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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!


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…

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God – “From the ultimate evil comes the ultimate quest”

Part two of this installment of Franchise Week. Enjoy. (Also, at some point in the future, whenever it releases, there will be a review of the second sequel in this series – yes, they are (apparently) making a third Dungeons & Dragons movie.)

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God picks up exactly nowhere where the first movie left off. One hundred years after the metaphorical fall of Profion and the literal fall of Damodar in the original D&D movie, Damodar (Bruce Payne, Dungeons & Dragons; Miss Marple: Nemesis) has returned, cursed by Profion to remain in a permanent state of undeath. After finding an ancient orb which contains the powers of a black dragon god, he returns to Izmir to wake the god and wreak his revenge. Meanwhile, the king of Izmir learns of Damodar’s plot, and tasks his advisor Berek (Mark Dymond, Rage of the Yeti; Die Another Day) with assembling a party of adventurers to thwart Damodar’s plans. At the same time, Berek’s wife Melora (Clemency Burton-Hill, Dark Relic; The Lady Musketeer) races to help her fellow mages find a way to defeat the dragon god before a curse placed upon her by Damodar turns her into an undead abomination. Pretty standard stuff.

Top left – Damodar, looking good after a hundred years and a hundred-foot fall; top right – Berek; bottom – Melora, pre- and post-curse; recommendation – sunscreen

The best part about this movie was that it was undeniably better than its predecessor in just about every way. The acting was better across the board, the plot was not a rip-off of a recent popular release, the dialogue, while still hokey, didn’t contain jarring slang from the real world, and the dragon renderings were mostly better. That being said, the CGI overall was a step down in this movie compared to the first one, which was unfortunate.

Exhibits A-E

But best of all, this movie was what I would want from a Dungeons & Dragons movie, were I to request one. While the original installment of the franchise more or less tried to distance itself from the source material, Wrath of the Dragon God embraced its roots, including creatures, gods, and lore from the role-playing game (RPG).

Not only is that picture of a kraken taken straight from the source books but they also included darkmantles. Frickin’ darkmantles!

While this definitely increased the nerdiness of the movie, it also increased my appreciation for it, and made the movie stronger overall by recognizing that it was a movie based on a tabletop RPG. Thus, when Berek calls Nim (Tim Stern, Dirty Filthy Love; Santa Claus) a “rogue”, it makes sense to people who have played the game (rogue is one of the classes available) as well as to those who haven’t (“rogue” definitely fits his personality and actions); likewise, people are constantly yelling at Lux (Ellie Chidzey, Everyone’s Going to Die; Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God) to control her anger, which fits her personality, but difficulty controlling rage is also one of the hallmarks of the barbarian class in the game.

Left – Nim; right – Lux

However, I do have two big problems with the plot. The first is that Berek and his company are supposed to be embarking on a secret mission to save Izmir from destruction, but for some reason, the king decides to convene a full audience to send them on their way, because the best way to keep a secret is to tell fifty of your closest lackeys.

“…and while I am confident of your success, I also harbor no fears that the secret of your mission will be betrayed.”

Second, at the end of the movie, Damodar releases the dragon god from its mountain prison. The dragon then proceeds to terrorize the kingdom, breathing fire all over everything. Which is just ridiculous. Everyone knows that fireballs belong to red and gold dragons. A black dragon’s breath weapon is an acid cloud, dealing 4d8+6 acid damage with ongoing 15 acid damage every turn. Duh.

What kind of a moron doesn’t know that?

As for the obligatory science shout-out, I’m going to examine the physics of bat flight for a moment. It turns out that bats are actually really good flyers. They have economy of effort, as each downbeat of the wings produces more lift and each upbeat less drag than for many species of birds; as well, they have an abundance of joints in the wings that can allow bats to turn extremely quickly, and their wings boast a membrane that is good at repairing itself. Moreover, even with some holes in the wings, bats are still able to fly.

“Damn it feels good to be a gansta!”

So why, for a movie about dragons and adventurers and magic, am I talking about bats? Well, aside from the fact that bats are actually pretty awesome, the titular dragon god has wings that are very bat-like, at least so they seem to me; but if you look, you’ll notice quite a few holes in the wings. Obviously, dragons are not known for being real-world creatures, but it did make me curious as to how much damage a bat wing could suffer before flight would become impossible. As with most things in science, the answer depends on the circumstances – I would suspect that broken bones in the wings are a much bigger impediment to flight than rips and tears in the membranes – but I also feel pretty confident saying that, given the number of holes in the dragon’s wings, it would be really difficult for it to generate enough lift to fly, making its reign of terror a lot less terrifying.

Bring that guy down to ground level, then we’ll see how tough he really is!

And this concludes the second installment of Franchise Week. Hope you enjoyed it, and remember – Shark Week is right around the corner!

“I can hardly wait!”

Dungeons & Dragons – “This is no game”

Last week, I talked about dragons. This week, I’m adding dungeons to the mix. That’s right – I’m discussing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is, in many ways, a combination of all fantasy movie clichés rolled into one great big ball of “what the hell?”. Queen Amidala is trying to bring peace and order to the planet Naboo, but the Trade Federation, spurred on by Senator Palpatine’s manipulations of the Imperial Senate, moves to forcibly overthrow her rule.

Left – Queen Amidala; right – Senator Palpatine

…Wait a minute… That’s not right…

Dang. You know what? I was thinking of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’m not sure why I’d do that, except that THEY’RE EXACTLY THE SAME MOVIE. Dungeons & Dragons tells the story of Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin, Dorm Daze 2; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) and his sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; Scary Movie), two unassuming thieves who get dragged into a political storm when Profion (Jeremy Irons, The Borgias; The Lion King) pits the advisors of the kingdom against Empress Savina (Thora Birch, American Beauty; Patriot Games) in an attempt to gain ultimate power for himself.

Top left – Ridley; top right – Snails; bottom left – Empress Savina; bottom right – Profion

The parallels between the movies certainly don’t stop there. Profion has his own trusted lieutenant in Damodar (Bruce Payne, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God; Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire), an unmistakable mirror of Darth Maul (though decidedly less awesome than the Darth). At one point, it is explained that elves “are part of magic, as are all living creatures”, sounding suspiciously like the ephemeral Force. There’s even a fight scene at the end of the movie featuring lightsabers… I mean swords. Glowy swords. A red glowy sword and a blue glowy sword. Let’s face it, THEY’RE THE SAME FRICKIN’ MOVIE!

Left – Darth Maul; right – Damodar. No, wait – left is Darth Dam, right is Maulodar. No, that’s not right either…

This sword fighting scene is entirely original in every way ever

So what else do we find? For a start, there’s the perpetuation of the sexy librarian trope. Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan, Dirty Sexy Money; JAG) starts out the movie as one of the privileged mages, a student in the magic school. When we first see her, she is assisting her mentor in the school’s library, hair all done up in a bun, complete with nerdy-looking glasses (think Evelyn Carnahan, Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy, at the beginning of the movie, before all the adventures). As the movie progresses, she loses her glasses (but somehow doesn’t seem to notice or care), her hair becomes disheveled, and her overall look becomes more and more relatable and less arrogant and aloof. Because clearly, she was just waiting for an excuse to leave behind the shy and useless girl she was and start showing the… still timid and useless woman she becomes. Rarely does a movie have a female lead that is quite as useless during movie events as this one. She manages to save Ridley once, despite being a mage, compared with the three times she gets captured and needs rescuing.

Marina; note the change in appearance as the movie goes on (earliest at top left, latest at bottom)

Then there’s the portrayal of evil in this movie. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) is not necessarily known for subtlety (more on that below), but this movie, to my mind, goes so far trying to depict evil that the villains leave behind all (or most) of their sinisterness and enter the realm of laughable caricatures. Profion is the quintessential mad scientist of the fantasy world, spending the entire movie (minus his scenes in front of the advisors) with a wild, manic look on his face, yelling at everyone and planning to either conquer the world or destroy it. Meanwhile, Damodar is given the opposite cliché, being soft-spoken and deliberate in everything he says, clearly dictating and enunciating every. Last. Word. He also wears armor that screams menace, has a shaved head (in movies, rarely a sign of a friendly man), abstains from facial expressions of any sort other than pain, and for some reason, spends the whole movie with blue lips.

He’s also got these things in his head. Eeugh!

A perfectly sane and rational expression

Finally, there’s the trope of the antihero with a heart of gold. Ridley presents himself as a thief out for no one but himself (and Snails, of course), but as soon as he’s faced with the consequences of failing to help Marina and the Empress, he betrays that nature, stopping at nothing to make sure Marina stays safe and Profion’s plans get thwarted. And of course, he has a special destiny about which he’s unaware, because what hero doesn’t these days?

“Now, should I use this to get rich or to get laid?… Why not both?!”

On to the standards. The CGI was above average, though it definitely missed once or twice. Considering that this is not a SyFy Channel movie, the CGI was at least as good as expected. Sadly, despite involving a number of well-known actors (besides those mentioned, it also has Lee Arenberg, of Once Upon a Time and Pirates of the Caribbean et al fame), the acting was not this movie’s strong point. The writing was passable but nothing special (though it was refreshing to see overall decent line delivery for a change). The music was suitably epic, but again, nothing remarkable. Overall, this was somewhat better than most movies I review (as expected) but definitely worse than the vast majority of medium-budget studio releases.

A miss and a sort-of hit, plus the best the CGI gets with those ear things. Eeugh!

Lee Arenberg as Elwood Gutworthy, wondering why he’s in this thing

So what did this movie do well?

As many of you know, I am a huge nerd and an enormous geek (if you didn’t know that, just read… well, pretty much any of my blog entries). Dungeons and Dragons (the game) holds a special place in my heart, including some very good memories from my childhood. I know that the stereotype of D&D is socially awkward teenage boys sitting around in a basement rolling dice, and while that stereotype is not without basis (to be fair, we often used the dining room table), D&D in its best incarnation is so much more than that. I find it interesting that, in our society, gamers (of all stripes) are often derided as living in a fantasy world (and yes, this is much less true today than it was, say, ten or twelve years ago, but even today some of my good friends have difficulty understanding why I play computer games), while authors are celebrated, at least nominally. I’m not trying to imply, of course, that writers don’t deserve appreciation and recognition, as I’ve tried writing stories from time to time, and it is nothing resembling easy. However, the point I want to make here is that D&D, in its best interpretation, is a form of collaborative storytelling. All the players, both character players and dungeon master (the person who provides the setting and obstacles to be overcome), work together to create and develop a world that can be as rich and detailed and interesting as any best-selling novel. The main difference is that the story in D&D is written by several people, not just one.

“Several people, you say? Tell me more!”

The point of all this is that, to my mind, the Dungeons & Dragons movie captured this feeling very well, although certainly not perfectly. But the characters in the movie made meaningful choices that affected the outcome of the overall plot in significant ways, which is just as it should be in a good D&D game. The writers had a certain lack of imagination, of course (Ridley and Co. are trying to find the Scepter of Red Dragon Control, which involves bringing the Eye of the Dragon to the Temple of the Dragon, for instance), but having been in the position of creating a D&D adventure, I’m willing to forgive them for it, given the justice they did to the spirit of the game. So while the technical aspects left quite a bit to be desired, the essence of the movie was definitely well-conceived and interpreted.

So, I guess one of these controls dragons, and the other helps them see? Or maybe fits inside them? And there’s a temple somewhere?…

Finally, since this is Jumping Sharks, and I do try to make a point of looking at science stuff, I will bring up the one science thing I noticed. At the beginning of the movie, Profion is trying to create his own dragon-controlling scepter, but fails, resulting in him killing the dragon he had hoped to control. When its blood reaches a pool of nearby water, the water ignites, lighting up the entire river in the city. Ridley notices this, and asks Snails when was the last time he saw a river catch on fire. However, something that seems so impossible is actually not so! For instance, the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio, is probably best known for lighting on fire multiple times throughout history, most notably in 1969, a fire which resulted in passage of a multitude of clean water legislation, among other things. Additionally, some metals are so reactive in their non-ionized state that simply by placing them in water, they ignite (I’m looking at you, Lithium and Sodium!). To be fair, the water itself is not burning, but rather certain materials in the water; however, the point is that flame on top of water is not impossible.

Once more, just ’cause. Eeugh!

So that’s that. Stayed tuned for the second Dungeons & Dragons movie later this week and remember – shark week is coming!

House of the Dead 2 – “All guts, no glory”

Now we come to the SyFy contribution to the franchise in this, the second half of the first installment of our second occasional series, Franchise Week. (It is recommended that you read the review of House of the Dead first if you haven’t, as some comparisons will be made.)

There are a few different types of sequels in moviedom, as we all should know by now. Sequels can be in the form of prequels (as in the case of Tremors 4), they can be remakes (as in the case of Rob Zombie’s Halloween or, arguably, Evil Dead II), and of course, they can be true sequels, as we find in House of the Dead 2.

As was the case with its predecessor, House of the Dead 2 fails to take place in an actual house, being set instead on the campus of Cuesta Verde University where a zombie virus has broken out courtesy of Professor Curien, who is using the zombified Alicia (from the first movie) to try to perfect an immortality serum. Naturally, his experiment escapes, turns him into a zombie, and then proceeds to infect the rest of the campus during the opening credit sequence. In an obvious nod to other members of the zombie genre, a team consisting of six special forces soldiers and two scientists is dispatched twenty-nine days after the outbreak to try to recover a blood sample from the first “hyper sapiens” specimen, as they are called, in the hopes of being able to generate a cure for the disease. The scientists Alexandra ‘Nightingale’ Morgan (Emmanuelle Vaugier, CSI: NY, Saw II) and Ellis (Ed Quinn, Eureka, Young Americans) are joined on their mission by all the classic special forces stereotypes – the eager and patriotic new team member, the nervous talkative guy, the strong female second-in-command, the enormous and sinister jerk, the reliable but stupid guy, and of course the gruff and pragmatic squad leader. As you may have guessed, the soldiers completely ignore the warnings from Nightingale and Ellis (the only two people who have dealt with zombies before and actually know what’s going on), and thus Nightingale and Ellis are the only two people who survive to the end.

Left – Ellis and Nightingale; right – Nightingale; bottom – one of the soldiers. I’ll let you guess which one.

As always, this movie suffers from a lack in just about every area – dialogue, special effects, and acting (although, interestingly enough, the acting seemed to improve as the movie progressed, though that could have just been acclimation on my part). I would also have to say that this movie was somewhat more boring than the first one, as well. As far as makeup went in this movie, the zombies over all looked either a lot better, or very much worse, than in the first movie. There were also two parts with noticeable and somewhat laughable inconsistencies in makeup – near the beginning, Ellis is washing blood off his face from a recent kill; as the angle changes, he alternately has a clean face, then one with blood, then a clean face, then one with blood again, before ending with a clean face. Similarly, later on, when they find Alicia the zombie (Patient Zero), there’s a moment when part of her back is visible through her hospital gown, and is distinctly human-looking.

One of the better-looking zombies in the movie.

I’m a biologist by training. As such, when I watch a movie like this, I take special note of the explanation for the various biological phenomena. Insofar as things were explained, they definitely seemed to go off the deep end with the virus in this movie. First of all, they talk about the virus causing mutations in the victims. This is possible, as viruses in the real world are known to cause genetic mutations. However, in a deceased host, the virus would have no way to go about effecting physical change – a virus cannot, in general, cause protein expression independent of the host cell. Normally, when a cell gets infected, part of the infection is the insertion of virus DNA into the host chromosome, to be turned into protein and more viruses as the cell does its normal cell things. In a corpse, though, there are no processes occurring – the virus would have no way to cause genetic insertions to be expressed in the host.

There’s also a moment when one of the soldiers gets bitten by a mosquito and thus is presumed infected. However, the method by which mosquitoes feed on humans prevents the transmission of blood from the mosquito to the human. (For a discussion of why mosquitoes cannot transmit HIV between humans, follow this link – without further knowledge, I have to assume that a theoretical zombie virus would be similar in character.) Therefore, although possible given the virus’ fictional existence, based on real-world observations transmission of the virus via mosquito is extremely unlikely.

This movie uses the idea that zombies can tell each other from live humans through smell, and so when Ellis needs to try to help the remaining people escape, he cuts open a zombie corpse and smears the guts on himself, then safely walks through a room full of zombies. For there to be a sense of smell, the brain of the zombie must be functional, at least in part. Here I would like to give credit to the movie, because there is also a moment where one of the soldiers (at this point a zombie) seems to recognize Ellis, suggesting that some memory remains in the zombies. This idea is also supported earlier in the movie, when Nightingale notices that the zombies seem to be falling into old, ingrained routines. (Both these ideas are considered in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, of course.) Therefore, it seems that this movie has consistent, if unsupportable, amounts of brain function in the zombies. Of course, assuming that metabolic processes are necessary to access memory and recognize smell, and given that metabolism stops after death, brain function of any sort is highly unlikely.

As I mentioned, the mission to the campus was to recover a sample of blood from the initial zombie infection. Along the way, Nightingale and Ellis test several blood samples from zombies, all of which turn up negative. But I have to ask, to what were they comparing these samples? In order to know whether blood was from Patient Zero, they would have needed to have a sample of blood from Patient Zero already on file; in other words, it seems to me that, unless there was some other marker that went unmentioned in the movie, the entire premise makes no sense, as they would already have the blood they need to collect.

Finally, this movie brings back harbor patrolwoman Casper from the first movie, in which she gets her legs severed by a zombie hoard. Accepting that she didn’t get bitten (and therefore she was not zombified), her leg stumps were bleeding for at least ten or fifteen minutes, before the house she was in exploded. She may have survived the explosion (highly unlikely), but I do not see how she could have survived the blood loss, as no tourniquet was applied and it takes only a matter of minutes for a person to bleed out after severing their femoral arteries. So I’m sorry, SyFy, but there’s really no way she could have survived the first movie.

Moving away from pseudoscience now, I must chastise the characters for ignoring the golden rule of situations like theirs, namely don’t get separated. There’s a moment when one of the soldiers hears something, and so goes off on his own to investigate. Naturally, he ends up a zombie. But seriously, he should have known better than to wander off on his own. Also, people in this movie showed a surprising lack of awareness of surroundings. At one point, Ellis and Nightingale meet up with two students who had been living in a science lab for weeks. Initially, the students believe the scientists to be zombies, which makes a lot of sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is the way that five minutes in the company of other humans causes the students to forget every rule they must have developed in order to stay alive for twenty-nine days, because not long after they show up, the students get swarmed by zombies who attack from behind. How did the students live that long if they never kept an eye to what was going on behind them?

Why you shouldn’t wander off alone.

Moreover, the final piece of the plot is that the campus is going to be destroyed by cruise missiles, meaning that the mission to find the unnecessary blood is on a tight schedule. But when the missile actually strikes, it turns out to be just that – missile. Singular. As in, one building gets blown up, but somehow someone somewhere thought that would be enough to end the outbreak? I can’t promise that this would be my answer, but I think that, were I the one to make that call, I would say “kill it with fire” and carpet bomb everything within a certain radius, then add napalm, then maybe bunker busters, before ending it all with a very, very, very large boom device. But that’s just me, and maybe I’m more thorough than I need to be.

Almost as good as killing it with fire.

But of course, despite the best efforts of our heroes, they fail to contain the spread of the virus. In fact, they even fail to leave the campus with a sample of blood; but that’s okay, because it turns out that while they were in the campus (for all of maybe six hours), civilization ceased to exist.

I think there’s a pretty clear moral here – don’t try to reanimate corpses. It won’t end well.

House of the Dead – “You won’t last the night”

So this is going to be the first installment of the second occasional feature here at Jumping Sharks – Franchise Week! It’s important to remember that not all the movies of a given franchise will be SyFy Originals; but it’s just not right to start watching a franchise partway through. You’ve got to watch them all to get the full flavor of the series. And as always, I will try to avoid giving away plot points, but it’s going to happen, mainly because there is just so much that I need to talk about for this movie. So let’s just jump right in and try to outrun the sharks, shall we? Because it’s gonna be a long swim…

House of the Dead is directed by Uwe Boll. For those who don’t know who he is, follow that link. For those who don’t follow that link, he’s a German director who has made many movie adaptations of video games. Some of his directing credits include BloodRayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Alone in the Dark. And, significantly, his movies have the tendency to be universally regarded as awful, awful creations. House of the Dead is basically classic Uwe Boll, complete with occasional clips from the source material.

Before I continue, I need to confess that I have never played any of the games in the House of the Dead series. Therefore, my commentary cannot make any firsthand comparisons between the movie and the source material. However, a quick search of Wikipedia shows that the movie is actually set as a prequel to any of the video games. The film opens with five college students trying to get to a rave on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Having missed the scheduled boat, they charter Captain Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, 24, Das Boot), a local smuggler, to take them over, ignoring the warnings from his first mate that the island is cursed (after all, it’s called Isla del Muerte; there’s no way anything good can come from having a rave on an island with that name). As they pull out of the harbor, they choose to ignore calls to stop from Casper (Ellie Cornell, The Thirst, Halloween 5), an agent with the harbor patrol who then follows them to the island. Once on the island, the students head into the woods to find the rave while Captain Kirk and his first mate unload the contraband on his boat to prevent Casper from confiscating it.

Left – Rudy; right – Alicia

Left – Karma; right – Liberty

Top left – Simon; top right – Casper; bottom left – Captain Kirk; bottom right – Captain James T. Kirk

When the students arrive at the rave site, the find it trashed and abandoned. After looking around a little for anyone who might still be there, Alicia (Ona Grauer, Intelligence, Catwoman) finds a bloody shirt, causing her to go off looking for people in the woods accompanied by Simon (Tyron Leitso, Being Erica, Wonderfalls) and Karma (Enuka Okuma, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, Dragon Ball Z); the other two students stay at the rave site (given the number of characters in this movie, I’m trying to only mention by name those who survive for a significant portion, which these last two fail to do). Alicia, Simon and Karma find a decrepit church and graveyard in a clearing in the woods, wherein they find Rudy (Jonathan Cherry, Goon, Final Destination 2), Liberty (Kira Clavell, Frankie & Alice, Saban’s Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation) and another ravegoer who videotaped what happened. His tape shows zombies attacking the rave and killing everyone. After seeing the tape, they all decide they have to get off the island as soon as possible, resulting in the next hour or so of the movie being about what would be expected – people killing zombies in all kinds of new and creative ways (kill it with fire!) while the humans slowly die one by one.

Now, on to the good stuff.

First off, for those whose first reaction is ‘why are there islands with Spanish names in the Pacific Northwest?’ (I know that was one of my first thoughts while watching), it turns out that not only did Spanish lands go that far north, but they also had explorers sail up the coast into present-day Alaska. So I’m willing to accept the plausibility of islands in that region having Spanish names, regardless of the likelihood of those names being Anglicized over the years.

Moving on, there were two words that kept coming to mind during this movie – act harder. Act harder. For the love of God and all that is holy, act harder! Most of the actors were about what you would expect from this caliber of movie, but every now and again there would be a truly wooden, bland and completely forced line delivery that made it impossible for me to not ask them to act harder. Also, the makeup effects left a lot to be desired – the zombies typically looked like either they just had white/pale blue face paint on or they were wearing burlap bags over their heads that then had decaying faces painted onto them. Beyond all that, the soundtrack was nothing special, though by the same token it wasn’t distracting. Nothing worse in a bad movie than a distracting soundtrack that takes focus away from the awful acting, dialogue, and special effects. However, the opening credit sequence in this movie does deserve a call-out as a refreshingly new, if trippy and psychedelic, visual sequence. It was a sort of neon silhouette of images from the game, which was definitely a nice retro touch, in my mind.

Left – a probable zombie; right – an unfortunate man in a burlap hood.

One of the early scenes in the movie features a woman skinny dipping in the ocean while her fling watches from the beach. When she comes out of the water, he is no longer there, so she heads into the woods to look for him, finding the decrepit church and graveyard that our heroes later discover. Now, I’m a sane, rational person (or so I like to believe) who has never been in a situation like that, but I do believe that I would feel nervous to the point of going to look for someone else to help me find my lost companion before I went into the church. So I have to ask – are horror movie characters crazy or particularly irrational? It’s like when the basement lights go out in the middle of a storm and the flashlight batteries die and there’s a mysterious thumping and an unknown smell rising up the stairs – you don’t go down there! It’s a similar thing here – we have a woman on her own, already lost in the woods, walking blindly into a very creepy-looking church with an ancient graveyard out front. Did she think things would end any differently than being torn apart by zombies?

Another probable zombie. Possibly also a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer reference.

As I’ve mentioned, a hallmark of Uwe Boll movies is various homages to the video game inspiration for the film. In this one, those homages start with the credit sequence, then continue throughout the movie, often using clips taken directly from the game. But there’s also a great scene in arcade-shooter style wherein Captain Kirk is on his boat shooting zombies as they appear from around doors, or over the side of the boat, or from the rigging, just like in a classic light gun arcade game (which is the classification for House of the Dead). There are also a couple moments when characters die where, instead of showing them getting ripped apart, motion freezes and they drift upwards in a red mist, another classic video game influence.

DEFINITELY a zombie.

But all this brings me to a series of very important points that made me rather angry at this movie. Captain Kirk was shooting zombies as they came onto his boat. But how did they get there, you ask? They swam. That’s right. Zombies in this movie are incredibly agile – they can swim, they can run, they can (and do!) use weapons, they are able to actually fight (block attacks, strike back with attacks of their own, etc.), and they can jump seven to ten feet in the air in a single bound. I’m something of a purist – I realize that allowing zombies to run adds something to the tension, and is arguably biologically defensible, but I do prefer slow zombies (I’m a sucker for inevitability; what can I say?). But I cannot, in any way, defend the ability of zombies to swim, to jump, or to show evidence of intelligence in combat (blocking attacks, using weapons, etc.). I’m sorry, but part of the point of zombies is that they’re mindless. If you give them back their minds, even in a rudimentary regard, they cease being zombies and instead become something else, like a Wight or a ghoul or something (not to be confused with the ghouls from Ghouls). So there’s that, which I would argue takes away from the zombies in this movie, at least to a certain extent.

Apparently, reanimated corpses can swim…

At one point, our heroes (Rudy, Alicia, Karma, Liberty, Simon, Casper, and Captain Kirk) are making their way through the graveyard to hole up in the church, trying to find the most defensible place they can. What follows is a ten to fifteen minute shootout in which the camera speeds are constantly changing between real time and bullet time, while our heroes do all kinds of acrobatics and martial arts and general cliché action movie badassery. I think the best way to describe this scene is a completely unapologetic, shameless, totally self-indulgent action sequence that almost borders on mockery through imitation of movies that include such scenes in a completely serious manner. If you are at all interested in bizarre, over the top action sequences, it might – and I can’t stress that might enough – be worth looking into, as it really is a fascinating example of gratuitous self-indulgence. It’s almost otherworldly.

…and use weapons.

Then, during the aforementioned sequence, we have some interesting questions arise. For one, how is it that Liberty (who spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots, as I’m sure you guessed) manages to do all kinds of martial arts, acrobatics, and running, given that she spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots? I’ve never worn the things, but I can’t imagine that go-go boots would allow someone to high-kick a zombie in the face, especially when that person is standing on loamy, graveyard soil. Furthermore, before they storm the church, Captain Kirk dips into his personal supply of smuggled weapons to make sure that each and every person has at least three different kinds of guns and two different kinds of explosives, then they have a brief montage wherein Kirk and Casper show the others how to use the various weapons. Then they storm the church like they’ve all spent ten years or more in special forces. How do they go from five college students who have no clue how to turn the safety off to stone cold killers who can hit their target every time when using such weapons as an Uzi and dual-wielded Desert Eagles? Which also raises the question of who would ever choose to voluntarily shoot two Desert Eagles at the same time in an actual life or death situation? (If you believe this is a rational course of action, I would direct your attention here, which is a bunch of anecdotal evidence as to why that’s a bad idea.)

The sort of thing one could realistically do in a jumpsuit and go-go boots.

There are, of course, a variety of other moments here and there that make no sense, like seeing a weird zombie-eel-thing in a tank of red liquid (“blood”, or so they would have you believe) and deciding that shooting it makes the most sense, ignoring the fact that it can’t hurt you in the tank. Or like hearing your former first mate whistling for you and then going to him despite knowing that he must be a zombie. Or like watching zombies swim towards your friend who stupidly jumped in the water, then stupidly deciding to jump into the zombie-infested ocean yourself for some absolutely unexplained reason. Or like finding a book explaining everything that’s happening on the island, but deciding to leave it behind, because how can actually knowing what’s going on help you? Basically, this movie is a series of bad choices with just enough good ones to keep the plot moving forward.

“It can’t possibly harm me! I must destroy it!”

So there you have it. The first installment in the new Jumping Sharks occasional feature Franchise Week. Stay tuned for the conclusion of the House of the Dead series, and keep swimming – the sharks might give up eventually!

I’m sensing an Evil Dead nod…