Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sharktopus (2010)

In my review of Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurous (reviewed earlier this year for FanGirlTastic), I suggested the folks in charge of The Asylum watch some of Roger Corman’s older films and take a few notes on how to make a great monster flick. I hope they had pen and paper handy when Sharktopus hit the Syfy Network, as their chief competition just showed them how it’s done. A gleeful mix of one part monster, one part bathing suit clad victims, and a lot of “how can we top the last scene” effort shaken into the mix, the film became one of Syfy’s biggest successes. All I can say is, I told you so, Asylum.
The film opens in California, with a young swimmer about to become a white shark snack. Before it can attack, the predator is taken down by SS-11, AKA Sharktopus, under the control of the Bluewater Corporation. CEO Nathan Sands (Eric Roberts), along with his daughter Nicole (Sara Malakul Lane), developed this hybrid as the Navy’s latest weapon in the war on terrorists, pirates and drug smugglers. Seriously, sending a perfect killing weapon after a boatload of pot dealers seems pretty extreme, but I guess the Navy believes a joint is as dangerous to this country as a dirty bomb.
Despite showing how Bluewater can control the behavior of SS-11, the Navy wants the beast to stalk a speedboat and demonstrate its stealth capabilities. This proves to be a very bad idea, as weekend water enthusiasts are not known for maintaining a straight path. One hard left turn and the boat damages the control harness for Sharktopus before (in typical Corman fashion) running into some rocks and exploding. Freed of his electronic harness, Sharktopus gobbles up some Californian bathers before making a beeline south to Mexico, with the Bluewater team in hot pursuit.
So, why Mexico, you might ask. Well, Nathan offers up some theory about migratory patterns, but we all know the real reason for Sharktopus to depart the shores of sunny California. This is a Roger Corman production, and it’s cheaper to shoot in Mexico. Duh.
Once in Mexico, Sands recruits Andy Flynn (Kerem Bursin) a former employee who’d been fired for demanding too high a salary. With orders to take Sharktopus alive at all costs, Andy, his friend Santos (Julian Gonzalez Esparza) and Nichole set off, along with a couple of disposable employees, to track the creature. But Sharktopus isn’t behaving like a shark (or octopus), leading Andy to suspect that Nathan did a lot more tweaking with the monster’s brain chemistry then Nicole realizes.
Top it all off with an aggressive reporter chasing her big story, a drunken captain, a pirate DJ and his bikini clad assistant, then sprinkle with enough sun worshipers to provide Sharktopus with tasty treats every twenty or so minutes, and it all adds up to the perfect cinematic cheese pizza. Sure, it’s bad for you, but it tastes great and won’t give you indigestion the next day.
Okay, I won’t disagree that the effects are bad. At times, Sharktopus grabs a sunbather from what appears to be a thirty-foot trench mere inches from the beach. But the laws of perception have never applied to giant monsters. Many beloved kaiju films contain scenes where the monster appears to be rampaging in a ditch, allowing it to fit into a matte shot with a panicked crowd. Besides, such precipices are a longstanding Corman beach tradition (just check out Attack of the Crab Monsters if you don’t believe me).
And speaking of kaiju films, people need to accept the fact that CGI is replacing the rubber-suited actor as a monster. For one thing, CGI can be less expensive than particle effects, the same reason the original Godzilla was a guy in a suit rather than a stop motion creation. And, to be honest, a rubber suit can look pretty bad. Just check out The Attack of the Giant Leeches, War of the Gargantuas or King Kong vs. Godzilla if you need a few noteworthy examples.
But one unacknowledged advantage is that CGI can deliver a beast that has no human qualities, an ability matched only by stop motion. And while my brain melts at the idea of Ray Harryhausen delivering an animated Sharktopus, I know the expense of such a production condemns it to the realm of a geek’s fevered wet dream.
As for The Asylum’s creature features, Corman schools them in how to make a monster movie with this film. First, we get plenty of Sharktopus sightings and attacks. While a few feel repetitive, the film provides enough variety to keep things interesting, especially as Sharktopus slithers out of the water. And by keeping the size of the monster rather small, it allows the mayhem to focus on humans and avoiding the costly effects work involving the destruction of an entire city. This is one of the reasons that Mega Piranha worked so well. The creatures slowly grew gigantic, allowing a lot of attacks on humans before the fish started jumping into beachfront condos. Corman and director Declan O’Brien know the audience wants to see the monster, not the actors, and Sharktopus is onscreen as often as possible.
Second, whether you call it titillation or added production value (as Corman puts it), the second unit scores by keeping the beaches are full of potential Sharktopus victims. And most of them look great in a bathing suit, including the guys. Flynn even gets keeps his shirt unbuttoned after the movie’s midpoint, and though he’s not build like Paul Logan (Mega Piranha), it’s still an attempt to acknowledge a demographic not interested in the female form and it’s about time.
And while I’m sure Sharktopus recycles effects shots like The Asylum’s giant monster movies, at least the foreground is changed, so the audience won’t immediately notice the similarities. It’s a wise decision and one that shows Corman has a lot to teach The Asylum, if they’d only pay attention.
My only real complaint with the film is the casting of Kerem Bursin. While he’s at the same level as costar Lane (and I forgive low budget features for their lack of polished actors), he just looks too much like a fratboy than an experienced military veteran. Someone a bit older would have pulled off the role better, but as the film hits it’s stride, you might find yourself not caring that a 20-something guy is considered the only one who stands a chance of bringing Sharktopus down.
As for the DVD, don’t expect much in the way of special features. You get an expanded Sharktopus trailer (I suggest you don’t watch if you haven’t seen the film) and little else. Come on, do you really thing Roger Corman would waste money and time on a documentary or additional footage?
But the commentary with Roger and Julie Corman is great. Roger talks about why he almost didn’t make Sharktopus (he felt it crossed the line of insanity that would lose an audience, while admitting he was wrong), why he didn’t film any nude scenes and how making a film for Syfy is different than shooting for a theatrical release. It’s a priceless look into shooting for your audience and how demonstrates how Corman has stayed on top of low budget cinema for so long.
Look, I’m not saying this is a good film. If you want something to simulate your intellect, don’t bother. But if you loved giant monster flicks as a kid, and are willing to let your inner child run wild for about 90 minutes, you’ll have a terrific time with Sharktopus.

Just a quick note: My review of Sharktopus appeared on the website FanGirlTastic last week. The DVD was not a screener copy sent to me by the site, but one I purchased from an online retailer.