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Mammoth, aka Outbreak – “We hunted it into extinction… Now it’s hunting us”

Before I begin this review, I offer a bit of an apology. This entry is more than two months overdue, mainly because I recently moved and had to get settled in at the new place. So I’m sorry it’s taken so long for an update, and hopefully it won’t be this late again. Now, I believe we have some sharks to jump.

Mammoth tells the story of a small town in Louisiana with a big problem; specifically, the frozen mammoth at the local natural history museum becomes possessed by an alien entity and goes on a murderous rampage around town. (For those of you keeping score at home, this movie sets a record for sharks jumped, combining zombies, aliens, and mammoths all in one.) Dr. Frank Abernathy (Vincent Ventresca, The Invisible Man, Boston Common), curator of the museum and resident expert on all things mammoth, is recruited by agent Powers (Leila Arcieri, Son of the Beach, xXx), an agent working for a shadowy international alien-fighting organization, to help contain the mammoth before the government steps in and destroys the town. They’re joined by Simon Abernathy (Tom Skerritt, Picket Fences, Alien), Frank’s UFO-obsessed father, and Jack Abernathy (Summer Glau, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Firefly), Frank’s daughter. Along the way, things get destroyed, people die, and Frank and Jack reach a new understanding of and respect for each other.

Top left – Jack and Frank; top right – Squirrelly, Simon, and Jack; bottom left – Frank; bottom right – agent Powers

So, how does Mammoth stack up? The acting was above-average, a welcome respite from the normal state of Sci Fi Pictures productions. The CGI could have been better (as always), but it was respectable enough. Overall, it was a higher-quality production than expected, though still just a below-average movie.

“Wait for meeeee!”

One thing they did well was the tone. It was part modern-day monster havoc movie, part ’50s alien-invasion-movie homage – everything from the town to the way Simon was convinced UFOs existed had touches of a quaint small town stuck in the past, but with distinctly modern overtones (such as cell phones and rave parties in the woods. On a sidebar, what is up with rave parties in the woods? They always – always – end badly, with monsters running amok or everyone becoming zombies or something like that. You’d think people would learn…). All of this added up to a movie that didn’t quite take itself seriously, one that always was just a little tongue in cheek, an aspect of the movie I ended up enjoying; there’s little worse than a mediocre monster movie that takes itself completely seriously.

Example of a bad idea that will end badly.

However, the opening sequence in the movie not only bears mentioning, but also demonstrates just how over the top this movie is. It opens in the museum, with some boy scouts wandering into a restricted area wherein lies the mammoth, encased in a giant block of ice (because that’s how most examples of frozen mammoths exist in real life). Here they encounter the good doctor, who proceeds to shoo them out of the exhibit area before drilling a hole in the ice and extracting a small pellet from the mammoth (I should point out, too, that before he extracts the pellet, he sees an image on a screen of a miniature universe apparently contained within the pellet, though that part is neither clear nor ever mentioned again). Once the pellet is extracted, it sends out radio waves that knock him to the floor, whereupon the camera zooms out to show Earth, then other parts of the solar system, culminating in a flying saucer (à la The Day the Earth Stood Still) releasing a probe to find the source of the beacon. This all leads to the probe flying through an asteroid belt (presumably the one in our solar system) and the most illegible credit sequence I have seen in a long time. I’m not sure what font they chose, but written against the CGI asteroids, the words of the various production companies and such were almost impossible to make out. Fortunately, that segment of the opening credits was short, and the actors were all listed with normal font that was easily readable.

The most readable asteroid text in the opening credits.

Next, boy did this movie have clichés… For a start, Dr. Frank Abernathy is one of the most stereotypically absent-minded professor types movies have to offer. He can’t remember that he needs to be at his daughter’s driving test, he can’t remember where he put his keys, he gets distracted by just about everything and can’t remember what he was doing two minutes ago; he’s written (at least, for the first third or so of the movie) as a man whose only concern in life is his work, at the expense of everything else. This may be a raw nerve with just me, but as a scientist (by training if nothing else), I have to take offense. The majority of scientists I have met are nothing at all like that. Many are, in fact, the exact opposite, being very aware of what’s going on; but still we keep seeing the idea that anyone who’s good at being a researcher must suck at being a person. Hollywood, please go out and meet some actual scientists. Thank you.

“I don’t know, officers; I would have sworn I left my mammoth right here!”

Second cliché – Jack is sick of her father always forgetting events in her life, such as her driving test. I don’t have any sisters, and I never was a 16-year-old girl, so I can’t say how common it is for teenage daughters to not really understand or get along with their fathers. What I can say, based on my own experiences, is that the situation wherein a teenager begins a movie fighting with their parent or parents and ends the movie at a new level of understanding with their parent or parents is incredibly overdone. It would be refreshing, to say the least, if movie makers could find some new way to introduce drama and/or tension between characters, rather than resorting to this easy and beaten-to-death way out, especially because the development of their relationship takes away from the mammoth’s screen time.

Third cliché – Simon is convinced that aliens exist, despite being otherwise quite a down to earth man. As the movie goes on, he of course becomes vindicated, although he does manage to avoid gloating, which was appreciated, at least by me. Still, the idea of the old guy who everyone thinks is a bit unhinged but is in reality right about everything, even if he doesn’t know it, is pretty much used up at this point.

Fourth cliché – the deputies assisting the sheriff are complete morons. They don’t even really serve as comic relief, that role being more successfully filled by Simon. They’re just dumb. Fortunately, they don’t stick around through the whole movie.

Fifth cliché – agent Powers and her partner work for a shadowy, unknown international governmental organization that gets called in when the alien probe crashes into the museum and possesses the mammoth. They’re basically a rip-off of the Men in Black, and seem to come standard with a movie of this nature.

Cue classic Western showdown music.

Now, I have a few important questions. First of all, if you saw an until-recently frozen solid mammoth break free of its ice prison, and you were a 60- or 70-year-old security guard, would your first instinct be to draw your pistol, of all weapons, to try to kill it? Because I’d guess that my first instinct would be to run. I get that guns are powerful, but there are plenty of animals in the actual world that could more or less shrug off a pistol, and I suspect that an elephant would be one of them (they make “elephant guns” for a reason). Second of all, when there’s a large, unstoppable monster rampaging through a given area (downtown Tokyo, downtown New York City, a rave party in the woods), I understand the urge to run away from it, but why does everyone always run away from it? That is, why do people not run sideways from it, in order to get out of its path? If it hasn’t noticed you, or is ignoring you, it seems to me that the safest way to run would be away from where it’s going to be as well as away from where it is. But that’s just me, I suppose. Third of all, if there’s a beast running around that is known to shake the ground and walk with large rumbling steps, how on earth does that beast manage to sneak up on multiple people? Not only does the mammoth accomplish this feat, but it pulls it off at least twice during the movie, despite shaking the ground when it walks and making Jurassic-Park-esque booms with each step (there are several wonderful moments in this movie reminiscent of that masterpiece, of course), which begs the question, is everyone in this movie completely oblivious to what’s going on behind or to the side of them? I just don’t get it.

“He followed me home! Can I keep him? He’s really quiet, I promise!”

Now on to the sciencey bits.

Our two imbecilic deputies arrive at a scene with multiple dead bodies and find tracks from the mammoth that looked to me to be at least 4 inches deep, probably deeper. It’s unclear exactly how much the mammoth weighs, and those tracks were made in a corn field (soil that’s been planted tends to be looser and softer than other soils, and therefore deeper tracks are easier to make), but I find 4-inch-deep tracks to be unlikely; though, to be fair, the only real-life reference I could find doesn’t speak to the depth of tracks, only the length and width (the paper can be found here, and is a neat little study). So while possible, the tracks presented in the movie strike me as being exaggerated.

Also, the body of the mammoth was encased in ice for an indeterminate length of time, and the doctor remarks that it was frozen alive. However, there are clear signs of decomposition on the body. I understand the desire to make the mammoth as fearsome as possible, but I’m not sure how likely it is that decomposition would occur on a body encased in ice. As this study of Ötzi the Iceman points out, only limited decomposition was found in a body frozen in a glacier for 5,000 years. The body was, in fact, mummified by the dry conditions at that altitude. So there is some real-world evidence that a body frozen in ice should have little obvious decomposition, and instead be more desiccated and mummified than the mammoth in the film. In other words, it seems to me that it would have more likely been an alien-possessed mummy mammoth instead of an alien-possessed zombie mammoth; at least, based on science.

“Give us a kiss!”

So there you have it – Mammoth in all its glory. More reviews will be coming this week, and as always, try to stay ahead of the sharks.