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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this real or a dream?”

“Real. Definitely real.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ahead truth-factor 7. Engage.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never a bad way to start a horror movie

Smile! You’re on haunted house camera!

“Say hello to my little… aw crap”

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

“Just two… more… minutes…”

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

And who else is gonna lead? HIM?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

Deep Blue Sea

Entirely new concept

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

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

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

Keep thrashing like that! It always helps!

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

And guns. They always use guns in these movies…

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

Sturdier than most houses, I guess

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

Now you see it…

…now you don’t!

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

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

Natural hunting tactics for the bottom-dwelling goblin shark

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

“Later, bitchaz!”

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

And of course, the best one of all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

😦

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

Kinda like this…

…but really more like this!

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hey guys. What’s up?”

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

“But what’s for dessert?”

So what about crocodiles?

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

“Hilarious, I’d say!”

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

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

More plausible (to me) hunting tactic

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

Bad day for a plesiosaur…

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

“Well, that was predictable…”

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

“I couldn’t have said it better myself”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I CAN FLY!”

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

“Sir, I can’t find quality anywhere!”

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

OM NOM NOM!

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

“You dare to copy me?!”

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

They’re all basically the same person

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

Bulls-eye!

David goes from this…

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

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

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

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

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

Shark Swarm – “Fear travels in packs…”

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

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

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

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

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

The first of many random victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I flew today. How are you?”

Now back to your regularly scheduled movie critique.

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

“Feed me, Seymour!”

I have two main problems with that idea, however.

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

Like this, but more so

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

“Later, bitchaz!”

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

Let’s go swimming!

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

“DO IT!”

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

The only one to realize there’s a problem

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

Needless to say, he too gets et.

“NOM!”

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

Ice Twisters – “Hell has frozen over”

1996 gave us Twister; in 2004, we got The Day After Tomorrow; then came 2009 and Ice Twisters; and this all finally culminated in 2011 with Brinicle: Finger of Death. Suffice it to say that, apparently, columns of deadly, swirling ice flying through the air at Mach I-hate-you-all are not entirely unexplored in cinema.

Ice Twisters examines, through a gritty, completely realistic no-holds-barred lens, what truly happens when science runs rampant over the landscape (hint: tornadoes of frozen air form. Or something like that). Joanne (Camille Sullivan, Intelligence; Best in Show) and her research partner Damon (Alex Zahara, 2012; The 13th Warrior), along with their assistants, are experimenting with drones that can create clouds and then seed those clouds with silver iodide, causing rain, when strange and deadly weather starts forming and dissipating randomly in the area. One of these storms happens to appear right over the store where Charlie (Mark Moses, Desperate Housewives; Platoon) is having a book signing. Coincidentally, Charlie is also the former teacher and research mentor for Joanne, and when she and Damon show up at the scene of the freak storm, Charlie realizes one of their experiments went wrong and strong-arms them into letting him help find a solution. Meanwhile, Eric (Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York; The Commish) and Ashley (Luisa D’Oliveira, 50/50; The Break-Up Artist), two journalism students on their way to interview Charlie for a class project, film footage of the freak storms to use instead.

Top left – Joanne; top right – Damon and Joanne; middle left – Charlie; middle right – Eric; bottom – Ashley

The first thing that should be said about this movie is that the CGI did not stand out as obviously bad. Given the prevalence of scenes with CGI tornadoes, the fact that the CGI did not stand out as strikingly awful is absolutely worthy of mention. I can’t say that they were the best computerized storms I’ve seen, but definitely a step up from much of the schlock found in SyFy Originals. Along these lines, the acting in this movie was solid, definitely higher caliber than usually found. The writing was unremarkable, but accomplished its job of telling the story. This movie managed to avoid the deadly combination found in many SyFy films of sub-par writing paired with poor acting, a mix that always results in painful movies and pained viewers; and for that, it stood out, though it should also be said that there were a couple of spots where I feel as though the writers backed off from good opportunities, weakening the final product. So, for example, while I thought the buildup in the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the movie was well done, it seemed to me that the climax was too passive and stale, detracting somewhat from the quality that had come before.

Not terrible CGI! I’m speechless!

None of this, of course, should suggest that this movie was flawless, or as flawless as a SyFy Original can be, because while it overall did better with many of the usual pitfalls in these movies, it actually suffered, at least to my mind, on the cliché front.

For a start, yet again, and again, and again, they bring up the idea of science versus common sense. As mentioned above, Charlie used to be a researcher, but he left the world of “science fact for science fiction”, as Damon puts it, because he believed that the work being done by scientists was being corrupted and co-opted by shady government types. (Coincidentally, the work being done by Joanne and Damon gets co-opted by a shady government type.) So first there’s the conspiracy cliché, the idea that the government wants to take research that’s ostensibly beneficial and turn it into a weapon; and there’s the scientists have done enough harm and should just stop now cliché, often formulated as it is here, with the hero of the movie having once been a researcher, but who is now out of the field because he or she was disgusted by the ethical and moral laxity of the funding sources or of their fellow researchers. Then, after some apocalyptic or near-apocalyptic event, they get dragged back in, all the while carrying themselves with an I-warned-you smugness.

“I KNEW this would happen!”

But all of this posits a science devoid of ethics or morals. Not only do most scientists themselves have morals, but many also vocally advocate those morals to their peers. Ethically or morally ambiguous research gets performed, of course; and to a certain extent, such work must be done in order to advance certain fields (stem cell research comes to mind as an example). But often, once hints of such work being done reach the field at large, ethical debates pretty quickly begin, and by and large, scientists hold each other in check. Moreover, given the wider spectrum of people involved, projects with government funding tend to be even less controversial (again, look at the cuts to stem cell research funding imposed in the early 2000s). Now, obviously, there absolutely is morally questionable research being performed under the auspices of government funding. But in all of those cases, I would be shocked if fewer than ten people were knowledgeable of what was happening. Bottom line, the idea that one aggressive mid-level bureaucrat can provide substantial funding to unethical scientific research without being found out over a period of several years strains credulity. And along comes Charlie, constantly reminding Joanne and Damon that that’s exactly the reason he got out of research, so that he wouldn’t produce results to be misused.

“It’s alright. Ten years ago, all this would have been MY fault, not yours.”

The other main cliché that permeated the movie was the idea that the hero always knows exactly what to do. When the random storms begin forming, the research team who had invested three years of work are at a loss to explain the cause; Charlie, on the other hand, looks at the information for all of five or ten minutes, after being out of the field for an unknown amount of time, and realizes exactly what’s happening. Not only that, but once he’s deduced what’s causing the storms, he soon devises a plan to stop them. No matter the challenges they face in the movie, Charlie always seems able to propose a solution seemingly effortlessly.

Except for this guy. He’s just figurative toast

So what, exactly, does happen in this movie?

The basic plot goes something like this – Joanne and her team test out a set of drones designed to create clouds, and then seed those clouds with silver iodide to make them rain. The next thing anyone knows, the temperature in a nearby town drops precipitously and a tornado comes out of nowhere, kills some people, destroys some stuff, and then vanishes. This happens a few more times before Joanne, Damon and Charlie return to the research field station and being analyzing the data. Charlie quickly explains that the only cause that makes any sense is the idea of “vertical weather”, as he puts it, wherein the upper layers of the atmosphere are getting sucked down into lower ones because the drones are drawing moisture to make the clouds. He realizes that the storms are forming in the upper atmosphere and then dropping through the layers to ground level, which explains the temperature drops. Further, the only way to stop the storms is to open up a hole in the ozone layer so that a satellite with solar panels can harness the Sun’s energy and fire a laser into this hole to heat the upper atmosphere so the storms cease to self-perpetuate.

Drones! Attack!

Seems to me like a lot of sharks were jumped just in that paragraph, but let’s take a closer look and see what we find.

First, some basic atmospheric tidbits. Earth’s atmosphere comprises many different layers, with distinct boundaries between each, though the depth of each layer can vary with the location or time of day. The boundaries between layers more or less prevent two adjacent layers from mixing much. Also, a quick look at the formation of tornadoes – basically, the idea is that colder, denser air ends up above warmer, less dense air, and as the two try to change places, they swirl around each other, creating the tornado. (Yes, I know that that’s a pretty awful description, but it will do for purposes of the discussion here, and if you’re interested in more technical or fleshed-out descriptions, that Wikipedia article is a good place to begin.)

Science!

So let’s say, hypothetically, some crazy scientist launches drones into the top of the troposphere (the layer we all know and love and live in), just below the tropopause, where they begin to condense liquid nitrogen out of the air (how, I have no idea, given how cold that stuff is), causing water vapor to condense into clouds, creating a relatively intense, localized dry area in the atmosphere. According to Charlie, then, more moisture is drawn down from the upper atmosphere both to help make the clouds and to equalize the disparity. Here’s the thing, though – there’s not a whole lot of moisture above the tropopause (noctilucent clouds notwithstanding), so drawing it in shouldn’t really do much at all as far as upsetting balance goes. Interestingly, despite the general tendency for the tropopause to act as a barrier between the troposphere and the stratosphere, there are occasions when thunderstorms cross the tropopause; so not only does this barrier mark the end, more or less, of what will be useful for creating weather, but it also isn’t even impenetrable, if a storm is determined enough. Suffice it to say, my hunch is that, if an artificially dry area were created in the upper troposphere, not much would happen. Certainly, it is doubtful that moisture from the upper atmosphere would be sucked down, given how little of such moisture there is in the first place.

Science!

However, supposing that, for some reason, downdrafts of air from the upper atmosphere were to start dropping all over the place, it does seem to me that ice twisters would not be that unlikely a phenomenon. After all, until the stratosphere, average temperature of the air decreases as altitude increases – just climb a mountain, and you’ll get it. (Interestingly, in the stratosphere, as altitude increases, so does temperature.) Of course, given pressure differences at the different altitudes, cold air can stay happy and content above warm air, until a pressure front comes along and tears everything apart (otherwise known as “weather”). But regardless, the temperature in the upper atmosphere is much colder, on average, than the temperature closer to the surface of the earth. Thus, if, for some reason, cold air from there were to fall, as it sank, it would sink faster and faster as it became denser with pressure. This would also heat it up, but probably not quickly enough to make a big difference before it came crashing down on us. And if that air came from high enough up, say, the upper mesosphere, it could pretty easily freeze everything nearby pretty quickly, being as cold as 148°F below zero. I’m from Wisconsin, and even I would call that cold. So while the idea of the events leading to ice twister formation seem fairly ridiculous to me, theoretically, I guess they could form ignoring all the reasons they wouldn’t.

“I know I left my logic around here somewhere…”

What about their solution to the problem, shooting a space laser through an ozone hole (isn’t it remarkable how many problems Hollywood believes can be solved with space lasers?)? It’s hard to really talk about this, given the unknowns involved (mass of air, area of laser, intensity of laser, etc.); but I would guess that, while it might, theoretically, work, it would take a lot longer than the few seconds they show in the movie. Moreover, there’s no reason given at all as to why heating the atmosphere locally should work, though I suppose the idea is that, by heating the air, the down flow should stop as the air becomes even less dense that it was. But I’m not really sure, and my guess is that shooting a laser into the upper atmosphere to stop a self-perpetuating series of frigid killer storms would essentially prove useless.

To plug a hole with a laser, first create a hole… with a laser!

The solution to all our problems

Bottom line here, I would say that the basic premise is pretty ridiculous, though some of the consequences are plausible.

So that’s that. If you’re really into winter-themed disaster movies, I’d recommend The Day After Tomorrow before Ice Twisters; Day did it first, and Day did it better. But if you’re really into SyFy-themed disaster movies, you could certainly do worse.

And no one noticed the new star that was formed. The end

And finally, Shark Week is here! To celebrate, Jumping Sharks will be running one review per day (give or take), covering all of your favorite shark-centered monsterpieces. I’m talking Dinoshark; Sharks in Venice; and the infamous Sharktopus, among others. It’s gonna be a good week, so stay tuned!

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!”