After I saw the trailer for this film, I was really looking forward to seeing the finished movie. If it was anything at all like the stuff they offered us in the trailer, then Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus promised to be the best Worst Thing to happen to brain cells since the invention of beer. Seriously — were it not for its brevity, I'd nominate the trailer itself for Best Movie of 2009. And since all the material in the trailer is in the actual film, how could it not be entertaining... right?
OK; I admit that the sheer ZOMG!-itude of the trailer tricked me into letting my guard down. I've seen a handful of titles from The Asylum, the production company that released Mega Shark..., so I should have known that the movie would turn out to be another one of their tedious direct-to-video flicks, the kind that leaves me wondering how something so bland could leave me so angry.
Now, having seen it, I've come to realize that there are two important things missing from Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, two things that would have made the film a much more enjoyable experience. Those two things are:
In the course of an 88-minute movie, the two title creatures are on-screen for a grand total of five minutes and twenty seconds. I know. I counted. And I'm being generous in my total: the time includes dream sequences and flashbacks; and for extended scenes, I've even included time spent on cutaway reaction shots. The grand total would shrink by about a third, maybe even more, if I were to exclude repeated footage. Rarely do we see the creatures clearly for more than three seconds at a time, and for good reason: some of the CG that brings them to "life" (such as the shot of the Mega Shark speeding toward the Golden Gate Bridge) is extremely poor. The longest consecutive series of scenes that mostly have to do with the monsters (i.e., the final confrontation) runs about two minutes.1.) a Mega Shark; and
I'm used to trailers that show you the entire movie... catastrophically, in the case of Quarantine. But this is a slightly different case: every single thing that's worth watching in Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus is found in the trailer.
Even if you haven't seen the trailer, and even if you're unacquainted with the other films put out by The Asylum, you have only to look at the DVD jacket or watch the first few minutes of the film to realize that realism is not the point here. If you want a movie that refers in any way imaginable to the world as we know it, go watch a National Geographic documentary. Or, come to think of it, a Warner Brothers Daffy Duck cartoon, which is pure cold logic compared to this movie. Tex Avery and Chuck Jones understood the real world, and knew what they were doing when they warped the rules of time and space. The makers of Mega Shark...? Not so much.
In fact, Mega Shark... gets so many of its details so far wrong that every shot becomes a sort of puzzle: can you guess what's wrong with this picture, or this scene? You're never in doubt that something is wrong; the real challenge is to spot everything.
The problems begin immediately: the opening credits cut without explanation between aerial photography of the Alaskan mountains and stock footage of fish — warm-water fish! — swimming by. This plunges us from over 10,000 feet looking down to below sea-level looking up, which is enough to make anybody dizzy. We also get the feeling we've changed latitude fairly dramatically, if the hammerhead and whitetip sharks are anything to go by.
The credits inform us that we are in Alaska after all (evidence be damned). In a submersible called the Acquanaut, an oceanographer named Emma MacNeill (played by 80's pop star Debbie Gibson) and her partner Vince are observing the — cough, cough — local sea life (When the camera changes perspective to show Dr. MacNeill's hands at the controls, we see is apparently wearing her solid black Goth-style nail polish on only one hand. Well, either that, or they mismatched the footage switching shots). We will later find out that Emma has taken the submersible without permission — stolen it, basically — in order to gawk at the pretty scenery while listening to Bach. This is supposed to establish Emma as a free spirit; actually, it makes her look like an irresponsible jerk1.
"There's poetry here," sighs Emma, watching dozens of hammerheads pass above her (NOTE: In 2008, The Asylum put out a movie called The Day the Earth Stopped. After a tin-eared title like that, nobody at The Asylum is ever, ever allowed to say anything about poetry ever again).
While Emma is having her joyride, a commercial helicopter carrying a military payload is circling overhead. The fact it's not a military helicopter may seem like another mistake, but it isn't: the helicopter's mission is super-secret and unauthorized. The mistake is this: the pilot, a Lieutenant, is getting his orders over the radio directly from an Admiral. Even in the case of a super-secret unauthorized mission, that's just not the way things work along the chain of command. And I can't imagine a flag officer would involve himself so personally and unambiguously in the low-level details of a covert action like this: you don't get to be an admiral if you don't know how to CYA.
Anyway: the Lieutenant's mission is to drop some sort of SONAR device in the waters off the coast, and then take note of the readings (yeah: that sounds like a super-secret mission). Because Emma and Vince are in a submarine, the Lieutenant up in the helicopter has no idea they're there. You have to wonder exactly how far from her base Emma has gone with her stolen sub... evidently she's a very long way from anywhere human beings are expected to be. If she's part of a scientific team, doing things like, oh... you know... measuring things... then surely the Navy would have chosen to make their experiment far enough away that the researchers wouldn't notice. That suggests Emma is AWOL by a ludicrous distance (and in fact, the film suggests she's traveled all the way from Northern California). Furthermore, vast chunks of ice wall are breaking off from the coastline very near the spot Emma's chosen for her cruise. Emma is looking less and less like a free spirit and more and more like a reckless idiot.
Emma is at first charmed when she sees a pod of whales heading toward her. She's so lost in her reverie that it takes her a long time to realize the pod is way too crowded. Something, she muses, is disturbing their migration pattern. Her surprise turns to alarm when the whales launch themselves full-speed at the ice wall. It's not entirely clear what happens next: it looks like the impact of the whales' bodies actually shatters the coastal glacier as though it were a pane of glass. It's hard to tell — because at the same moment, something happens to the helicopter, and it crashes into the ice wall above water (it's hard to tell exactly what happens to the helicopter, too; but it hardly matters, since any helicopter in a monster movie is contractually obligated to crash).
Without a moment's hesitation, as though they actually had been waiting behind a big pane of glass, Giant Octopus and Mega Shark propel themselves out into the open ocean...
Later in the movie, we will be asked to believe that these two prehistoric creatures are motivated by some sort of primal hate — anthropomorphic, grudge-holding, geography-defying, Jaws: The Revenge-type HATE. Aeons ago, these two were so intent on their life-or-death struggle that they completely failed to take note of the changes in their surroundings. Apparently in mid-chomp, they were hit and run over by an oncoming glacier.
If this is the case, you have to wonder: why didn't they just continue their epic struggle as soon as they thawed?
Maybe, after all those millions of years, it was just a relief for them to get away from each other. I can imagine it would be pretty frustrating, being immobilized in an ice floe for millennia. Every ten thousand years or so, Mega Shark would start grumbling, "My nose itches!", and Giant Octopus would grumble, "Shut up! You don't have any hands!" Next it would be Giant Octopus's turn: "Now my nose itches!" he'd whine, only to have Mega Shark retort: "Shut up! You don't have any nose." That sort of thing can really grate on your nerves after the first million years or so.
If you squint a little and try very hard, you can just make out the dim outline of sense to what The Asylum was getting at in this exposition. The collapsing ice shelf clearly suggests Global Warming, and the huge masses of ice that have broken off the polar icecaps. As for the SONAR: in recent years, it's been suspected that high-power sonar devices, such as those used by the world's military ships, may confuse, panic or even physically harm some marine life, leading to (for example) increased whale strandings, or disrupted migration patterns. The illegal SONAR device deployed in the opening is a dig at the US Navy for continuing to use and to advocate Low Frequency Active Sonar, in spite of concerns about its impact on the environment. Of course, the film's point of view might be easier to understand if the whales hadn't started their panic before the device was deployed. And its environmental stance would be a bit more believable if the movie's protagonist wasn't first seen squandering fuel on an unauthorized junket.
To be fair, Emma does eventually get suspended from her job over the sub theft. But her superior is a blowhard; we're obviously supposed to think he's overreacting, and that Emma is somehow noble for having defied The Man. Come to think of it, all the authority figures in this movie are blowhards, and all of them — all of them, from
(Now, I'm a political liberal myself, and I'm assuming from their attempts at an environmental message that the creators at The Asylum lean instinctively, if not intellectually, to the Left. But if there's one thing I can't stand about allegedly liberal films, it's their tendency to portray the US military and the US government as a bunch of swaggering fools who can do absolutely nothing right. It's a stereotyped, ill-though-out position that puts them side by side with the strident Far Right. Political appointees? Elected officials? Cabinet members? Say what you want about them. But I've dealt with boots-on-the-ground government and military personnel on a regular basis, and as you might imagine, they represent as accurate a cross-section of American life and opinion... and competence... as any other demographic. People in positions of real, practical authority — positions, such as "submarine commander", which they would have had to have earned — rarely behave like the feeble straw men films like this prop up in their place... and if they did, the sheer volume of lawsuits that would result from their behavior would quickly result in their dismissal.)
Just before she's sacked, Emma learns about a number of dead whales that have started washing up on the California beaches. The carcasses all have massive bites taken out of them — or what would be bites, if anything known on earth had a mouth that large. Actually, if we compare these bites to the size of the mega-Megalodon in the title, they're much too small. This shark looks as though it could swallow an entire pod of whales with no chewing involved. In fact, this brings up another point: how would a creature this size be able to sustain itself? One of the reasons the real Megalodon — the puny 60-foot kind, that is — is assumed to have gone extinct is because its food supply dwindled (well... that, and the Ice Age; but this movie's already dealt with the Ice Age, hasn't it?). How would a leviathan like this one, whose teeth are supposed to be 12 feet across, find enough to eat in today's oceans? What could possibly satisfy its colossal appetite?
(Giant Octopus, you say? Hmmm. I hadn't thought of that...)
Emma uses what we're supposed to think is a clever ruse to get access to one of the whale carcasses (if it is clever, then I suppose I understand why everybody else in the movie had to be made to look like idiots). She manages to find something that every other scientist missed (see my previous comment): a fragment of bone that turns out to be the tiniest sliver of one of those 12-foot teeth. I'm sure you'll have guessed what Emma does next: she makes off with the fragment.
For help in identifying the shard, she turns to her old professor, Dr. Sanders, who is introduced to us as an ex-Irish Navy paleontologist. I can't think why the Irish Navy would need a paleontologist... especially this one: we find out that he was discharged from the Navy after he grounded a submarine while swerving to avoid an oncoming dolphin. I'll say that last bit again: swerving to avoid an oncoming dolphin. I'm picturing him throwing on the brakes and skidding out underwater, leaving tire marks on the ocean floor... I mean, it's not as though either the dolphin or the submarine could navigate in... say... three dimensions, right?
In the meantime, the Giant Octopus has attacked an oil rig off the coast of (where else?) Japan. The Japanese assume some sort of terrorism was involved, so they bring the few survivors into custody at the "Tokyo Federal Detention Center".
I'll say that last bit again: the "Tokyo Federal Detention Center".
Once again, the film-makers' combined anti-Government stance and near-total ignorance come together: anything with the word "federal" in it means "Big Bad Government", especially if it's used with the word "detention". So we instantly assume some sort of Japanese GTMO. The problem? Japan is not a federation. The United States is: it's a collection of individual "states" that are (to coin a phrase) "united". Japan is not, so Japanese government agencies and entities cannot be described as "federal". Look: I know that monster movies are a weak force for social change, but they would be just a tiny bit stronger if the people making them had even the most basic grounding in civics.
Anyway: at the Tokyo (cough) "Federal" Detention Center, one of the survivors of the rig attack manages to sketch a picture of the mysterious beast that attacked him. The sketch includes a bulbous head... a very distinctive eye... and tentacles. Naturally, only a highly-trained scientist like Dr. Seiji Shimada (Vic Chao) could possibly determine what kind of creature this is.
But let's face it: we're not here for the dry science crap. We want to see monsters. The film realizes this, and gives us the one thing we've been most anxious to see: the infamous Mega Shark Airplane Nom.
A Condor Airlines flight is experiencing some turbulence, much to the distress of one male passenger. When the flight attendant tries to calm him down, he tells her he's about to get married in two days. Amazingly, the flight attendant does not confide to him that she's just found out she's expecting, and is flying home to surprise her husband; nor does the Captain announce over the intercom that he'll be retiring immediately after this flight. They might as well have done, though: the nervous young man looks out the cabin window and sees...
This is one of those instances where only a picture will do:
"Hey, Mr. Shatner, can I have your autograph?"
Sigh. That airplane is flying how high, exactly, and at what speed? And a shark that massive would require how much energy to propel itself even a few feet out of the water? Hmm? I imagine a shark that massive would be crushed by its own weight, let alone be capable of snatching airliners out of the sky. But as I said at the beginning of the review: realism doesn't count for much in this film. Which is why we see both shark and airplane tumbling from the sky together... but when we switch our vantage point to under the water, we only see the plane come down. The shark seems to have flown off somewhere else.
Still, though: NOM!
Back to the boring bits: Dr. Shimada is sent (unofficially) to the US, for the express purpose of falling in love with Emma. Why else would the Japanese government send a scientist to work with a retired professor and a disgraced oceanographer? Together they try to make sense of the data: the survivor of the oil rig drew a picture of what Emma calls a "squid" — "OCTOPUS!" say Dr. Sanders and Shimada, in unison (remind me again why Emma is supposed to be our heroine?). But on the other hand, Emma's tooth shard suggests an enormous Megalodon. How can they reconcile these two contrasting pieces of evidence? How?
Just at this point, Emma's former partner Vince drops off the video record from Emma's little submarine jaunt. Vince himself does not appear on-screen; probably that bit actor had gone on to other projects by the time this scene was filmed. In any case, there on the videotape is the solution they've been looking for: footage of both a Mega Shark and a Giant Octopus breaking free of their icy prison.
Now why hadn't Emma seen that? She was there, after all. Apparently she had seen it, but thought it was just a hallucination. Remind me again why Emma is supposed to be our heroine... again?
By this time, naturally, the plane-eating shark has attracted the attention of the US Navy, which for some reason decides to send a battleship after it. If you thought the Navy had decommissioned its battleships years ago... well... you're right. The Megalodon, which now appears to have grown to roughly the size of the battleship, approaches it from the port abeam. Yet when the order comes to open fire on the creature, the big guns do not swivel to face it. They keep pointing straight ahead, while little animated bursts of flame appear at the tips of the turrets (if you've ever seen footage of a real battleship in combat, this pathetic display will leave you rolling your eyes). Of coure, as I mentioned earlier, the captain is fully convinced that firing his big guns in the wrong direction is a foolproof plan, and the shark feeds his delusion by obligingly disappearing from the radar screen. Don't ask me how it does this; it just does (several times in the course of the movie). Then it waits for the captain to give the order to radio Washington with the good news before magically reappearing.
"It rises!" cries the captain, breathlessly... just as the shark dives. See? Authority figures in this move can get absolutely nothing right.
We don't get to see the shark eat the battleship, probably because the aerial battleship footage was taken of a real battleship, and the computer-generated models didn't match. We get to see the shark zipping toward its target, and then we see the actors pretending their vessel is shaking; but we don't actually see the attack. Now that the shark has devoured both a commercial plane and a Naval vessel, it's time for the government to drag in the heroine and her friends to save them.
The man in charge of the dragging is Allan Baxter (Lorenzo Lamas, of all people, made up to look like Steven Segal), and you'll win no prizes by guessing that he is the biggest douchebag of the entire cast. After all (sigh), he's from the Government. Before long, he too will end up being disastrously wrong, and his agressive, douchebaggy exterior will crumble into helpless finger-sucking confusion... but this time (and this is something the movie hopes you don't think about too carefully) the disaster can be traced right back to our heroine.
You see, the Big Bad Gov'mint has kidnapped Emma, a Japanese national and an Irish national solely to have them scowl for hours over beakers of brightly-colored fluids. I know — this is the universally-recognized visual shorthand for "science being done"; but for heaven's sake, how can they solve the problem of a monster shark in the shipping lanes using flasks of fluorescent primary-colored liquids? And how can they tell the liquids won't work — again, considering the nature of the problem — just on the basis of the colors they turn when you mix them?
(The most interesting thing about the government intervention is a little detail nobody seems to notice. When Baxter points out the locations of reported monster attacks on a lighted map, most of the locations are [as we'd expect] around the Pacific rim. But two of them are off the coast of Greenland. How did either the shark or the octopus get all the way over there? The Panama Canal? The Northwest Passage? Did Mega Shark fly there after eating the plane, or did Giant Octopus pull up his tentacles and Gezora himself over the Arctic Ice? And why aren't we seeing that, instead of all this "human-interest" crap?)
The problem is this: the scientists have agreed to mix colorful fluids for Baxter only on the condition that the animals be captured, not destroyed. This is supposed to reinforce our heroes' environmentalist credentials (funny how times have changed: back in the fifties, "They must be studied!" was the cry of the misguided, possibly even treasonous scientist, who would inevitably end up being killed by the monster he wanted to protect). Laudable as the idea may be in theory, I think you could make a pretty good argument that it's the wrong approach for this particular situation. The monsters are doing colossal economic and environmental harm, as well as killing a lot of people. Still, even if civilized debate is possible about the philosophy of their plan, there should be no such debate concerning its practical aspect: that's just plain wrong. They want to lure it into a small, enclosed body of water where it can be trapped more easily. Specifically, they insist only two locations will do: Tokyo Bay and San Francisco Bay, two busy commercial ports in heavily populated areas. Hey — what could possibly go wrong?
And the best thing about this "plan" is that they come up with it long before they've figured out how they're going to lure one or the other beastie into their trap. It's only after Shimada and Emma have dashed off to the broom closet to, erm, compare biological samples — long hours over cone-shaped flasks really build up the sexual tension, I suppose — that Emma hits on an idea: the same thing that brought them together could be used to trap the creatures: Bad Writing. No. Sorry; I meant to say "sexual chemistry". They intend to use pheromones to attract the monsters to their respective targets.
If these questions are ever brought up, we don't get to see it. We do get to see them mixing up a single batch of (what I assume is) all-purpose shark/octopus booty juice. We know it's going to work, because the fluid glows green when its ingredients are combined. Just like in nature.QUESTION 1: Where are they getting pheromones for animals that have been extinct for millions of years? Was Bed, Bath and Beyond having a sale that week? Maybe they're planning to use generics. I can see it now: thousands of sharks of every species, converging on San Francisco, chanting, "Hey baby! What's your sign?" Talk about your "summer of love"...
The plan is to lure the shark to California, and the octopus to Japan. In the event, as we'd expect, everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong; and Baxter, who has made a pattern of recklessly endangering his personnel, decides to renege on his promise to keep the monsters alive. Unfortunately, killing a Mega Shark proves to be more difficult than simply issuing the order, and all they end up doing is angering it. And who could blame the shark? You promised him sex.
Between them, Emma and Baxter end up sinking several ships, killing a numnber of sailors and civilians, and (in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment) turned the Golden Gate Bridge into shark food. And the surprising thing is this: nobody cares. Nobody faces any disciplinary action for these fiascos. Nobody shows any believable regret for the catastrophes. We never even see the aftermath of the bridge disaster, probably because it would have been too expensive to simulate... but more than that, this epic national tragedy is never mentioned again.
Nobody really cares about anything in this movie: all the emotions we see on-screen, be they love, hate, frustration, fear, anxiety... all the emotions are expressed through casual banter. Oh, no, we're all going to die: shrug. Oh, look, the bridge just collapsed, killing thousands: shrug. The closest we get to a genuine display of emotion is when the sailor piloting a submarine snaps under pressure and pulls a gun on his superior officer. Of course, there's so much wrong with this — guns on a submarine? And why would anyone, fleeing a four hundred foot long shark, think an armed mutiny would help the situation? — that the emotional content of the scene hardly matters. The characters are even less convincing than the computer animation; and this, far more than the shoddy writing or the terrible special effects, makes the movie difficult to sit through.
(And while I'm on the subject of things that make this movie difficult to sit through, let me bring up a special technique the editor seems fond of. Periodically through the movie, the screen will flash: for a split second, the color disappears from the frame, and the edges of the picture glow. This effect is used at first for scene transitions, and to suggest the passage of time in a montage; and in that context, it's not too annoying. But as the film goes on, the effect gets used over and over again at random. The film-makers seem to think this heightens the tension, and gives their movie style. They're wrong. It's headache-inducing; and rather than "heighten the tension" [not that there's really any tension to heighten], it really only pushes us out of the moment.)
Shimada's attempt to confine the octopus in Tokyo Bay goes just as badly as Emma's San Francisco experiment... though for reasons of budget, we don't actually see the octopus attack. From here on, you could probably write the rest of the plot yourself; though if you did, you'd probably give more screen time to the title beasties than the makers of the actual film. You might also remember tiny little details, like whether your submarine was pointing toward or speeding away from the huge shark that's pursuing it.
So: do you want to know who wins the fight? The epic, two-minute-long fight that's taken several million years to resolve? Nobody, that's who. Dr. Sanders simply states that the fight is over, and both Mega Shark and Giant Octopus sink quietly into the depths. What happened? Are they both dead? Perhaps; but it's more likely they've merely faded away, back into the prehistoric Sartre play which is their conjoined existence. And thus, with a nod toward the inevitable sequel, the story ends.
All in all, it's exactly what I would have expected from a movie that thought the word "megalodon" in the title would be too difficult for its target audience to understand — "Mega Shark", my anal fin! I probably would have known enough to leave the movie alone, if it hadn't been for that trailer... oh, that delightful, seductive trailer. Even more than The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, this is a movie for which the trailer alone would have been sufficient.
But they did make the whole movie; they put out the trailer like a glowing tube of shark pheromones, and I bit.
And it bites.
And now I hope I am a little wiser for the experience.
So: ummmm... how 'bout that trailer for Infested? Pretty sweet, huh?
1. I will say this, though: whoever chose the music (I'm assuming it was the movie's composer, Chris Ridenhour, who does a very good job with the original score) surprised me a little with Emma's Bach choices. True, she listens to an orchestrated version of the Toccata and Fugue in d-minor while watching the whales, and most Bach fans I know would be a little leery of something so anachronistic... but later on, while she's working, Emma listens to the Präludium, Fuge und Allegro in E-flat. Not a lot of people even know this wonderful piece exists; to hear it as part of a monster movie soundtrack is one of those "WTF?" moments that make movies like this worth enduring. I'm assuming it's one of Mr. Ridenhour's personal favorites (for good reason), and I congratulate him on giving the piece a wider audience (even if they don't know what's hit them).