the last 18 million years, right in front of the Aquanaut. They thaw out in a couple of seconds and swim away to cause chaos.

These behemoths divvy up the Pacific into two halves so that we can watch them have fun. The giant octopus takes out the Kobayshi Subsea Drilling Platform off Japan, though Kobayshi isn't a Japanese word until you add a second A. The giant shark carelessly leaves a tooth fragment in a whale that washes up on the Californian coast at the ominously named Point Dume, which is real and a popular location for filming: the final scenes of Planet of the Apes were shot there. Nobody notices the tooth fragment, even when Emma sits down right in front of it and starts picking at it, so she sneaks back under cover of night to retrieve it from the whale corpse and take it to her former professor Lamar Sanders, an Irish 'ex-Navy paleontologist guru'. After all, she's been fired from the NorCal Oceanographic Institute and Sanders is a kindred maverick spirit. He identifies the fragment as a megalodon tooth, one that if complete would be eleven by eleven feet in size.
From here on out we're set for the usual story of man against nature, though it does venture a little beyond the usual into the truly surreal. Eighteen minutes and nine seconds in, the picture shows its true colours and can't ever go back. The mega shark takes out a Condor Airlines plane, mid flight. No, this monster doesn't fly, it just jumps really high, really fast, and it has awesome aim. The plane is flying at cloud level but the mega shark leaps on up there, clamps its jaws around it and brings the thing down fast. It's one of those moments that make you doubt your sanity as to whether you just saw what you thought you just saw. You certainly can't unsee it. No wonder the trailer went viral. It's precisely the sort of thing you want to show your friends so that they can't unsee it either. Oh, and it takes out the Golden Gate Bridge too. And a US destroyer. It's a different size each time, but we can't quibble too much when landmarks get munched.

As you can imagine, this isn't about the acting in the slightest. Surprisingly, Debbie Gibson does a fair job as Emma McNeil. She's no great actress but she certainly does enough to set herself up for a whole new career at the schlocky end of the cinematic spectrum. She'll up the stakes in a thematic sequel, Mega Python vs Gatoroid, by not just taking on another pair of giant monsters but also a fellow relic from the eighties music industry, Tiffany, who found herself working for the same company the same year in the same subgenre with Mega Piranha. Sean Lawlor is capable as her mentor, Lamar Sanders, having obtained considerable nautical experience as Captain Nemo in the Asylum's 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His conspiracy theory sarcasm is a little much but he's decent enough as an older scientist who still knows his stuff and he manages to keep our attention while the better, or at least more memorable, lines go to others.

Backing them up is Dr Seiji Shimada, a Japanese Oceanographic Institute scientist, who Vic Chao plays as the stiffest nerdy sea geek you can imagine. He's stereotypically polite and is lumbered with scarily stilted dialogue such as, 'We must remain optimistic and rush to the aid of those who have survived.' As a dynamic trio, they're a little bizarre: an Irishman trying to be Sean Connery, a polite Japanese geek and a washed up eighties singer who thinks she's a mermaid, all of whom can quote Julius Caesar even though they're scientists. It's after a lightning fast McNeil/Shimada sex scene that they realise how to stop the monsters: by dumping giant octopus pheromones in Tokyo Bay and mega shark pheromones in San Francisco Bay, you know, away from huge cities where things might go horribly wrong. I'm not sure where they find such pheromones but there are plenty of free cells in Alcatraz to lock up a mega shark and maybe Godzilla's into calamari.
These three are decent enough characters for a film like this, though they're hardly the stuff of great cinema, but I haven't introduced Lorenzo Lamas yet. Apparently he's named Allan, though we're never told that during the movie. He's just a poser with a pony tail, a shiny belt buckle and a black turtleneck who has the trio kidnapped at gunpoint and brought to a military research lab called Treasure Island to alternately insult and compliment them. He gives them free rein to a lab with really brightly coloured liquids but mostly just overacts. 'What do you want?' Emma asks him. 'Solutions,' he replies in the worst overacting I've ever seen from Lamas. He just struts around in black chewing up every bit of scenery he can and making every bad military decision you can comfortably imagine. Is that a mega shark or a giant octopus? Let's send a colonel down to fly over it at a hundred feet. Nothing bad could happen, right?

In fact that could be the title of the movie: Nothing Bad Could Happen, Right? The amount of bad decision making in this film overwhelms the plot without even trying, especially from the military who aren't evil here but are truly inept, rather insensitive and always need a bigger boat. 'Screw these environmentalists,' one of them says, 'When I give the order, shoot to kill.' We learn plenty about the military in this film. They have a bad habit of saying 'target destroyed' when the target hasn't been destroyed and is about to destroy them. American subs have an emergency turbo mode and Japanese subs have precisely the same command corridor as US destroyers. American sailors are prone to mutiny at the worst moments, like when they're twenty metres ahead of a rather horny mega shark. 'Nuclear weapons may our only viable option,' says Lamas, though the chick goes for the Thriller in Manila. Girl scientists are all about classic boxing, apparently.

As a terrible movie, and make no mistake this is a truly terrible movie, this one is actually mildly amusing, even though the visual effects by Tiny Juggernaut are far too few and far between. It's more enjoyable than Lucy Lawless TV disaster movies like Vampire Bats and Locusts, but it still falls short of bad fifties scifi in continuity, realism and dialogue. When you're working at the level of Phil Tucker or Ed Wood in 2009, you know you're in trouble. The film was shot in twelve days and it feels like they didn't start writing it till the first day of shooting; there's too much convenience for any other explanation. Some lines are fun cheese, like the last one that Emma's bossy boss aims her way: 'Don't love the ocean too much: it doesn't love you back.' Others are more telling: 'I don't believe it,' says Lamas almost at the end of the film. He isn't kidding. That one is a perfect summary of the whole shebang. I really don't believe it either.


inmate 977 said...

awesome post, really well-analyzed review of a neo-classic. i think the asylum - whatever you can say about them - fulfills a definite niche in the market. when everyone else is making such sort of films with their emotions right on their sleeve, the asylum keeps their tongue firmly in cheek. they know what they're doing, and they know they're doing it well.

COMMITTED - the asylum blog

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks for the comment and best of luck with your Asylum blog.

I'll definitely track down more Asylum movies to review. They're definitely on my radar and I've read quite a bit about them but this was the first I actually got to see. Unfortunately as I don't tend to watch a lot of blockbusters, it doesn't make much sense to watch the mockbusters either as I don't have the reference points.

Judging from this one, which was bad but fun, the Asylum knows precisely what it's doing and has a ball with it. The sad thing is that as much as the whole mockbuster concept keeps getting raised, they're really just making the same movies as the Hollywood studios, only with less budget and lesser known names. The quality probably isn't much different.