Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus

Director: ‘Ace Hannah’
Writer: ‘Ace Hannah’
Producer: David Michael Latt
Cast: Deborah Gibson, Lorenzo Lamas, Vic Chao
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: UK DVD

website: www.theasylum.cc

Shark your love! Just can’t shark your love!

I would like to commence this review by giving props to former teen chanteuse Debbie Gibson who is surprisingly good in this film. The list of pop stars who have acted in SF/fantasy films is a long and largely inglorious one and Gibson’s acting career has not exactly been a string of hits. Wedding BandBody/Antibody? Celeste in the City? Anyone heard of any of these?

Ironically, Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus, despite being the cheesiest, dumbest movie the woman has acted in to date (something I feel confident in saying, despite never having seen any of her other films) is undoubtedly her highest profile screen work. And the fact that she acquits herself well, bringing far more to her role than the script or the production values could ever justify, should lead on to bigger and better things.

Although, in the short term, all it seems to have lead to is The Asylum deciding that their next aquatic giant monster movie, Mega-Piranha, should star Tiffany. Good grief.

Gibson (who acts under the name Deborah but is prominently credited as Debbie on the UK sleeve) plays marine biologist Emma MacNeil. Even in her late thirties, she’s peppy and preppy but that’s all right because marine biologists are hot. Everyone knows this. Brinke Stevens has a degree in marine biology. I rest my case.

It is a well-known fact that all hot women with a professional interest in science are either astronomers or marine biologists. A mascara overdose aside, Gibson is credible in the role. Except when she’s piloting a mini-submarine.

MacNeil and her colleague Vince (Asylum regular Jonathan Nation: War of the Worlds 2, Death Racers, 2012: Doomsday, Dragonquest) are scooting around off the coast of Alaska in this mini-sub watching humpback whales, in fact steering right through the middle of a pod, which seems awfully dangerous. The whales are CGI but verisimilitude is added (or subtracted) by stock shots of seals and hammerhead sharks (despite the fact that all nine species of hammerhead live in tropical waters).

High above flies a small helicopter whose solo pilot (David Meador) releases some sort of experimental sonar device into the water. The problem with this sequence is that it looks like the sub and chopper are in radio contact as there seems to be no-one else around. But actually the chopper is speaking to some ship or base elsewhere and neither vehicle is aware of the other’s presence.

The sonar device spooks the humpbacks and causes chunks of glacier to break off into the sea, freeing two enormous, indistinct shapes, one of which is roughly shark-like and the other approximately octopoid. MacNeil catches a glimpse as she tries to steer the sub away from danger but dismisses the sight as her imagination.

MacNeil is sacked - for ‘borrowing’ the sub - by whatever institution employs her, but not before she is called to examine a forced perspective lump of stuff which is presumably a whale carcass although it is not actually named as such. She is convinced that the injuries on this beast are natural - bite-marks - but is over-ruled. When nobody is looking she removes a two-foot-long, jagged, off-white, razor-edged slab of something from the carcass.

Unemployed, she moves in with one of her old professors, an Irish ex-Navy-guy named Lamar Sanders (Dublin-born Sean Lawlor, who was Captain Nemo in the Asylum’s Verne homage 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was also in Space Truckers and Titanic). Together, they conduct all sorts of scientific tests on the mysterious shard. Of course, any real marine biologist would spend their time measuring every piece of the thing and searching scientific journals for something comparable. But in this movie’s version of ‘science’, everything involves combining aqueous liquids in conical flasks.

Seriously, that’s all they do. In this and other science scenes. Conical flask with liquid A. Pour or drip in liquid B and watch liquid A either change colour or stay the same. Because that’s what scientists do, right?

After a considerable amount of this, MacNeil and Sanders eventually conclude that the two-foot-long, jagged, off-white, razor-edged slab removed from a giant bite-wound is... a tooth! Seriously. There’s the whole conical flask montage thing and it all builds up to the two of them saying, in amazement: “It’s a tooth!”

No shit, Sherlock.

What sort of marine biologist can’t identify a shark’s tooth, even at umpteen times normal size? Although, to be fair, this particular prop has been created by someone who has obviously never seen a shark’s tooth. Which is understandable really, because they’re so rare. It’s not like you can pick them up for a few cents from any beachfront gift shop...

Meanwhile, we get to enjoy a couple of scenes of the newly unfrozen mega-shark and giant octopus wreaking havoc on the high seas. The cephalopod attacks a Japanese-owned oil platform, which the caption identifies as belonging to the ‘Kobayshi’ corporation - although they probably meant to type the much more common Japanese name ‘Kobayashi’. A single, Australian survivor of this disaster (Michael Teh, who played Keanu Reeves in a film called Little Klaus Big World) is questioned in Japan while the official story released to the press is that there were no survivors and the cause of the disaster is unknown.

A giant octopus attacking an oil rig is all well and good, but the film’s most notorious moment is the giant shark’s astounding first appearance, leaping out of the water to grab an airliner in flight. This is a scene of utterly astounding magnificence, glimpsed briefly at the very end of the trailer but much more effective here where we have 30 seconds or so of build-up. Outside shots of the plane; interior shots of the stewardess asking people to put their seats up; some bad turbulence (because of course, any attack by a sea monster can only take place during a storm, even at 15,000 feet).

Then that great POV shot from inside the plane as a single passenger in exactly the right (or wrong) seat looks out and just has time to say “Holy shit!”

It would have been easy to milk this scene but its brevity is its success. Plane is flying, man looks out of window, shark bites plane. Remember that ludicrous bit in Orca - Killer Whale where the titular beast actually destroys a house? It’s like the guys at The Asylum have watched Orca recently and gone, “Pfft - that’s nothing. We can come up with something that will really knock their socks off.”

So superb is the shark-vs-airliner scene that it has swiftly passed into the general zeitgeist, to the extent that I found a diagram on a genuine marine biology website calculating exactly how deep and fast the shark would need to go in order to be able to launch itself high enough to grab the plane.

In setting out to investigate mysterious maritime goings-on, MacNeil and Sanders are joined by Japanese scientist Seiji Shimada, with whom Lamar has been in contact by e-mail although they have never met. Shimada flies over to the States: it’s never clear where these folk are but it looks like California and, the prologue notwithstanding, it sure as heck isn’t Alaska. Actually, that’s rather ironic because this film has more captions identifying locations than any other movie I’ve ever seen. Every three to four minutes, it seems, a bunch of words appears on screen to tell us where we are, even though we can usually tell from the ensuing scene what sort of place it is and no-one ever mentions any location by name.

Anyway, back to Shimada-san. He is played by Chicago-born Vic Chao who definitely looks more Asian-American than Japanese - and isn’t ‘Chao’ a Chinese name? Nevertheless, against all expectations, Shimada turns out to be the romantic lead, falling in love with and even getting down and dirty (not shown!) with MacNeil. Credit must be given to this little film for breaking down stereotypes like this and highlighting the prejudices and assumptions that still exist within society. Come on, when was the last time you saw a film where the principal romance was between a white girl and an Asian guy? And we’re not talking arthouse here, we’re talking Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus. Nor are we talking about a rebellious white girl because, for all the character’s sub-stealing recklessness and a couple of intervening decades, this is Debbie freaking Gibson, a women who spent her teenage years as the squeaky-cleanest, all-American teen imaginable and who never, as far as I know, turned bad-girl. This isn’t Britney, this is the blonde one who wasn’t Tiffany.

And Chao? He was an engineering graduate before he took up acting. One of his early roles was inside the mascot of the Chicago Bulls basketball team and he was also a contestant on American Gladiators. He has played a mix of Chinese, Japanese and American characters on big and small screen including two recurring roles in 24. He was in Mask of the Ninja, Organizm and Miss Congeniality 2.

When the trio are kidnapped by Government agents, we finally meet the fourth of our leads: second-billed king of the pony-tails Lorenzo Lamas. He plays Allan Baxter, a no-nonsense, straight-talking ‘equal opportunity racist’ (which really means he makes one passing comment about “limeys and spics”) who is in charge of some non-specific US government force, which has full access to all military and naval resources. It’s Baxter’s job to deal with the unleashed sea monsters and he has forcibly recruited MacNeil, Sanders and Shimada to help him.

Lamas, of course, is a legend with a career that combines sappy daytime soaps (Falcon Crest, The Bold and the Beautiful) with cheesily awesome action series (Renegade, The Immortal). Film roles include Gladiator Cop, CIA Code Name: Alexa, Terminal Justice, Dark Waters, Raptor Island, Sci-Fighters, Succubus: Hell Bent and the previously mentioned 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Clearly, Lamas is the man.

The first thing they do is realise that the wave of attacks are the work of two giant beasts, not one. They work this out by looking at a map of attacks: the North Pacific is dotted with scores of points but there are also three or four off Newfoundland. So there must be two monsters because it can’t be in the Atlantic and the Pacific at the same time. Although of course anything that could swim through the Northwest Passage could easily swim back again. And indeed so it presumably does because their plan to deal with the titanic twosome involves cornering one in San Francisco Bay and the other in Tokyo Bay.

They also don’t give any consideration to the possibility that there might be more than two of these things.

Then a package arrives from MacNeil’s old pal Vince which is plainly a DVD although Sanders refers to it as a 'videotape'. This is footage from a camera onboard the mini-sub from the prologue and clearly shows what MacNeil thought she saw: a giant octopus and a, well, mega-shark. Incidentally, the shark is identified early on as a prehistoric Megalodon, despite the fact that it is clearly more than twice the size of such a beast. There is also an unfunny and inconsistent recurring joke about MacNeil referring to a ‘giant squid’ with Sanders and Shimada correcting her: “Octopus!”

Anyway, the plan that our team devise is to lure the giant octopus into Tokyo Bay - because giant monsters must always attack Tokyo. It’s a tradition or an old charter or something. And the mega shark will be lured into San Francisco Bay. Once bay-bound, each beast will be destroyed by ... something. I’m really not sure how this is going to work. If you want to have a pitched battle with a super-massive predator, wouldn’t it be better to do that away from busy shipping lanes and major population centres?

And how will they lure the things there? After more malarkey with coloured liquids in conical flasks, our team of scientists come up with the idea of pheromones. Well, sharks are renowned for their incredible sense of smell - and octopuses have pretty good smell-sense too. No, the problem here is: how could anyone possibly know what the pheromones of these creatures smell like? Remember: these are species unknown to science, there’s only one of each and no-one has got close enough to study it without being eaten. Even if we were to just take a best guess (Megalodon’s closest living relative is the Great White - although some experts argue that it is actually the Mako) we don’t even know if these monsters are male or female.

Well, as plans go, this is only partially successful. Yes, they are able to lure the monsters into the respective bays, but whatever the second part of the plan was, it fails. The shark takes a massive bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge, while the octopus trashes Tokyo, although the latter carnage is only reported to us via a video-link with Shimada who has gone back to his home country to co-ordinate things there.

Plan A failed. Then MacNeil comes up with Plan B: “The thriller in Manila! We’ll get them to fight each other!” After all, they were locked in mortal combat when they were frozen in the ice millions of years ago. So they obviously don’t like each other. And this is a film with ‘versus’ in the title, after all.

Let’s just consider that title, because it is one of the greatest ever. It tells you exactly what you’re going to get. It is just clunky enough to not be slick but not so clunky that it doesn’t roll off the tongue. It is instantly memorable. It positions this film in the subgenre of great clashes: Freddy vs Jason, Alien vs Predator, King Kong vs Godzilla (all the way back to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). And what is really cool is that this is not a sequel or a spin-off. It’s just: there’s this giant octopus, right, and this mega-shark, right, and they’re going to have a fight, right.

Genius. Genius, I tell ya.

So anyway, vast squadrons of CGI submarines are called into play, both American and Japanese. Lots of them, all sailing along below the surface within a few metres of each other. Unbelievably dangerous.

Except, in an elementary mistake, these very obviously aren’t American or Japanese subs. They’re British. What’s the difference? It’s the fins, the horizontal planes used to assist diving and surfacing. American subs - and Japanese ones - have them on the conning tower. British subs - and CGI ones, evidently - have them on the bow.

I’m really disappointed. Bang goes my suspension of disbelief. I can accept a 40-metre Megalodon. I can accept an octopus that’s larger than an oil rig. I can accept both aquatic behemoths surviving, frozen in ice, for millions of years. I can accept the preparation of megalodon pheromones in a conical flask. I can accept Debbie Gibson as a marine biologist.

But if you ask me to accept a US Navy submarine with diving planes on the bow, I will just say no. There is a line to be drawn and I’m drawing it here.

Anyway, the subs use the pheromones to draw the monsters together. MacNeil and Sanders are in one of the US Navy subs (during Plan A they were in the mini-sub which apparently she has been allowed to use again) and Shimada is in one of the Japanese subs. The submarine sets incidentally, are okay: bunch of dials and things on the walls, periscope in the middle, red light over everything. But they are less successful in the scenes where basically the same sets are passed off as the bridge of a surface vessel. Bridges tend to be pretty well lit - windows on three sides usually - rather than encased in metal and illuminated with a red bulb.

The climax, though exciting I suppose, isn’t really very interesting. Let’s face it - once we’ve seen the shark attack an aeroplane and a major US landmark, everything else will be a disappointment. Shimada’s sub looks like it has been sunk - but no, he’s okay! And the two monsters tumble down into the deep, locked in mortal combat, although I’m fairly certain we don’t see either of them actually die. Which of course opens up the possibility of a sequel.

The Asylum aren’t averse to sequels/prequels. They have made two War of the Worlds movies, two Transmorphers movies and two Omen-esque movies. And Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus has easily been their highest profile picture to date. As soon as the trailer was released, it became an internet meme. I don’t know how many people have seen the film, but a lot more people are aware of it than, say, Alien vs Hunter or King of the Lost World.

But if they do a second film, how will they up the ante? Are they going to add a third monster? Because that’s what people will want. Just like, after Freddy vs Jason, the fans were clamouring for Freddy vs Jason vs Ash or Freddy vs Jason vs Chucky. So what can The Asylum do? Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus vs... what? The supercroc from Supercroc maybe? Or the monster from their Cloverfield rip-off Monster? Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus meets the Wolf Man?

Wait! I’ve got it!

What’s big, aquatic, dangerous, world-famous but conveniently devoid of copyright?

Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus ... vs Nessie!

Oh yes. Get me The Asylum on the phone now. Because that’s a film they need to make and I’m the guy to write the script for them.

Meanwhile, what else can be said about Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus? Well, writer-director Jack Perez, who uses the pseudonym ‘Ace Hannah’ here, previously directed the Asylum’s Omen knock-off 666: The Child, when he preferred to call himself ‘Jake Johnson’. But he’s fooling no-one. He also helmed Canadian TV movie Monster Island and Andy Hurst-scripted sequel Wild Things 2. I found an online interview with him and he seems a pretty cool guy.

Among the large cast, most of whose characters have no names, are Mark Hengst (Live Evil), Stephen Blackehart (Retro Puppet Master, Cannibal Dead, Tromeo and Juliet), John Bolen (the 2005 silent Call of Cthulhu), Russ Kingston (Day of the Dead 2: Contagium), Cooper Harris (A Rogue in Londinium, Meteor Apocalypse) and Matt Lagan (various anime voices). Many of these actors have previous form with The Asylum, having appeared in the likes of 100 Million BC, The Terminators, Death Racers, 2012: Doomsday, 666: The Beast, Princess of Mars and, erm, Sunday School Musical.

Cinematographer Alexander Yellen is also an Asylum veteran with Universal Soldiers, I am Omega, 100 Million BC and Street Racer under his belt. Composer Chris Ridenhour likewise has worked for the company, scoring Transmorphers, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Merlin and the War of Dragons, The Terminators and Dragonquest. Funkily named editor Marq Morrison on the other hand is an Asylum virgin, most of his previous credits being DVD extras for things like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and Charlie Chan box sets. Make-up designer Megan Nicoll has the usual Asylum credits but has also worked on two zombie films I had not previously heard of: My Wife is a Zombie and ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction.

The DVD includes a trailer, a couple of minutes of bloopers and an eight-minute Making Of which includes interviews with the four leads and DP Yellen although director ‘Ace Hannah’ is conspicuous by his absence. Behind-the-scenes footage shows that the film was just called Mega Shark on the slate but I suspect that’s not so much an alternative working title as simply a clapper loader who couldn’t be bothered to write the whole thing out.

Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus works brilliantly. Everything that’s right about it is perfect but, even more importantly, everything that’s wrong about it is just wrong enough to be, well, perfect. It knows just how daft the premise is but it never milks that. The actors play it commendably straight and that makes the film all the more entertaining. The effects are not over-used and fit the overall tone.

You would have to be a right miserable sod to not enjoy this. It’s fab.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 31st January 2010

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