Blog Archives

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!

Advertisements

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!

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…

Cyclops – “The rise of Cyclops… is the fall of Rome”

For this installment of Jumping Sharks, we examine the film Cyclops, which forces us to flip our viewpoint of the world completely inside out, begging the question which is more inherently savage, humankind or the natural world.

I’m kidding. It’s about a Cyclops that goes on a killer rampage.

“Are you not entertained?!”

(Before I continue, please be aware that there are definitely spoilers in this blog entry. I generally try my best to not give everything away, but this time, the themes I wanted to explore required describing events at the end of the movie. On the plus side, most of you reading this either never will see this movie, have already seen this movie, could guess what will happen if you ever did see it, or don’t care whether you know what will happen if you ever do see it.)

The Magi ain’t got nothin’ on these guys.

The movie opens with a trio of merchants lost in the woods on their way to a city. They spy some sheep, and decide to take what they can while the presumed hunters who own them are away. Naturally, the sheep in fact belong to the Cyclops, who comes back to his camp and sees the merchants trying to steal his sheep. He kills two of them while the third escapes and reports what happened to Rome. Emperor Tiberius Caesar (Eric Roberts, The Young and the Restless, Less than Perfect), on the advice of his nephew Falco (Craig Archibald, Capote), sends popular centurion leader Marcus (Kevin Stapleton, Gossip Girl, One Life to Live) to subdue the Cyclops to stop its attacks on Roman citizens. Marcus chooses to capture it and bring it to Rome, realizing that the merchants were the aggressors. He also starts to wonder about the possibility of intelligence behind its baby blues; sorry, baby blue. Meanwhile, back in Rome, Gordian (Mike Straub, Cold Fusion, The Grudge 3) and Barbara (Frida Farrell, Behind Your Eyes, Contract Killers), slaves belonging to a man working for Falco, begin to organize a revolt against the Emperor and his nephew. Several Cyclops escapes and a bad Gladiator rip-off later the good guys win, the bad guys die, and the Cyclops kills a bunch of people.

Top left – Emperor Tiberius Caesar; top right – Falco; middle left – Marcus; middle right – Marcus and Gordian; bottom – Barbara

I suppose that, in a movie like this, bad CGI is par for the course, and, as the pictures should make apparent, the CGI in this movie was as expected. Sadly, the poor acting was also expected – Eric Roberts, easily the best actor in the movie, did the whole thing with a half-smile on his face that seemed equal parts contempt for the Roman citizens as his character and contempt for the movie itself as his person. (Admittedly, he brings that trademarked smirk to most of his roles, at least as far as I’ve seen.) However, what always disappoints me beyond the normal in this sort of movie is what I’ve come to think of as Anaconda syndrome, wherein the size of the beast (be it snake, Cyclops, or Sharktopus (coming to this blog at an indefinite time in the future)) changes nearly at will, as best fits the scenario. Take, for example, the way the Cyclops seems to tower over the merchants and centurions at the beginning of the film, but then continually shrinks in height throughout the course of the movie, ending at around 6’8″ or 7′. Clearly very large, but definitely not huge. (Although there is some error that can be argued, as the Cyclops hunches over throughout the whole movie.) I understand that there is something to be said for artistic license, if you will, and that larger monsters work better for certain situations and smaller ones work better for others, but could we please at least try to have some consistency between scenes? I, for one, would appreciate it.

Left – a towering, man-eating Cyclops; right – a man-sized, man-eating Cyclops.

On to clichés. First, this movie brings back the idea of scheming, entitled Roman senators who see the citizenry as their playthings. We saw it in Gladiator, we saw it in 300, and we even saw a version of it in History of the World: Part I. We get it – Germans are evil; eastern Europeans are evil; Roman politicians are evil. Can we please try something original for once, like Canadians or Australians or something? Second, we have an action movie staple of incredibly stupid guards. We have the guy guarding the Cyclops who decides to taunt it, until it knocks him against the cage, takes his keys to let itself out of said cage, and decides to eat his legs for good measure. We have the guy guarding the slaves, who, despite suspecting that Barbara is sneaking through some sort of aid, decides to not inspect the bread she brings them. And we have a teen who, although not a guard, decides to taunt the Cyclops by dangling a dead rat in front of its nose with his bare hand, then turns around to laugh before crying out in excruciating pain because the Cyclops bit off both the rat and his hand. (The saddest part about this last is that we all know someone who would do that.) Third, this movie goes well beyond what it should and attempts to bring some level of social and political commentary to the plot, namely that the rich don’t care about the poor and that eventually, the poor will rise up and fight back. While this is a valid observation, especially in light of the Occupy movement of the past year, such a theme has little if any place in a Sci Fi Channel original movie. And yet they always try…

“Those chains will hold it, and if not, I don’t need my hand!”

My biggest complaint with this movie is that it tried to do too much. It starts as a fairly standard monster movie – there’s a monster terrorizing the countryside, our hero goes out to stop it, and after a few setbacks, the monster is vanquished. At some point, though, it also takes on a fairly standard political intrigue tone – our hero is too successful and ends up being feared by those in charge, finding his life destroyed as they attempt to hold onto their power. The movie tries to weave these two plot lines together, adding into the mix a third sub-plot wherein our hero realizes that the Cyclops is as human, albeit “uncivilized”, as any Roman and thus begins to try to make it understand its situation as a prisoner in the gladiator arena. So by the end of the movie, we have the Cyclops killing the Emperor in a ‘creation-can’t-be-controlled’ idea; Falco killing the Cyclops in a ‘savagery-and-the-natural-world-must-be-tamed’ idea; and Marcus killing Falco in a ‘the-monster-is-actually-man’ idea. And that’s just the last five minutes or so.

Good idea; good idea; inevitable King Kong parody.

Another part that’s been done to death is the idea that our hero has magical make-women-fall-in-love-with-him powers. Barbara gets captured and arrested after the slaves fail to escape from Rome, and she ends up as a prostitute for the gladiators. When she arrives, Marcus defends her against the aggression of another gladiator, saying “I like a fighter.” Clearly all class. After a bit of talking, wherein she reveals that the Cyclops will remain a prisoner until the citizens tire of it, at which time it will be executed, she sleeps with him. She then spends the rest of the movie devoted to him, staring at him with big fawning eyes, hoping against hope he’ll earn his freedom, etc. I can’t claim to be an expert on such matters, but does this sort of thing ever happen, ever, anywhere in the world? Because I can’t imagine it does.

“You’re the only man who talked to me before having sex with me. I am now yours.”

Finally, a minor complaint that is really just because most English-speakers in the world get this point wrong – there’s a moment in the movie when Falco asks every second centurion under Marcus’ command to step forward, to be executed unless Marcus agrees to become a gladiator slave. Falco and Tiberius refer to this as “decimation”. Although modern usage of the word “decimate” means to destroy a large number of something, the actual original meaning, which would be understood at the time of the Romans, being invented by them and all, is to reduce something by one tenth. That is, to truly decimate Marcus’ unit, every tenth man should have been threatened with death, not every second. (If you don’t believe me, either look it up for yourself or check it out here, here, here, or here.)

So that’s it for Cyclops, a densely layered philosophical movie questioning both what it means to be human and the true definition of savagery. With a Cyclops killing a lot of people.

The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon – “A 1000 year old secret is about to be uncovered”

If you’re like me, then hardly a day goes by when you don’t ask yourself, “I wonder what would have happened if the Aztecs had made it as far north as the Grand Canyon?” And if you’re like me, then you’re in luck, because that is (almost) exactly the question this movie sets out to answer. Because somehow, it accepts as a plausible premise the idea that 1800s America would somehow have had no record of the Grand Canyon having a cliff with a gigantic painting of a guy on a rock wall. And no record a ziggurat. And no record of a flying demon-dragon-god-thing that summons clouds and eats people.

The movie is about a team of archaeologists from the Smithsonian who are exploring the Grand Canyon in order to prove that North America was visited by the ancient Egyptians, besides the more well-known and well-documented discoverers. After Susan Jordan’s (Shannen Doherty, Beverly Hills 90210, Charmed) father goes missing, she sets off on a mission to find out what happened to him, accompanied by Jacob Thain (Michael Shanks, Stargate SG-1) and various expendable characters.

I love a Fun adventure movie as much as the next guy; the Indiana Jones series (excluding Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; we here at Jumping Sharks don’t talk about that), the Mummy series (starting with the reinterpretations in 1999); they’re all Fun. And, while The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon fits the bill of being a Fun Movie, in the ridiculous sense, unlike Indiana Jones, it could not be considered a Good Movie. It’s essentially a nerd-boy’s fantasy – the bookish, aloof smart guy overcomes all obstacles to not only show the beautiful girl that he’s worth something, but also to upstage the jock who figures he can get by on physique and action without actually knowing much of anything. So when one of the expendable characters gets his head cut in half by an axe rigged to a door, the nerd can blame it on the jock, who was the one to set off the trap over the objections of the nerd (happens all the time in real life – it’s all fun and games until a booby trap cuts someone’s head in half).

As always, the acting and CGI leave quite a bit to be desired. There’s also a very Scooby-Doo-esque moment wherein our heroes are staring at a rock wall, seemingly oblivious to the very obvious door cut into the cliff face. Moreover, while the movie answers the question of Aztecs in Arizona, it also raises other equally-perplexing questions, such as “why on Earth, when confronted with a vase on a pedestal in a room full of skulls, would you blindly stick your hand into the aforementioned vase?”; “how can a rock the size of a baseball move a small column from a well-supported position on a doorframe to come crashing down on the head of an unsuspecting deity-dragon-thing (a sort of incarnation of Quetzalcoatl)?”; and “how poor do the makers of this movie believe the memory to be that they find it necessary to spend five minutes of an hour and a half movie literally showing a montage of scenes that happened less than two hours ago, in the movie, just to make sure we know that the beautiful girl has fallen completely in love with the nerd? Couldn’t the same be accomplished with the right significant glance in approximately five seconds?”. Not to mention all the token references to the rampant chauvinism of the era that seem to be there just to say “look at us, addressing social issues and stuff”.

In all, The Lost Treasure of the Grand Canyon is quite the mix of predictability, adventure movie tropes, and SyFy-trademarked CGI. What else can I say?

Kali Ma!