Alice (Part 2) – “Welcome to a whole new Wonderland”

And we’re back, with the conclusion of the SyFy Channel miniseries Alice. (For my critique of the first part, follow this link.)

Part 2 of Alice picks up right where part 1 left off, naturally – with Alice (Caterina Scorsone, Edge of Darkness; 1-800-Missing) imprisoned in a crumbling house while Doctor Dee and Doctor Dum (Eugene Lipinski, Rollerball; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) interrogate her to learn where she hid the Stone of Wonderland, a ring with the ability to open up a portal between the real world and Wonderland via the looking glass. Meanwhile, Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts, Return to House on Haunted Hill; Warrior Queen) and the White Knight (Matt Frewer, 50/50; Dawn of the Dead) break into the casino in order to rescue her from the Queen and King of Hearts (Kathy Bates, Midnight in Paris; Titanic and Colm Meaney, Get Him to the Greek; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, respectively). Once free of the Hearts, Hatter and the White Knight take Alice to the ancient Kingdom of the Knights (once again), where Hatter sends word to the resistance movement that Alice needs to meet with their leader, Caterpillar (Harry Dean Stanton, Rango; Alien). The resistance sends an emissary in the form of Jack Heart (Philip Winchester, In My Sleep; Thunderbirds), son of the Queen and King of Hearts and former boyfriend to Alice. Despite Hatter’s misgivings, Alice decides to leave with Jack after he tells her that the resistance knows where her father is and could get him out of Wonderland with her. One thing leads to another, Alice and Hatter set everyone free, the White Knight helps bring down the casino and with it the reign of the Queen of Hearts, and Alice leaves Wonderland to live happily ever after.

Top left – Alice; top right – Doctors Dee and Dum and Alice; middle left – the White Knight and Hatter; middle right – the Queen and King of Hearts; bottom left – Caterpillar; bottom right – Jack Heart, Alice, and Caterpillar

Before I go on, I feel this needs to be said, and it cannot be stressed enough – they left out the Cheshire Cat, and for that, there can be no forgiveness.

Anyway. One big thing worth noting is that in this second part, Alice, a black belt karate instructor, finally starts fighting back against the Hearts, quite literally at times. One thing you’ll notice if you watch enough horror or SyFy Original movies is that women characters often serve only to run around screaming or give the men characters something to fight for or after. I’m not sure at all why this is the case, but it does seem to be widely true. Thus, when you find a movie (or in this case a miniseries) with a strong female lead, it’s often refreshing. Sadly, the first half of this miniseries completely missed that point, portraying her as weak, timid, and scared. Still, it was good to see her take more control of her fate in the second half of the miniseries.

“I’m going with him, and there’s nothing you or King Skellington can do to stop me!”

While the first half managed to avoid too many terrible effects, either CGI or sets, the second half fell well behind. While there was no increase in the CGI (always a boon), the use of green screen backgrounds became way too common, and in general, they were not done well. I found myself remarking on how bad they were numerous times throughout the second half, especially during the two flamingo chase scenes. But hey, who doesn’t want to watch guys in suits fire shotguns while riding flamingos altogether too quickly?

Like this

The second part of the miniseries continued the social allegories and commentaries begun in the first, as expected. For example, in order to thwart the plans of the Hearts and start a revolution, Alice and Hatter free the kidnapped Oysters (see the review of part 1) in the casino by telling them to wake up and realize what was done to them, conveying the not-so-subtle undertones of individuality and disbelieving the story told by power; basically, the idea that blind complacency is the best friend of a dictatorial leader. Likewise, when their actions cause the emotion collection vats to overheat and be destroyed, the entire casino comes crashing down to the ground, a direct visual showing the Queen’s loss of power and authority. After the collapse of the casino, the Queen orders her henchmen to arrest Alice, but of course, they refuse, instead forcing her to hand over the Stone in order to reopen the looking glass and return the Oysters to the real world.

“The Stone or my finger? Off with your head! Please?”

The other big theme in the second part of the miniseries is the idea of reuniting with a lost parent, in this case a father. It turns out that the lead scientist for the Queen, and the one in charge of collecting the emotional essence from the Oysters, Carpenter (Timothy Webber, Cypher; The Grey Fox), is in fact Alice’s missing father, who finally manages to wake up with the other Oysters when Alice and Hatter set them free, only to die in Alice’s arms before the casino collapses in an all-too-common scene wherein he apologizes for everything and urges her to save herself before the building comes down (Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, anyone?).

“I can’t be her father. I do science!”

“Go, Alice. Return to your mother and your life.”

One of the concepts I’ve always enjoyed in movies like this, or like Labyrinth, or MirrorMask, or any of those movies where the hero travels from our mundane world to a fantastical one and back, is the melancholy at the end where the character (and the viewer) struggles with the question of whether any of it actually happened. It creates a very unique poignancy and sense of loss, while at the same time maintaining a shred of hope that that other world is still out there somewhere, waiting to be found. Of course, this melancholy is completely destroyed if one of the characters from that other world follows the hero back into his or her world, as happens here. To me, probably the biggest point of these things is the idea that it might have all been a dream, and when that uncertainty gets removed, the piece also loses a big part of its impact and significance.

“Is this real or a dream?”

“Real. Definitely real.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

So that’s it for Alice, and this installment of Miniseries Week. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you’ll join me in a thorough scathing of SyFy Channel for cutting out the Cheshire Cat. Because honestly, he’s just plain awesome. ’til next time!

“That’s for leaving out the Cheshire cat!”

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Alice (Part 1) – “Welcome to a whole new Wonderland”

Given the nature of SyFy Channel, they tend to make a number of miniseries, some of which (like the Battlestar Galactica miniseries) go on to be highly successful full series; others, such as Tin Man or Riverworld, are never really intended to be more than retellings or re-imaginings of well-known or popular stories. So it is with Alice, the subject of this installment of Miniseries Week. (This review only covers part one of the two-part miniseries. Part two will be reviewed later in the week.)

Alice is a retelling of the Lewis Carroll classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (naturally). Alice (Caterina Scorsone, Private Practice; The Devil’s Arithmetic) is a 20-something karate instructor who’s been living with her mother since her father went missing ten years ago. Jack Chase (Philip Winchester, Flyboys; The Patriot), Alice’s boyfriend and karate student (and secret Knave of Hearts), joins Alice and her mother for dinner one night, after which he gets a mysterious text telling him to “RUN”. He offers to take Alice to meet his own family, and when she hesitates, he presents her with a very old ring passed down from his ancestors. She kicks him out of her apartment, but not before he slips the ring into her pocket. After a moment of indecision (and a talk with her mother who reminds her that not all men abandon their families; just her father), she runs after him, finding him just as he gets kidnapped. As the van he gets thrown into pulls away, an elderly gentleman with a white rabbit pin asks her about the ring. He manages to take the ring box from her, then proceeds to run. Alice follows him through a mirror, falling into the world of Wonderland. Soon, all sorts of well-known characters appear – the Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts, Primeval; 1408); the Queen and King of Hearts (Kathy Bates, Harry’s Law; Misery and Colm Meaney, Hell on WheelsStar Trek: The Next Generation, respectively); the White Knight (Matt Frewer, Watchmen; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids); and of course, Dodo (Tim Curry, Charlie’s Angels; The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Top left – Alice; top right – Jack Chase; middle left – Hatter; middle right – Queen and King of Hearts; bottom left – White Knight; bottom right – Dodo

Alice is by no means the first remake of a popular children’s book to grace the SyFy screen. The same writer and director, Nick Willing, is also responsible for the SyFy re-imaginings of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (in the 2007 miniseries Tin Man) and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (in the 2011 miniseries Neverland). Both Alice and Tin Man (I have not yet seen Neverland and so can’t comment on it) are a good deal darker than many more popular versions – think Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to get a decent idea of the tone of Alice. In Willing’s telling, Alice finds herself in Wonderland 150 years after the events described in the story (much like Burton’s has Alice returning after however many years), and the world depicted is both fantastical and allegorical. The Wonderland of Willing’s Alice shows a world where people seek instant gratification, and those who can afford the prices can buy any emotion they want. These emotions, of course, have to come from a source; namely, the so-called “Oysters”, or people from the “real” world who are taken by order of the Queen of Hearts and locked in a casino, where they are continuously confronted with a situation designed to elicit a specific emotion, which is then drained from them and purified into a liquid essence to be imbibed by those wishing to experience that feeling. (Obviously, the ones in charge of distilling the emotive essence are Walrus and Carpenter, and if you don’t know why that’s obvious, read this poem in its entirety.) And if that allegory weren’t quite clear enough, they saw fit to include a stock market where people buy and sell the various emotions.

Though I have no idea what this guy’s feeling…

As in the book, the Queen of Hearts is not known for her kindness; it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, though I don’t remember this being in there, but I do know that the Burton film included a resistance movement, as does Willing’s miniseries, again getting at the idea of dystopia. Once Alice meets the Hatter, he takes her to see the leader of the resistance, Dodo. The resistance base is in a library housing 5000 years of history; when Alice asks about it, the Hatter remarks that the Queen of Hearts would burn it to the ground because “wisdom is the biggest threat” to her power. Now, I could be a cynic, but it seems to me that this is also a jab at the current state of government in the United States. (I don’t want to politicize this blog if I can avoid it, but I have to say that I have definitely noticed over the past two or three years a decided rejection of facts by politicians, of both parties, in favor of more desirable delusions which have then been spread to the public in various ways. In this world order, it is very definitely true that wisdom is a threat to power. Of course, as was seen recently with the Occupy movement around the country and the world, a rejection of the current power balance is not necessarily predicated on wisdom, either.)

And can land you in a room with giant men spying on you

But that’s neither here nor there, because this is SyFy Channel, and everything’s grittier with a good resistance running in the background. Right? Right.

After the run-in with Dodo (who, of course, wants the ring that Alice conveniently held onto when confronted by the White Rabbit), Alice and the Hatter try to return to the Hatter’s tea shop (a front for the emotion stock market; or vice versa, it’s not really clear at all which enterprise is the legal one), but when they arrive, Mad March (as in the March Hare), the deadliest of the Queen’s assassins (and, for some reason, a Chicago or New York-style mobster) is already looking for them. He chases them into a nearby forest, where they run afoul of a jabberwock (because duh), but also meet up with the White Knight, who takes Alice and the Hatter to the ruined Kingdom of the Knights.

Note: the White Rabbit is the one without a rabbit head

First of all, the White Knight is very much in the style of Don Quixote, crossed a little bit (in my mind) with the Grail knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The White Knight is also a self-described inventor, which puts him in one of the most classic clichés – the Mad Scientist. He’s certainly a lot smarter than he seems at first, and smarter than most everyone perceives; but he is also absent-minded and manic, just like all the best inventors from television and movie history.

“Mad, you say? Would a mad man tilt at windmillsHMMMM?

Second, though, he talks about how the Red King (as in, chess piece king) once ruled the land with wisdom, before the Queen of Hearts overthrew him and refused to accept that bad things could happen. I’m not sure whether this was intended by Willing, but this history of Wonderland presents a war between cards and chess, arguably allegories for impatience and simplicity on the one hand, and thoughtfulness and planning on the other. Of course, those of you who know me know that I love a good card game; you also know that I’m not terribly talented at chess. But however you look at it, it’s difficult to make the case that chess is a game of instant gratification, or that many card games take much strategy. So again, it seems as though Willing is trying to tangentially force certain allegories between the Wonderland dystopia he’s created and the real world in which we find ourselves.

“Ahead truth-factor 7. Engage.”

Before I go, I need to mention some of the basics. Despite the beauty of Wonderland shown throughout much of this episode, the run-in with the jabberwock demonstrated poor enough CGI to make me notice it and remark that it just barely avoided being called “bad”. The acting, on the other hand, was pretty good across the board. Certain characters were exaggerated, of course, but then, they’re kind of supposed to be. The dialogue and music served to complement and complete the desired effect of a restless sort of dystopia, and overall, the darker tone throughout was handled well and served as a successful homage to the strangeness of the source material. My one main complaint is that the Cheshire Cat, my favorite character from the book and possibly one of the best characters from fiction, was almost entirely absent. Hopefully, he’ll be back in a big way in part two, but to find out, you’ll have to wait for the next review! See you then!

House of Bones – “No one here gets out alive”

Those of you who keep up with this blog know that last week was Shark Week, and while it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work critiquing one movie a day. So I figured this week, I’d take it easy, and shake up last week’s creature spectacuganzafest with a good old-fashioned haunted house film.

I occasionally make confessions in these entries about things that make me uncomfortable, and given the subject matter of this movie, it seems fitting that I do so here. Obviously, clowns are creepy, as are children, dolls, and hospitals. Condemned insane asylums are usually freaky, along with orphanages, and anything featuring homicidal, unstoppable ghosts falls into the category of “frightening”. (Enter The Cradle from Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, arguably one of the creepiest video game levels ever created, and certainly among the most atmospheric.) Classic 1700s Southern mansions, like the one in this movie, don’t typically automatically get deemed “creepy”, but it often doesn’t take too much to tip them over the edge.

“Look, honey! How lovely! OUR terrifying past will feel right at home here!”

House of Bones follows the crew of the Ghost Hunters parody Sinister Sites as they prepare to film a new episode about a mansion in Louisiana, the Wicker House. Quentin French (Corin Nemec, Sand Sharks; Parker Lewis Can’t Lose), the host of Sinister Sites, is forced by the network to travel to the house and film on location in a last-ditch attempt to keep his show running (after all, “the fans just think the CGI’s awful”). He is preceded by producer and lead investigator Tom Rule (Ricky Wayne, Real Steel; Monsterwolf); lead investigator Greg Williams (Marcus Lyle Brown, Mammoth; Monster’s Ball); tech manager Simon McAllister (Collin Galyean, Quantum Apocalypse; The Dunwich Horror); production assistant Bub (Kyle Russell Clements, Battleship; Quantum Apocalypse); and local psychic Heather Burton (Charisma Carpenter, The Expendables; Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The crew arrives at the house early, convincing realtor Sara Minor (Stephanie Honoré, Mirrors 2; The Final Destination) to let them stay the night in the house to be able to film while it’s dark outside. Naturally, as things start to turn deadly, they begin to regret their choice, struggling to survive as the house itself turns against them.

Top left – Quentin French; top right – Tom Rule; middle left – Greg Williams and Simon McAllister; middle right – Bub; bottom left – Heather Burton; bottom right – Sara Minor

If you haven’t yet seen House on Haunted Hill (that’s the Vincent Price original, mind you. And apparently there’s a color version, but the black and white was just fine for me), I’d recommend it. It’s a really good look at what a haunted house movie can be slash sets the standards for what those movies are. By no means is it perfect, of course, but by and large it’s pretty good. House of Bones, while obviously being several incarnations apart, still struck me as being a good blend of modern movie sensibilities crossed with throwbacks and homages to the haunted house movies of yore, as it were. While many ghost movies suffer from very poor CGI (as I’ve written on here and here, for example), House of Bones showed only a bare minimum of glowy mist and see-through specters, and when they did appear, the effects were typically either short in duration or fairly high in quality. What I’m trying to say is that House of Bones was made without the use of the terrible, campy CGI that drags down so many SyFy Channel movies. It certainly had CGI, and here and there it suffered, but not once while watching it did I remark on how bad the effects were. Given the usual for SyFy Channel, this lack of terrible effects was an unexpected and extremely welcome surprise. Moreover, while the dialogue was nothing outstanding, it remained where it should have, namely, unnoticed. The cast, on the other hand, was clearly above the standard quality typically found, and not only was everyone solidly decent or good, but they also seemed to click with each other in a way often missing from B movies.

“She’s hot. I guess I’ll follow her… annnnd now I’m stuck in a wall. Great…”

Given the absence of CGI effects, you may be wondering how this movie managed to be unsettling (and to me, it was definitely unsettling, unnerving, and creepy). The answer is that they did wonders with atmosphere. The setting – an old mansion with a terrible past – helped, of course; the grounds of the house are overgrown with vines, a dilapidated shed sits eerily in the back, and numerous crosses, dream catchers, and bones hang from a tree in the yard. But what really did it for me was the constant use of views through video cameras. Camera views in movies open up wonderful opportunities for suspense or jumps, as you can have an apparition suddenly appear, or something someone sees with their eyes not appear on video, or all manner of creepy things, and the creators of this movie took full advantage of those possibilities. Add in nearly-unheard screams, or an old radio unexpectedly broadcasting one of the characters crying for help while a demonic voice quotes from the Book of Revelation, and you’ve got a really good start towards having an unsettling haunted house movie without needing awful CGI. Now, don’t get me wrong; there were numerous predictable moments, and all too often, the movie built really good tension and suspense only to waste it too quickly on a decidedly bland reveal (for example, Heather has several occasions where she sees flashes of past atrocities committed in the house, but although they work well at building tension, they never make a return appearance later on). But by and large, the movie surprised me most by how effective it was.

Never a bad way to start a horror movie

Smile! You’re on haunted house camera!

“Say hello to my little… aw crap”

There were three major problems with this movie, though, that need to be expanded on. The first, as I mentioned, was the wasting of well-built tension. Constantly they created a really good and effective build up to something, and then released all the tension in an ineffectual moment that left me feeling unsatisfied. Significantly, this included the ending of the movie. There’s a certain inevitability that builds faster and faster as the movie goes on and the mystery of the house gets explored by the characters, and with that inevitability comes a necessary building hope that somehow, one or two of them will manage to survive and beat the house. Then, when that hope gets dashed to pieces, the full weight of the movie is felt. But this kind of tension really only works effectively when the stakes get raised faster and faster as the movie progresses. If the pace of the buildup and release of hope and suspense isn’t done just right, it comes across as shoddy work, and sadly, this movie suffered this fate. As the movie ended, I couldn’t help but feel as though the creators needed another half-hour or so to pace everything just right to wield the effect of the movie successfully, but unfortunately, they didn’t have that extra time, and the end of the film felt sudden and forced, as though they knew they were out of time and decided they had to wrap things up as quickly as they could.

“Just two… more… minutes…”

The other place where this movie suffered was the characters. While the actors did a remarkable job, the movie lacked a strong, clear central character. Now, I’m all for the idea that a movie or television or book series shouldn’t protect the main character simply by virtue of them being the main character. I very much prefer the stakes to be real, and to constantly be unsure who will live and who will die. Despite that, if a movie feels like it’s missing a strong protagonist, it can leave the viewer feeling ungrounded, which is perhaps my biggest complaint about this film. To me, it seemed to imply that Heather was the central figure, as she was the one who connected with the house and kept figuring out what was going on. But she never took a central, leading role, instead staying in the background and reacting to what was happening, rather than taking charge.

And who else is gonna lead? HIM?

As is often the case with supernatural or haunted house movies, there was no science that stood out as questionable in this film. However, there are a number of points I would like to discuss regarding human psychology as it relates to horror movie characters.

So here you are, in a 250-year-old house, built by a guy who experimented with witchcraft on slaves to try to figure out how to live forever. Since his death, rumors of disappearances and murders follow the house throughout history, the last known case being in 1951. When you get into this house to film it as part of a Ghost Hunters-esque television show, and the local psychic starts telling you about the bad feelings she’s getting from rooms and objects in the house, you laugh it off as stage bluster. Makes sense. Then your production assistant goes missing while setting up cameras, and after a camera gets dropped in a wall, it comes out covered in what looks like mucus or something grosser. So what do you do to try to find your production assistant? Obviously, the best idea is to have two people separately search the upstairs, staying apart from each other as long as possible! Naturally! But seriously, every single time, people split up. Admittedly, in the beginning, there’s something to be said for incredulity, but once you have camera footage of someone fading away, in a quite literal sense, then you have to believe that something strange in going on. Doubly so once the resident psychic starts coughing up hair, though by that point, it’s probably too late.

“I’m thinking we should split up to explore the creepiest parts of the house…”

“…like this. Go in there alone. That’s a good idea, right?”

This movie also, at least tangentially, raises the issue of reality. At one point, Heather says to “trust reality”, as though it were that simple. But what makes reality for us? Is it what we perceive? Descartes would disagree with that, as he argues that our perceptions can fool us (and of course, we’ve all had that happen at some point). And when you hallucinate that you’re on a dissection table being cut open alive (as in a recent episode of Alphas), does it really matter whether you’re being cut open by masked doctors or by your own doing? In other words, if the effect is the same regardless of the cause, is it really that important to know the actual cause?

“Forget reality, just get me the hell out of here!”

Anyway, that’s House of Bones for you. Better than expected, better than standard SyFy, and an all-around pleasant surprise. Enjoy!

Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus – “Whoever wins… we lose!”

And here we are, the last day of Shark Week and the second and final entry for this installment of Franchise Week. It’s been quite a week, and I never thought I’d say this about a Shark Week review, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about sharks. Of course, the reason for that is because I’ve already discussed sharks at great length throughout the week, and I’ve got a lot to say about crocodiles, so we’d best begin.

Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus is the second in The Asylum’s movie series about a gigantic shark fighting some other really big thing. This time, the megalodon’s opponent is none other than the crocosaurus, a gigantic prehistoric crocodile that for some reason was hibernating in a mountain in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only to be awakened by diamond miners. (Of course, we all already know the history of mega shark. And before you say anything, it was never confirmed killed! The giant octopus is gone, sure, because how could three giant baddies survive, but no shark body was ever found! Look over there!) Upon the release of the crocosaurus, the mining company hires Nigel Putnam (Gary Stretch, Savages; Alexander), an expert crocodile and monster hunter, to kill or capture it. He succeeds, but as he’s transporting it back to the US (for some entirely unexplained and presumably King Kong-esque moronic reason), his ship gets attacked by the mega shark, sinking the ship and setting the crocosaurus free. Meanwhile, after the sinking of his ship at the fins of the mega shark (and the death of his fiancée), Dr. Terry McCormick (Jaleel White, Dreamgirls; Family Matters), an acoustics expert researching the effects of different sound frequencies on sharks, gets commandeered by Agent Hutchinson (Sarah Lieving, Lakeview Terrace; The Beast of Bray Road) to help track down the megalodon. She also enlists Nigel’s help in finding and killing the crocosaurus, and together the three of them go off on a merry adventure, jaunting all around the world in search of killer monsters.

Top left – Nigel Putnam; top right – Jaleel White; middle left – Agent Hutchinson; middle right – Crocosaurus; bottom – hand-puppet Mega Shark

So you remember how I said that the CGI in Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus had some artistic style to it but seemed unfinished? Well, in Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, I think they shifted the balance a bit too far the other way, ending up with effects that definitely looked more realistic, overall, but also looked decidedly CGI and cheesy. If only they could find a way to get the perfect mix… The acting was acceptable but not outstanding, as expected. The dialogue was boring but sufficient. But what was noticeably missing was a tight, well-planned plot. It was straightforward enough for the first half or so, but as the movie went on, it seemed like the writers had a bunch of ideas they wanted to include, so decided to put them all in rather than leave out those that just didn’t fit. That doesn’t really work so well, from what I’ve seen. So, for example, when it looks like the mega shark and the crocosaurus are going to kill each other, all of a sudden baby crocosauruses start hatching from eggs that had been laid; but rather than go on too much of their own warpath, the babies are drawn to their mother as she wrestles with the shark. Of course, when they find the battle, the shark promptly eats many of them, and so they end up serving very little purpose. Similar sorts of things happen throughout the whole movie, making it feel rough and erratic as they jump from one thing to the next.

“My babies will assist me! *Gulp* Curse you, Mega Shark!”

But really, none of that’s the point. The point is, how’d they do with the science?

“There was science?!?”

First of all, this movie suffers from what I always think of as “Anaconda syndrome”, wherein the monster, in this case the mega shark, seems to change size, sometimes drastically, as best suits the desired shot. So when the shark jumps over a battleship, for example, it looks to be not much longer than the ship; but in the next shot, the guns are pointed at a fin (just a fin, mind you) that towers over everything and looks to be attached to a shark that doubled in size, at minimum. Likewise, at one point, the crocosaurus is swimming away from the shark, which in turn is being followed by a submarine, and the relative sizes estimate the shark at about the length of the sub, maybe somewhat longer. Not too much after this moment, though, the shark turns around and swallows a (nuclear) submarine whole (causing Terry to exclaim that “it’s a nuclear bomb now!”). Which I suppose is perhaps plausible; but still indicates to me that the shark maintains an inconsistent size throughout the movie, always frustrating to a viewer.

Either that, or its fin is just huge

I said above that I don’t have a whole lot to say about sharks in today’s entry, but that’s not to say I have nothing. For a start, Terry’s research involves using different sound frequencies to attract or repel sharks, begging the question “how sensitive are sharks to sound?” As you can see here, the premise of his research is plausible, as sharks are known to be attracted to sound frequencies mimicking wounded prey. So, at least theoretically, a frequency could be found which would mimic, say, a danger to sharks that might help repel them.

“Danger? Ha! I eat danger!”

Next, great white sharks are known to regularly breach while hunting seals in some parts of the world (specifically off the coast of South Africa). However, this breaching behavior is entirely the result of striking their prey from below with such force that the sharks fling themselves out of the water in the process. At many times in the movie, the mega shark breaches, but never to attack from below; near the beginning of the movie, for example, it jumps over the battleship in order to whack it with its tail to help damage it. While this form of attack may seem (and in fact is) odd, it is also true that thresher sharks sometimes use their tail to stun prey. So I would say that breaching as a way of being able to attack something with the tail doesn’t make much sense for a megalodon; but attacking with the tail does fit in with some known shark behavior.

“I’m a whale!”

And now, on to crocodiles.

I’m no expert on cryptids, but it seems to me that the basis for the crocosaurus in this movie is a rumored crocodilian in the People’s Republic of the Congo known as the mahamba. Given that the best I can do for an actual basis is a generic crocodile, comparisons will jump around between several species or stick to crocodilians in general.

That looks real, right?

The crocosaurus in the movie lays several thousand eggs (explained by suggesting that she lays eggs faster when her offspring are in danger, as from, say, a mega shark) below the ocean’s surface. She then does her best to stop the mega shark (which, for some reason, is drawn to the chemical signature of the eggs) from eating the eggs or the babies (when the eggs hatch). It is also mentioned on multiple occasions just how intelligent crocodiles are. But what of all that is true?

“You callin’ me a liar?”

As it turns out, most of it. For a start, at least one species of crocodile is tolerant of saltwater, so an ocean-going crocodile, while perhaps unusual, is not impossible. More importantly, though, is that crocodilians are arguably among the smarter animals (also see here), and as the second link discusses have been known to collectively guard nests and young. So the idea that the crocosaurus goes out of her way to stop the mega shark from eating her eggs and offspring does seem to fit in with what has been observed in modern crocodiles. However, as far as we’ve seen (and as far as I can find), crocodiles are not known to lay their eggs under water, instead making burrows or nests on land and then covering the eggs to help protect them from predators.

Like the legendary rocket shark

And that’ll do it for Shark Week here at Jumping Sharks. It’s been a long week, but hopefully an enriching one. I know that I, for one, learned quite a bit about our aquatic friends. Stay tuned for a return to our regular updating schedule, beginning next week. Until then, take a breather, but keep an eye out for fins.

And as always, kill it with fire!

Sharktopus – “Half-shark. Half-octopus. All terror”

Yes, day 6 of Shark Week brings the world-wide phenomenon known as sharktopus! Winner of SyFy Channel’s Monster Madness, as well as proud owner of one of the most ridiculous plots in B movie history, Sharktopus represents the quintessence of bad horror movies. It is, I believe, about as close as you can get to the perfect blend of campiness, over-the-top-ness, and downright awfulness without going over into the realm of “absolute crap”.

Sharktopus explores the nightmare what-if scenario – what if a marine geneticist created a half shark, half octopus hybrid that then got loose? I think they paint a pretty accurate picture. (On a side note, I was unaware until researching for this post that there was, in fact, a 1984 movie Devil Fish that also featured a shark/octopus hybrid. So maybe Sharktopus would be better described as a remake…) Nathan Sands (Eric Roberts, The Expendables; The Prophecy II) is the lead director of the Blue Water Corps, a genetic engineering lab commissioned by the U.S. Navy to develop a super weapon capable of infiltrating enemy harbors undetected. With the help of his daughter Nicole Sands (Sara Malakul Lane, Nature Unleashed: Volcano; Belly of the Beast), he and his team create the aptly-named sharktopus, dubbed S-11. While testing their ability to control it, S-11 gets struck by a speedboat (which promptly explodes, of course), breaking the control relay and setting it free. Desperate to recapture S-11, Nathan enlists the help of Andy Flynn (Kerem Bursin, Sharktopus; Thursday), a former Navy SEAL and employee of Blue Water Corps, to help track it and subdue it. Meanwhile, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (again), reporter Stacy Everheart (Liv Boughn, Sharktopus; Dinoshark) and her cameraman Bones (Héctor Jiménez, Epic Movie; Nacho Libre) follow the path of the sharktopus as it kills everyone in sight. Classic sharktopus…

Top left – Nathan Sands; top right – Nicole Sands; middle left – Andy Flynn; middle right – Stacy Everheart; bottom left – Stacy and Bones; bottom right – S-11

Overall, this is another movie where the CGI stays fairly consistent throughout, although the blood-splatter effects leave quite a lot to be desired. My main issue is the seeming inconsistency in the size of the sharktopus; in some scenes, its arms seem to be infinitely long, or its head looks as large as a VW; in other scenes, its arms are clearly of a definite length, and its head looks more in line with a great white. The acting also falls into two distinct categories – people who are present for the majority of the movie, and people who are sharktopus bait. The acting in the former category was more or less in line with other SyFy originals, while the acting in the latter category was… not. The rest of the movie was pretty much what you’d expect.

“Curse you and your changing size!”

“Oh no! Not like this! AAAHHH!”

Before I look closely at the science of Sharktopus, there are two things they did that deserve special attention and kudos. First, they explain why the sharktopus is indiscriminately killing people (to be discussed below), given that “sharks aren’t serial killers”; and second, they openly recognize and mock the ridiculousness of their plot. There’s a scene wherein a radio producer starts getting reports of sharktopus sightings and suggests they’re doing a movie, to which her host replies “Oh, yeah, I can see that now – a former Navy SEAL slash oceanographer is tracking down this abomination before it takes any more lives!…”. This is exactly the sort of self-awareness that many B movies lack, and for that, I applaud them.

Self-aware comic relief. Bravo, SyFy; bravo

But now there’s science to do!

Let me be clear about this – I am not going to look into the possibility of creating a sharktopus, for two main reasons. The first is that obviously, melding the head of a shark onto the arms of an octopus is completely ludicrous, at least insofar as genetic manipulation currently stands (although there was a really cool thing someone did where they made rat muscle act exactly like a jellyfish; however, what they did there was not, in fact, genetic engineering so much as biomechanical manipulation). The second reason is that to do so would violate my core approach to evaluating the science of bad movies, namely assume it could work, and then examine the consequences of their explanation. So I’m less interested in talking about the likelihood of a dinoshark being released from a melting ice sheet, for example, and much more interested in figuring out how it learned to hunt humans. As such, I’m going to allow the sharktopus to exist as is, and not worry about how they made it; but then look at what they have it do. To that end, I’m going to be using the great white shark (again) as the shark part, and a generic octopus for the octopus part.

Completely plausible and believable. Now with extra beak!

The first thing to note is that the sharktopus is entirely manmade, so when it starts attacking boats and jet skis and the like, its behavior can be attributed to unnatural aggression and development, as well as its design purpose of being an infiltrator. However, what about why it shows increased aggression? The explanation given is that Nathan messed with the serotonin levels, in an unspecified way. This could make some amount of sense, as serotonin and vasopressin interact with receptors in the hypothalamus to help determine mood in many animals.

“I’m not angry, I just like to hug!”

The sharktopus also seemingly displays learning behavior throughout the movie. Octopi are well-known for their intelligence, while sharks have displayed an apparent curiosity in the wild. As such, the idea that a sharktopus would be a good problem-solver and learner makes a fair amount of sense, especially where hunting techniques are concerned. Despite the movie’s assertions that octopi are territorial animals, evidence seems to be conflicting, with some experiments demonstrating territoriality and others not (sadly, as I don’t have subscriptions to journals, I cannot link an article supporting octopi being non-territorial; however, a Google search for “octopus territorial behavior” should help provide some idea of the breadth of studies).

“Get away from my arch! Or not! It’s your choice!”

There’s a scene wherein the sharktopus jumps out of the water to eat a person; as discussed in yesterday’s entry, the jumping ability of some species of shark more than allows for the jumping height of the sharktopus. And the main methods used by the sharktopus to kill people include biting them into pieces, (apparently) drowning them by holding them underwater, and stabbing them with its arms. Octopi, in general, grab prey and kill it by biting it, a method common among sharks as well. However, the arms of octopi would not be able to stab through anything, being soft and malleable (though strong). As for drowning, most of the prey eaten by octopi are aquatic already, so drowning doesn’t make much sense. Overall, the only really realistic ways the sharktopus attacks people are by grabbing them with arms and then biting them with shark teeth or octopus beak. However, one thing that is fairly clear is that octopi are strong. In addition to being able to break through Plexiglas, giant pacific octopi have been known to successfully attack and kill sharks.

So this is cake to a sharktopus

Which leads to the last main question I have about this movie. At one point, the sharktopus follows fleeing beachgoers out onto the sand, walking on its fins and arms. Now, sharks have been known to walk around on their fins on the bottom of the ocean, as seen here; likewise, octopi are able to cross dry land when needed. So the fact of the sharktopus walking out of the ocean, while done in an exaggerated and cartoonish manner, is not unreasonable. However, at the end of the movie, it spends at least six or seven minutes out of water, terrorizing a resort. So how long could the sharktopus survive? Turns out, there’s a species of shark that routinely shuts down some of its body’s functions to help prevent suffocation, allowing to it live in environments with very little oxygen, at least temporarily. This isn’t quite the same as surviving out of water, but it does imply a certain ability, at least in some sharks, to “hold their breath”, so to speak.

“Beach volleyball! Who’s in?”

“No rooms? But I have a reservation! You’ll hear from my lawyers!”

And that’s all I’ve got for Sharktopus. If you enjoy creature movies and have the chance, it’s quite a bit of fun – ridiculous plot, campy CGI, and just enough self-awareness to laugh along with you. Only one more review left this week – land’s in sight!

Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus – “Winner… Eats… All!”

Day 5 of Shark Week brings a twofer, with the return of Franchise Week as well as a review of probably the best-known movie this week, with the possible exception of tomorrow’s offering. Yes, I’m talking about Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, the film from The Asylum with a plot so bare-bones the name alone tells you (almost) exactly what will happen. (Almost…)

(This. This is what happens)

Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus opens in the Arctic Ocean as Emma (Deborah Gibson, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid; Ghostbusters) and her assistant find a pod of whales in migration. Unbeknownst to them (but knownst to us), the military is simultaneously conducting tests using sonar emitters. As the emitters go off, ice starts cracking off of a nearby iceberg, releasing the frozen forms of the mega shark and the giant octopus, foes who had been locked in combat for millions of years. She doesn’t believe her eyes until a whale washes up dead on a beach in California, from which she extracts an enormous fragment of something. She takes it to her former professor, Lamar (Sean Lawlor, 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Braveheart) and together, they deduce that it is a fragment of a tooth belonging to megalodon. Meanwhile in Japan, an oil rig gets destroyed by what the government deems an accident; but when Seiji Shimada (Vic Chao, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous; Pearl Harbor), a world-renowned marine biologist, interviews the only living survivor, he gets a description of a gigantic octopus. Emma and Lamar call up Seiji to ask for his help, and when he arrives, he learns about the shark and they learn about the octopus. Before they can take action themselves, they get arrested by government forces to consult on defeating the creatures, under the supervision of Allan (Lorenzo Lamas, 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Grease), a military commander with little imagination or tolerance for monsters. Then a mega shark and a giant octopus fight.

Top left – Emma and Lamar; top right – Lamar; middle left – Seiji; middle right – Allan; bottom – natural accident

Being a movie that relies heavily on CGI, one would think that a good deal of effort would have been put into making the images of the shark and the octopus pretty decent, overall. However, one would be wrong. While the CGI in this movie definitely has a certain artistic character to it, as well as a consistency not always found in these sorts of movies, I couldn’t help but feel that it also had a certain unfinished quality to it, as though the designers had intended to go one step further to make everything look real, until someone higher up stepped in and said “good enough”. The acting was hit-and-miss, but overall not a huge problem. The dialogue was more miss than hit, but certainly was sufficient to the task.

“You’d better pray I miss!”

So how was the science? As I promised here, this is another movie that would have us believe that all kinds of monsters and terrible creatures are frozen in the ice at one of the poles, just waiting to be unleashed upon a world completely incapable of handling them. Additionally, Emma suggests that the destruction caused by the mega shark and the giant octopus are possibly humanity reaping the rewards, as it were, of global warming, making this the third movie this week to feature the idea that the oceans need to be saved from the plague that is humankind, as well as the umpteenth movie in general to say the same. Now, while I can’t dispute that we as a species really do need to take much, much better care of our planet than we currently believe, I also cannot believe that the ice at either pole could possibly cryogenically freeze any sort of macroorganism (although there are all kinds of microbes that have been found living in glaciers, the rate of freeze that (I imagine) would be necessary to put something as large as a shipping vessel into suspended animation without causing massive tissue damage to my knowledge does not occur naturally, at least not on a large scale).

“Global warming? Is that still a thing?”

The species of shark starring in this movie is given as the megalodon, so that’s what I’ll use for shark facts; as for the octopus, the largest known is the North Pacific giant octopus (certainly, the Pacific giant octopus is a contender for that title, competing with the seven-arm octopus; but given that Wikipedia discusses unreliable claims of Pacific giant octopi with armspans up to 30 feet, that’s the one I’ll use as the basis for the giant octopus). Also, last year, there was a claim by Professor Mark McMenamin that he had found a set of fossilized icthyosaur bones that had been arranged into the likeness of a kraken, presumably by that creature. As such, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and allow that a giant octopus could have existed at one point (though there has been no direct evidence yet found implying its existence, partly because octopi are really difficult to fossilize). So I’m not going to discuss whether or not a giant octopus once existed on this planet, but rather treat it as an enlarged, ancestral Pacific giant octopus.

For a start, do sharks and octopi fight? I mean, sharks are top predators and octopi are… well… not. Right? Except that they are. Not only are octopi pretty smart, but they’ve also been known to attack and eat sharks, as can be seen here. Likewise, many octopi have defenses to help them hide from predators, including sharks. In other words, the idea that a mega shark and a giant octopus would have fought, had they found each other, definitely fits what we see in modern sharks and octopi.

Or possibly consensual S&M

Also, this time, I’m not even going to dispute the likelihood of either a megalodon or a kraken attacking modern things at least a few times, as they would have no idea whether or not a submarine, for example, would be tasty, but they would definitely have the ability to find out. And the movie makes clear that the beast are attacking more than just metallic things, as Emma finds a whale with a piece of megalodon tooth stuck in it, which is good enough suggestion to me that they’re eating appropriately.

“Here comes the hug!”

Now. Sharks have been known to eat land birds, though the most likely explanation is that the birds die as they’re migrating south across the Gulf of Mexico (for example), and that the sharks eat the corpses. Likewise, octopi have been observed eating birds, at least on one occasion. However, it should be noted that in both these cases, the animal eats the bird after the bird has entered the water. As far as I can find out, neither animal goes to great lengths to pull birds out of the sky. On a seemingly unrelated note, and despite the fact that I want to rely mostly on megalodon facts, shortfin mako sharks typically grow to be about 10 feet long, and have been known to jump up to 30 feet or more into the air. Ignoring for a moment that this is the fastest known shark, let’s assume that an average shark can jump 3 feet for every foot long it is (yes, this is incredibly fuzzy logic). Then a megalodon, which is estimated to have been 52 feet long or more could jump somewhere around 150 feet into the air. Why all the talk of birds and jumping? Because at different points in the movie, each animal pulls a plane out of the sky. The shark jumps out of the water to do it, and assuming that megalodons could have jumped 150 feet vertically if they wanted, that scene is roughly accurate. As for the octopus, it decides to knock a jet fighter down using a tentacle. Between the two, the octopus attack strikes me as much less realistic; however, neither animal seems like it should really have that sort of behavior instinct, as when their modern relatives eat birds, the birds are already in the water and not typically in flight.

Prime examples of hunting techniques

The last big thing I want to talk about is not related to mega sharks or giant octopi, but rather the popular perception of science. As some of you may know, one of my biggest pet peeves is the ways in which science is portrayed – alternately as this monolithic thing that can only be understood after years and years of study; or as this thing that can give you all the answers you want in no time at all. Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus features two separate science montages that crushed a part of my soul. They show Emma, Lamar, and Seiji mixing brightly-colored liquids or looking through microscopes or mixing brightly-colored smoking liquids or what have  you; I haven’t done much research in my life, but I have done some, and I’ve seen a good deal more being done, and nowhere were there brightly-colored liquids or instant answers (though there are plenty of colored liquids used in science, often in chemical reactions for various reasons). And while a microscope is a wonderful tool, it is in no way the decoder of cryptic samples that many representations would have you believe.

Look! They’re doing science!

The reason all this bothers me is that it spreads the idea that science doesn’t take a lot of work, and while I’m all for helping make science more accessible, there needs to be a realistic understanding of the limitations of research as well as the lengthiness of it. If a kid goes in to science thinking it’s all bright liquids and instant answers, he or she will be sorely disappointed in a hurry. The point is this – on this blog, I talk about the ways in which scientific facts get bent or distorted or completely ignored; and this movie came along and couldn’t even get right a representation of science itself. A pheromone cocktail should not glow green, for Pete’s sake! Let’s at least aim for a little realism, please! In other words, stop reaffirming the validity of this comic.

I don’t know what you put in there, and I don’t want to know

Okay. Rant over.

So that’s all I have to say about Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, except for this – the movie suffered from a severe lack of mega shark versus giant octopus. For a majority of the movie, the two creatures destroy things on opposite sides of the world, and even then only rarely. When they do finally fight, it’s for maybe 10 minutes, 15 at the most. I won’t say don’t watch it, but I will say that if all you want to see is the best scenes of the movie, just watch this trailer instead.

Oh, and this happens

I hope Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus does better…

Malibu Shark Attack – “The tsunami was just the beginning of the terror”

The Shark Week sojourn continues! Today, I will read your minds! Imagine a movie about people trapped by sharks in a flooded building with narrow passages. You’re thinking of Malibu Shark Attack, aren’t you. Am I amazing or what? Huh? What’s that? You were actually thinking of Deep Blue Sea? And you think Malibu Shark Attack is a complete rip-off? No, see, Malibu Shark Attack is actually a completely different movie. Deep Blue Sea starred genetically altered mako sharks as the bad guys; Malibu Shark Attack used “prehistoric” goblin sharks. See the difference? It’s completely new and original!

Deep Blue Sea

Entirely new concept

Malibu Shark Attack follows Yancey (Renee Bowen, At World’s End; Along the Way), Jason (Joel Amos Byrnes, The Professional Idiot; Daybreakers), Chavez (Warren Christie, Alphas; 10.5), Doug (Remi Broadway, The Marine; Scooby-Doo), and Jenny (Chelan Simmons, Ice Twisters; Final Destination 3) as they struggle to survive not just a tsunami that strands them far from land, but also the pack of killer sharks claiming the surrounding waters as their own. Naturally, the humans grab the best weapons available to kill the sharks – power tools!

Top left – Yancey; top right – Jason; middle left – Chavez and Jason; middle right – Doug; bottom left – Jenny; bottom right – Chet, a goblin shark

The basics first, as they’re easy to cover and I’ve let them slip the past day or two. The acting in this was clearly below-average for SyFy movies, though not the worst I’ve seen by any means. The CGI, on the other hand, was both below average and possibly among the worst they’ve used, though that’s a hard title to award to any one movie in particular. The dialogue was decent, and this movie was definitely a different approach to the killer shark motif, in that it was less about people hunting down killer sharks, and more about them just trying to survive (look at Shark Swarm or Dinoshark for contrast; or, ye know, don’t).

Keep thrashing like that! It always helps!

The plot, in a nutshell, is that Yancey, Chavez, and Doug all work as lifeguards at a beach near Malibu; Jenny is assigned their stretch of beach to clean for community service after she was caught shoplifting; and Jason is a developer building a large unsightly house right on the beachfront. (Oh, and Yancey and Chavez were really serious for a while, but now she’s seeing Jason, but she still likes Chavez, and he and Jason don’t get along at all, but somehow they have to all work together to survive the killer sharks.) Back to the plot – an undersea earthquake unleashes a pack of goblin sharks (because apparently, they somehow were trapped in an undersea cave, or something, but didn’t die of starvation for some reason, but nothing else got released with them, so I have no idea what they ate, but that’s not really the point; the point is that goblin sharks are still alive, not a supposedly extinct prehistoric species somehow trapped in an undersea cave), which start eating people around the beach, including a parasailer (again!) and almost Yancey. But before she can worry about the killer sharks she just saw eat a boatful of people, a tsunami approaches, and Yancey, Chavez, Doug and Jenny get trapped in the lifeguard hut, while Jason and his crew take shelter in the house they’re building. And of course, soon the sharks start finding ways to get their elusive prey. Enter the power tools.

And guns. They always use guns in these movies…

I’d like to start by talking about the tsunami for a moment, which is described by the movie as being worse than the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. For those of you who don’t remember or are too lazy to follow that link, the earthquake that caused that tsunami is the third largest earthquake ever (recorded, at least). The tsunamis that followed caused hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of damage (my estimate, based on the info I can find), and killed between 227,000 and 280,000 people. The movie also says that the tsunami in the movie had waves up to 100 feet high (possible) and washed away houses inland (definitely); but somehow, our intrepid lifeguard heroes survive the force of the wave in a shack on stilts, and our construction crew survives in a house with no walls. There’s a disconnect there, to my mind, that apparently went overlooked.

Sturdier than most houses, I guess

Anyway, everything gets flooded, allowing the sharks access to the hut and the house. Goblin sharks are typically found on the ocean floor (say, 650 feet down or so), although they have been seen swimming in shallower waters. They grow from 8 to 11 feet long, depending on gender, and their known diet includes deep sea rock fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. They hunt by sensing electromagnetic discharges from prey (many sharks use this to aid in tracking down their next meal). And probably the coolest thing about them – they have a jaw that can be extended to capture prey (see pictures below and a video here). As that video shows, they probably wouldn’t be so good at biting a person in half, though I have no idea at all how old or how large the shark in that clip is.

Now you see it…

…now you don’t!

Now, I can’t substantiate my claims here as much as I could for previous shark movies simply because goblin sharks aren’t terribly well-studied yet, compared to, say, the great white. So if you’ll allow me, I’ll speculate for a while.

Goblin sharks live on the bottom of the ocean (though they are not bottom feeders). They have been known to be tenacious enough when attacking to leave teeth behind in submarine cables. Which makes me wonder at multiple occurrences in the movie. First, despite having limited eye-sight, they still manage to repeatedly attack the same place in the floor of the lifeguard hut, eventually breaking through. When the survivors plug the hole, the sharks start going to work on the struts holding the hut up. One of them also manages to jump out of the water and eat a guy standing on the edge of pier. My issue here is where would a shark that’s spent its whole evolutionary history chasing down bottom-dwelling prey learn how to jump, let alone attack the weak points of a structure or the same place over and over? It just doesn’t make much sense.

Natural hunting tactics for the bottom-dwelling goblin shark

Moreover, later in the movie, Jason rescues the group in the hut and they all end up back in the unfinished house. But no matter how far away from exits the people get, the sharks seem to know without hesitation that they’re in there, and keep going after them without being deterred. While the persistence is in line with the anecdote above, all predators (and herbivores, for that matter) need to balance calories gained from a meal with calories expended acquiring that meal. It doesn’t do much good to eat if you use more energy catching your food than you get from eating it (assuming the intention isn’t to lose weight). This makes me think that, after a while, the sharks would just give up and go look for food elsewhere.

“Later, bitchaz!”

I don’t have much else to say about it, but I did mention power tools above. Somehow, despite phones being down throughout all of California (or at least the southern coast), the unfinished, at this point flooded, house still has electricity. Or maybe the tools are all gas-powered, I don’t really know. Either way, Chavez picks up a chainsaw, and I couldn’t help but think back to all the great chainsaw moments in horror movies. So I offer you one of my favorite chainsaw-esque moments. Pretty gory, but a classic.

And of course, the best one of all

And that’ll do it for Malibu Shark Attack. Stay tuned for the next installment; the remainder of the week will be movies you can really sink your teeth into.

Dinoshark – “Fear what’s just below the surface”

It’s day three of Shark Week, and we’re finally seeing just what shark movies are supposed to be. Unlike Shark Swarm or Shark in Venice, which used sharks primarily as a backdrop and not as much of a feature, Dinoshark puts the dinoshark front and center, not bothering to weigh down the movie with pesky concepts like “plot” or “character development”.

Yet again, we’re warned of the dangers of global warming (though to be fair, the writers shy away from explicitly blaming increased temperatures for the release of the shark), as ice falling into the sea from polar icebergs causes dozens of baby dinosharks to thaw out, unleashing them upon the unsuspecting world. Trace McGraw (Eric Balfour, Haven; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) returns to his home of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico due to troubles in the economy (this is 2010, after all), planning to return to his roots hiring himself out as a captain for wealthy tourists. While catching up with friends, he meets Carol Brubaker (Iva Hasperger, Vlad; Malevolent), an environmentalism professor and coach of a girls’ water polo team scheduled to play as part of a canal festival. As people go missing, Trace and Carol soon realize that the dinoshark is responsible and attempt to hunt it down.

Top left – Trace McGraw; top right – Carol Brubaker; bottom – Gary the dinoshark

This will mean more later in the week, but I’m quickly recognizing a trope I had always missed before now (though I have written on it before) – the idea that polar ice has somehow managed to freeze prehistoric monsters in stasis, and that as the Earth warms, they’re slowly being released. It’s a plot device found not only in B horror movies, but also in some rather popular blockbusters, most notably Ice Age: The Meltdown (aka the continuing adventures of the saber tooth squirrel). And I’m not the first person to notice this trend, either (obviously):

Beyond the cliché of ice holding undreamt-of horrors, again we have a case where one of the main heroes has a background and résumé in environmentalism. Fortunately for us, they don’t really drill home “save the planet” messages, but the fact that it’s even in there in the first place is getting old. (And why is it that every movie that takes place in or near Mexico has something involving death? This one had Los Muertos Reef, The Lost World: Jurassic Park has Las Cinco Muertos, and on and on. “What’s that? You mean to say that people are dying near the reef of the dead?” Seriously, get a clue already.)

😦

But anyway. Ice falls into the sea and melts, releasing dozens of cute little baby dinosharks. One of them grows up (apparently the rest die? Or something? I don’t know, they never really explain it), and proceeds to eat its way down the west coast of North America. Now, I know that the thing looks like a shark with a T. rex head, but it also displayed a lot of behavior that struck me as rather crocodilian, as well; and given that this movie has absolutely zero basis in reality (not that that’s a bad thing, of course), I’m going to analyze the “dino”shark as more of a “croco”shark, and assume that somehow, a crocodile and a great white got together and birthed a terrifying lovechild (why a great white? Because why not, that’s why. Also, it’s body structure is vaguely correct for a great white). Carol also at one point posits that it looks like a pliosaur, so I will also discuss that possibility insofar as I can.

Kinda like this…

…but really more like this!

Let’s start with how the babies survived in the ice in the first place. The answer is cryobiology, of course! The dinoshark is assumed to be a species that evolved to live at cold temperatures (like the Greenland shark), but that for some reason had an adaptation to allow it to survive in warmer waters. Now, let’s take a look at some maps. The maps below show the ranges of arguably the three most dangerous species of shark:

Range maps for the tiger shark (top left), bull shark (top right), and great white shark (bottom; that’s right, the whole world!)

Look closely and you’ll notice something; great whites and bull sharks both range into waters generally agreed to be really frickin’ cold, and while tiger sharks stay in warmer water latitudes, they are also known to live at depths of up to 900 feet, at least temporarily. And as you can see here, at 900 feet deep, the ocean is roughly 5°C (41°F). Now, I grew up in Wisconsin, and as such, I’ve gone swimming in the Great Lakes occasionally, and even in the summer, they can be a lot colder than is pleasant. The point is that these three species of sharks share two things – they can all tolerate cold water, and they all have ranges that include cold waters as well as warm waters.

“5°C? Cold?! Ah hahaha! That’s a good one!”

There are two reasons this is significant. First is that apex predators, such as these sharks, often hunt over a very wide range (great whites have been known to migrate thousands of miles, for example; and even the Greenland shark, mentioned earlier, has been seen as far south as Spain). The second is that none of these sharks are restricted by temperature (though tiger sharks tend to stay in warmer waters). Thus, the idea that the dinoshark would need an adaptation in order to survive warmer waters, such as the coast of Mexico, doesn’t make much sense.

“Oh, hey guys. What’s up?”

As in any given shark movie, the dinoshark spends the whole time eating, apparently digesting its kills instantaneously, constantly needing more food (though if I’d been frozen for 150 million years or so, I might be rather peckish myself). But after the initial feeding frenzy upon release, which would be understandable, how much would the dinoshark really need to eat to stay alive? A great white eats about 11 tons of food per year, or an average of 60 pounds per day (using the US short ton as the starting point; if the British long ton is used, they average 67.5 pounds per day). Even assuming an killer appetite, no shark would realistically eat in a day as much as sharks in these movies do.

“But what’s for dessert?”

So what about crocodiles?

Crocodiles are much more interesting in that they can survive for long periods with little food, which makes me think two things; first, that they will eat as often as they can, and second, that they don’t eat very often. I know that seems like a strange pair to put together, but my point is that they probably don’t eat a whole lot on a daily basis, either. Which makes the concept of a shark – even a dino or crocoshark – eating everything in sight highly suspicious at best, and ludicrous at worst.

“Hilarious, I’d say!”

This brings me to my next few points. Why is that, in movies like this, the shark almost exclusively attacks humans? I know that Shark Swarm has some scenes where the sharks eat each other, and Dinoshark has one where the dinoshark eats a crocodile, of all things; but by and large, it seems as though these sharks deliberately attack humans preferentially to fish, which doesn’t make any sense at all. For example, Dinoshark has numerous scenes where the shark either jumps out of the water (laterally, of course) to eat people on boats/surf boards/jet skis/etc., or jumps onto a boat to destroy it. My question, naturally, is how does the dinoshark, which has never seen humans, let alone a boat or a jet ski, know to specifically attack the fleshy delicious bits, and not the icky metallic bits? Along these lines, how could a dinoshark possibly have instincts that tell it to jump onto things when attacking? Were there all kinds of prey floating about on the ancient seas that we just don’t know about? I suppose it’s possible, but even then, I would assume that the behavior that would evolve would be to strike from below, not above. I am actually more inclined to believe that the dinoshark would naturally know how to attack a parasailer, as at least there, the person is behaving somewhat bird-like.

Natural tactics and prey of the dinoshark (or so they’d have you believe!)

More plausible (to me) hunting tactic

Along these lines, it seems that every chance the dinoshark gets, it not only attacks people, but specifically attacks their head and neck. This is certainly reminiscent of how pliosaurs possibly attacked plesiosaurs, as shown below. It’s also suggestive of a crocodile’s attack, wherein the crocodile grabs whatever part of the prey it can (often the head or neck, as the prey is drinking) and drags it under water to drown it.

Bad day for a plesiosaur…

I could go on with this movie, like how the dinoshark takes down a helicopter, or how the heroes somehow believe that a chain-link fence submerged underwater will stop a several-hundred-pound dinoshark (incidentally, the shark just jumps over the fence, which is its own brand on nonsensical), but I think I’ll just leave you with these little tidbits. First, the CGI deserves a special shout-out for being noticeably bad.

“Well, that was predictable…”

And second – “That’s no dolphin! That’s a shark!”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself”

There’ll be reviews of more jawesome shark movies later this week, so be sure to check ’em out!

Shark in Venice – “Welcome to the perfect tourist trap”

(Don’t ask me where the plural “s” comes from; I have no idea)

So yesterday, I joined the majority of the rest of the world in celebrating the beginning of Shark Week 2012 (and boy was it fun); today, Shark Week 2012 – Day 2!

I want to start by painting a word-picture for your mind-eyes. The setting is a conference room at Nu Image Films (who helped bring us such gems as Flu Bird Horror, S.S. Doomtrooper, and Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, though also the actual gem of The Expendables). The scene – a new movie needs to get made, and everyone’s tossing around ideas.

Nu Image person 1: Could we maybe do a movie with puppies and fluffy kittens?

Nu Image person 2: Only if there’s rainbows, and there’s no rainbows in that one. What about puppies and non-fluffy kittens that actually turn out to be aliens?

Nu Image person 1: Nah, that’s basically been done before. Maybe something with chickadees…

Nu Image person 3: Here’s one – how about Indiana Jones meets James Bond. With sharks!

That’s about the best way I can think of to describe the essence of Shark in Venice. David Franks (Stephen Baldwin, The Usual Suspects; Born on the Fourth of July) gets called to Venice after his father goes missing while on a mysterious dive in the canals. Concerned for his well-being, his fiancée Laura (Vanessa Johansson, The Objective; Day of the Dead) tags along. Once there, they meet police Lt. Sofia Tottie (Hilda van der Meulen, The Russian Specialist; Attraction) who gets assigned to escort them as they search for David’s father. Meanwhile, Vito Clemenza (Giacomo Gonnella, Caótica Ana; Tea with Mussolini), a local mobster who financed David’s father’s expedition, aims to convince David to finish the job.

Top left – David Franks; top center – Laura; top right – Lt. Sofia Tottie; bottom left – Vito Clemenza; bottom right – George the shark

One thing I actually liked about this movie was that they didn’t rely overly much on CGI sharks, instead using (admittedly stock) footage as much as possible. While this did lead to many shots being used again and again (and again and again…), it helped keep the movie that much less ridiculous. Of course, any decrease in the ridiculousness from use of stock footage was soon replaced generously by the use of CGI. The scenes with CGI sharks stood out as not only ridiculously poorly animated, but also ridiculously ridiculous in terms of what happened. They included not just attacks on divers, of which there were many, but also scenes where the shark (or possibly sharkS, it’s hard to tell) jumped out of the water to eat people in boats or on jetties. For those of you who read more about the feeding habits of great white sharks (that’s the species in this movie), you know that great whites are known to leap out of the water; but only vertically, never laterally (not that’s been documented to my knowledge, at least), making these scenes all the more ridiculous.

“I CAN FLY!”

Add on top of that the sub-par acting, the ho-hum dialogue and the cartoon villain-esque plot, and you end up with a movie that has some wonderful, hilarious moments interspersed throughout a lot of formulaic dreck.

“Sir, I can’t find quality anywhere!”

First off, I should point out that I cannot find a definitive answer as to whether sharks naturally frequent the canals of Venice (the movie argues that they don’t). By and large, I would suspect that the water is too polluted and active to be attractive to sharks, though I’m sure occasionally some wander in. That being said, were sharks to be released into the canals by, I don’t know, an idiotic mafioso intent on protecting the hidden burial site of an ancient treasure brought back from one of the Crusades by members of the Medici family, I would expect the sharks to simply swim out to the Mediterranean Sea in search of food (it should also be here said that the Mediterranean already has quite a population of great white sharks, so they’d fit right in). Though it is also possible that sharks, being the fairly intelligent creatures that they are, could in fact be trained to stay in certain waters, if they were regularly fed. Likewise, Vito’s assertion that the sharks are too big to swim out of the canals doesn’t make much sense to me, given the efficacy with which they attack divers throughout the movie.

OM NOM NOM!

So above, I mentioned Indiana Jones (by now, the James Bond comparison should be pretty clear), and I did so for a reason. See, David’s father was hired by Vito to find a lost treasure brought back from the Eighth Crusade by three brothers of the Medici family, with the help of Marco Polo. Once back in Venice, the brothers buried the treasure in a trapped vault, then killed everyone who knew about it before being killed themselves. When David goes looking for his father, he stumbles upon the secret location of the treasure. Not only is it a treasure that would have made Aladdin overjoyed, but as soon as David sets foot in the cave he nearly gets skewered by spears. A missed axe blade later has him in the midst of gold and jewels. Overall the whole thing feels too Last Crusade-y for my taste (though I will also have it known that Last Crusade is possibly my favorite of the series).

“You dare to copy me?!”

Additionally, this gets at another parallel between the two, and an overused movie trope, wherein a parent of the hero, typically the father (or mentor), either goes missing or gets kidnapped, inciting the hero to finish the father’s or mentor’s work in order to find them. Indiana Jones uses this plot device not once but twice in the series; a variant of it also serves to set Luke Skywalker on his path in Star Wars.

They’re all basically the same person

For me, the point when this movie truly jumped the shark – aside from when a shark actually jumps out of the water and crashes through a gondola; and ignoring the fact that the shark seems to have some sort of homing beacon so that it always knows when people are getting near the treasure cave; and leaving out the numerous occasions on which David manages to get the drop on thugs sent to assassinate him as though he were in fact a spy – was when, just before climbing into the treasure cave, he gets bitten in the freaking torso but still manages to pull himself up a rock wall, walk around the cave, and generally seem completely whole and hale, until he tells Laura that he’s about to pass out from blood loss and decides that his only hope is to jump back in the water to try to outswim the shark.

Bulls-eye!

David goes from this…

…to this. In two days. (The leg is actually a chilling metaphor for this movie)

I’ll put this bluntly – a person cannot outswim a shark, even in the best of health. The current world record for the 4 x 200 meter men’s freestyle relay is roughly 7 minutes. This means that four people each swim 200 meters as quickly as they can, and altogether take about 7 minutes. I used the relay to get a rough average speed. The world record for the individual 1500 meter men’s freestyle is 14.5 minutes, give or take, a race swum at a slower pace. The top speed of a great white shark is upwards of 40 kilometers per hour, or 667 meters per minute. For a shark to swim 800 meters at top speed would take approximately you’re dead. At a more standard, unhurried pace, they average about 15 kilometers per hour, which is 250 meters per minute. For a shark to sedately swim 1500 meters would take approximately you’re still so very, very dead. In summary, do not try to outswim a great white shark. Punching it in the nose is a better plan for survival (though not by a whole lot). If you don’t want to watch that whole video, start it around 6:20 for the shark-punching point. (Disclaimer – Jumping Sharks does not, in any way, condone the punching of sharks for survival or entertainment reasons, nor should it be construed that Jumping Sharks believes punching sharks in the nose is the best survival tactic. For that, we would have to recommend staying on land.)

You and me, nine rounds in the ring! Let’s go!

Similarly to Shark Swarm, Shark in Venice does surprisingly little with the titular shark. Although the shark ties in more closely to the rest of the movie than did the shark swarms in Shark Swarm, by and large it serves as a constant present danger (that randomly jumps out of the water to eat people) rather than a focus of the plot. Likewise, the movie never really resolves what happens to the shark, though if you watch the credits, you get a hint.

And that’ll do it for Shark in Venice. Come back for another lap tomorrow, along with another review of a sharktacular bloodbath. Until then, aim for the nose!

Shark Swarm – “Fear travels in packs…”

Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Shark Week, possibly the best week of the year (not really; but it’s still a lot of fun), that magical week when Discovery Channel devotes the shark’s share of their programming to, well, sharks. What does that mean for us here at Jumping Sharks? Why, it means a whole week of shark-themed movies, of course! I have to say, Jaws may have done it best, but shark movies almost never disappoint, and this one definitely delivered exactly what it promised (namely, a swarm of sharks killing everyone in sight). So let’s dive in!

Shark Swarm details the travails of the Wilder family as they struggle to not only save their town from a real estate developer, but also from the swarms of killer sharks unleashed on the coast by a chemical spill (believe me when I tell you this will be discussed below). Hamilton Lux (Armand Assante, American Gangster; Judge Dredd) is buying up all the property in and around Full Moon Bay, a small fishing village in an undisclosed part of northern California. Most everyone sells to him, except for Daniel Wilder (John Schneider, Smallville; The Dukes of Hazzard) and his wife Brook Wilder (Daryl Hannah, Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2; Grumpy Old Men), who co-own a fishing company with his brother Phillip Wilder (Roark Critchlow, Earth’s Final Hours; Mr. Deeds), a professor at the nearby North Pacific University. While out fishing one day, Daniel and his hired hand find a number of fish clogged with some sort of chemical, as well as a whale torn to bits by sharks. On their way back with their finds, they run across a fellow fisherman’s apparently abandoned boat, soon realizing that it was attacked by something. Long story short, Daniel and Phillip slowly piece together that Hamilton poisoned the Bay to kill the fish to encourage the fishermen to sell to him, but that his poisons caused major changes in the behavior of local sharks.

Top left – Hamilton Lux; top right – Daniel Wilder; bottom left – Brook Wilder; bottom right – Phillip Wilder

First off, I’m unclear whether this movie is technically a SyFy Channel movie, as there is some talk out there that it was actually made for Hallmark Channel (Wikipedia says that it aired on SyFy, so that’s good enough for me), but I figured it doesn’t much matter – it’s about killer sharks, so who really cares? Now, onto the standard review.

The sharks were, overall, much better done than many I’ve seen (Shark Attack 3: Megalodon being probably the worst, as shown here), so kudos to them for that, though they also reused a lot of the same CGI footage over and over and over and over and over. The acting was also better than average, though it didn’t stand out as remarkable for these sorts of movies. All around, this was a pretty quality production. My major complaint (and it definitely was a problem for me) is that the plot seemed to skip some stuff, and the stories never really tied together. I get the idea that Hamilton caused the shark swarms, but they ultimately serve as more of a backdrop to the story of the Wilder family fighting to keep their property, which, in a movie called Shark Swarm, is kind of unfortunate. Now, don’t get me wrong – the sharks wreaked plenty of havoc. But the death scenes were more or less incidental, isolated, and random, with many of the characters dying having no story before or after. It seemed as though many scenes were put in just to remind us that there were killer sharks in the ocean, as if we had forgotten. Moreover, there’s a good thirty or forty minutes straight without any sharks at all, right in the middle of the movie (which, by the way, absolutely did not need to be the 2 hours 40 minutes that it was).

The first of many random victims

CGI that’s not terrible! It’s a miracle!

But before I go on, I want to cover a lot of general shark biology to serve as a reference now and in the coming week.

Sharks are incredibly good at what they do (given they’ve been around in one form or another for 420 million years or so). And obviously, they do attack humans. But they are also probably one of the more-maligned predators, as they don’t prey on humans regularly. (I should also mention that, given that the sharks in the movie are apparently hammerheads and great whites, most of the sources I site will be in reference to one or the other of those species, insofar as is possible.)

“Hello! I’m a great white shark! What’s your name?”

“Don’t mind me, I’m just a hammerhead.”

Many times throughout the movie, people are knocked into the water by sharks ramming into boats. Interestingly (to me, at least), this does happen, though not often. And while great whites typically hunt alone, they have been observed arriving and leaving locations in peaceful, if small, groups. However, they also freely prey upon other sharks, including sharks of the same species. Hunting techniques vary with prey and location – a good overview for great whites can be found here, but one of the coolest, I believe, is in a bay off the coast of South Africa, where sharks are known to attack prey seals so quickly they actually jump out of the water. Great whites can also smell blood from up to three miles away, and are sensitive to electromagnetic discharges (from, say, motion of prey), as are many fish. Moreover, sharks don’t need a whole lot of water to be able to attack, as seen here and here.

“I flew today. How are you?”

Now back to your regularly scheduled movie critique.

The movie opens with some of Hamilton’s henchmen dumping an unknown chemical into the bay, where it gets eaten by sharks during the normal course of feeding. Next thing we know, the sharks are swimming in schools, attacking in packs, and going after any random person who enters the water. One of the explanations for this change in behavior is that the chemical, being dumped intentionally to kill fish, is depriving the sharks of their normal food source, causing them to change their hunting tactics to help find food.

“Feed me, Seymour!”

I have two main problems with that idea, however.

The first is that, although there are some scenes of sharks attacking each other, by and large they leave each other alone, hammerheads swimming peacefully with great whites and vice versa, as though they decided that, since they were all hungry, they would not attack each other, and instead wait for hapless humans to go swimming. However, in general, the hungrier and more desperate a predator is, the more likely it is to attack and eat whatever it can find (just look at the infamous Donner Party for an extreme example). The point is that, were the sharks to experience severe starvation, I would expect them to be more likely to attack each other, and presumably, the swarm would take care of itself.

Like this, but more so

The second issue I have is that all of this supposes that sharks are territorial animals (which they are, to a degree); however, time and again, nature shows that when food runs out, animals move on. Sharks already migrate thousands of miles per year, including out into deep water, so the idea that a school of sharks would stay in food-poor waters for a prolonged period of time doesn’t seem likely to me.

“Later, bitchaz!”

The other explanation put forth by the movie is that the chemical somehow mutated the sharks in some way, causing them to be more aggressive hunters. And it is true that certain chemicals can cause fairly striking changes in fish, perhaps most famously by affecting the expressed gender of male fish, causing them to exhibit physical female sex characteristics. However, the chemical was intended to kill fish by exposing them to high levels of phosphorus. Typically, phosphorus itself doesn’t kill fish; instead, it causes eutrophication of the water. Basically, if enough phosphorus is added so, say, a lake that already has sufficient nutrients, the excess phosphorus will encourage the growth of algae, resulting in algal blooms. This has two main consequences – first, the algae can grow so thick that they block out light to places that normally would be sunny, which could kill aquatic plants growing on the bottom of the lake; second, as the algae die and decompose, the bacteria involved in breaking them down suck most of the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the fish, causing more decomposition and continuing the cycle. It should also be noted that, in coastal ocean waters, nitrogen, not phosphorus, tends to be the more limiting chemical, and hence excess nitrogen is more often the cause of oceanic algal blooms, instead of excess phosphorus. So as far as I can tell, the explanation for the fish kill in the movie (that phosphorus is the poisonous agent) doesn’t make sense. Of course, there are plenty of chemicals that will kill fish and that contain phosphorus. But no attempt whatsoever is made to explain just how it is that the sharks manage to survive ingesting the chemical while other fish die, so even if it did contain high concentrations of phosphorus and was poisonous, the sharks should have died as well, as far as I can tell.

Let’s go swimming!

And clearly, here’s another movie warning of the dangers of not protecting the environment. In fact, it’s hard to find a movie that pushes that point quite as hard as this one, other than maybe An Inconvenient Truth (which I have not yet seen, though probably should someday).

“DO IT!”

Finally, there are two more points I want to bring up that are unrelated to shark biology, but definitely comments on human nature (or movie writers’ nature…). First, while it seems as though this movie takes place over the course of maybe three or four days, no one seems to notice just how many people go missing or that something’s wrong. The government never steps in, in any capacity (law enforcement, coast guard, FEMA), beyond one lone EPA auditor who initially arrives to review Hamilton’s properties before development begins. The only people doing anything about the sharks are the Wilders, the EPA agent, and a colleague of Phillip’s at the university. But even as this group tries to stop the sharks, they fail to tell anyone in town, at all, about the swarm. I guess warning everyone to stay out of the water would be too easy (besides, look how well that worked in Jaws…).

The only one to realize there’s a problem

The second issue I have is with a scene towards the end, when a couple of the bad guys end up in the water as the swarm is closing in. Both of them grab onto a ladder leading up to a boat; but the first one, instead of grabbing the ladder with, I don’t know, her other hand so that she can pull herself out of the water, insists on reaching for the hand of her boyfriend, who can’t quite reach. She struggles for at least fifteen or twenty seconds before getting dragged under by the sharks. Now, I realize that pulling yourself out of the water without help can be really hard, but she doesn’t even try to get a foot on a rung. Then later, her boyfriend ends up in the same predicament, this time without anyone on the boat trying to aid him. In his case, he expends all his effort trying to punch the sharks away from him instead of trying to climb the ladder. Because one guy punching with one fist will obviously be able to beat off a school of twenty or thirty sharks. Obviously.

Needless to say, he too gets et.

“NOM!”

So that’s it for the opening of Shark Week here at Jumping Sharks. I took a good bite out of shark biology so as to be able to reference it later this week, so expect more focused science stuff from here on out, as well as more terrible shark-related puns. Until then, just try to stay afloat!