Friday, August 14, 2009

It Rises: Fins Wrestle Against Tentacles

Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus (2009)

Must. Review. Slowly. To avoid. The bends.

Those zany madcaps at The Asylum have produced another winner. Okay, that’s total bullshit. Asylum is famous/infamous for producing “mockbusters,” ultra-cheap direct-to-DVD clunkers that rip-off big-budget theatrical fare. Transformers becomes Transmorphers in their hands. Speed Racer puts the pedal down against Street Racer. Pirates of the Caribbean hoists the mainsail to Pirates of Treasure Island. And don’t get me started on their versions of public domain properties like Jules Verne novels (Asylum went 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea). In addition to mockbusters they create tripe like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. According to producer Paul Bales, Asylum was asked by a Japanese distributor to create a movie with a giant shark and a squid. They sent them a picture of a shark and an octopus. “That’s it!” said the distributor. Squid, octopus. Potato, po-tah-toe.

The movie gets to being bad right away. Stock footage of a helicopter surrounded by nothing but blue sky is inter-cut with stock footage of a snowy inland mountain range (you never actually see the copter flying over the range, which looks like it was shot somewhere in Europe). This is juxtaposed with shots of a crude CGI mini-sub nosing around near an Alaskan glacier. Inside the sub we have Deborah Gibson, formerly Debbie Gibson, 80s teen pop star of “Foolish Beat” fame, piloting her little heart out. I said the movie was bad, but that’s not the half of it. After a few minutes we soon realize that the majority of the actors’ scenes were shot in TIGHT close ups with shitty framing. Characters often only have half their faces in any given shot. I HOPE this was done on purpose – the movie’s producer was sitting in the audience with us and didn’t complain to theater staff– but it’s so hard to tell. It’s also extremely hard to watch. Even Ed Wood, the “worst moviemaker of all time,” had better camera work in his movies.

To get back to the plot – if you really are interested in that – the helicopter, apparently on one of those generic top secret, tightly-framed and sometimes out-of-focus government missions, drops a thingy into the ocean that accidentally frees a prehistoric megalodon and a giant octopus to boot. The big fish immediately get jiggy wit it. The shark leaps out of the water and munches on an airliner (geez, how low were they flying?); it also takes a bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge. Octopussy attacks an oil rig and swats an Air Force fighter jet. When the military realizes they can’t shoot the damn things out of the water, shady government honcho Lorenzo Lamas, complete with Steven Seagal-esque ponytail, black t-shirt, black sport jacket and pants (guess he’s going clubbing afterward) forces top ocean scientist Gibson, her Irish scientist mentor Lamar (Sean Lawler), and J-scientist Shimada (Vic Chao) to figure something out.

In the movie’s funniest sequence, proving the point made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in Team America that “you gotta have a montage," the scientist trio toils away in a government lab which consists of nothing but a back counter and a foreground island on which dozens of test tubes are filled with various colored liquids, which is naturally how you deal with shark and octopus problems large and small. They mix the red Kool Aid with the green Kool Aid, etc, until they come up with the glowing re-agent from Re-Animator. The glowing stuff is pheromones, which has been used WAY too many times now in movies. Anyway the stuff is supposed to attract the big lugs in an attempt to trap them. When that fails, they go to plan B: let the monsters kill each other.

Everything in this movie is bad. The script is bad (best line of dialogue, by apparently psychotic but for no real reason sub captain, "It rises!"). The direction is bad. The acting is bad. The photography is bad (apparently master shots are verboten in Asylum movies). The costumes are bad (the U.S. Navy sub and battleship personnel wear cheap little American flag pins on their generic blue jumpsuit collars). The sets are bad (the Navy sub looked like a re-dressed Klingon bridge set; most other sets you really can’t see due to the ultra-tight photography). The special effects are a joke – many shots literally last a fraction of a second (when they aren’t recycling effects over and over and over). Since CGI effects are expensive and time consuming, even crappy ones, this movie would have been better served all around by going to Toys ‘R Us and buying a toy shark and octopus, putting them on sticks, and filming them through a goldfish bowl.

But is it “good” bad? I’d have to say NO. Most bad movies, especially classics from Roger Corman, Ed Wood, Bert I. Gordon, and others, weren’t made to be bad. Sure they were created to make money, but the filmmakers’ hearts were generally in the right place – they wanted to make a good movie, but didn’t have the money or resources (and, yes, they sometimes didn't have the talent either). When companies like Asylum set out deliberately to make bad movies, it’s a very fine line they walk, especially when they "sabotage" every aspect of the filmmaking process on purpose. Look at Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse a few years ago. They wanted to do a raw, funny, sexy low budget movie like those they used to show at cheap, skuzzy grindhouse theaters. They got the visual look right - thanks to CGI scratches, scrapes, dust and the like - but the movies were too well written, acted and shot (they also spent nearly $70 million to make a type of movie that used to cost a few hundred grand to get in the can). They only got the surface right and missed the heart of the real grindhouse movies.

Real “bad movies” can be watched many times – see many of the movies taken to task on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus has no real heart. It tries so hard to be bad that it becomes simply stupid and annoying.

A Quinn Martin Production-like Epilogue:

When we got to the theater we soon found out that this unusual big screen showing of a movie that’s already out on DVD was for the “benefit” of Lorenzo Lamas’ upcoming E Channel reality show, Leave it to Lamas. Lamas, whose acting career hit its apex with Falcon Crest in the 80s, said he’s tried everything else, so why not a reality show. (He's also using the reality show and the movie screening to pimp his new motorcycle production company.)

Lorenzo Lamas and Deborah/Debbie Gibson had their biggest fame in the 1980s. Japan has long held a fascination with American pop culture, past and present. Those facts, plus the producer’s statement about how a J-distributor asked them to make a giant monster movie, really show you how movies are often just manufactured product. I can see the Asylum’s head honcho saying, “If we put Lorenzo Lamas and Debbie Gibson in this movie the overseas audience, particularly the Japanese with their love of the 80s, will eat it up!”

After the movie ended they asked the audience to stay in place so they could tape some reaction shots. Big laugh here. Small laugh here. Clap and cheer. Clap and cheer again. Clap and cheer some more. They made whores out of all of us that night (and we even PAID them for that honor).

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