Now here’s something we haven’t seen in awhile: a Roger Corman movie. And goddamn, the man’s still in fine form, making films that are nothing if not honest. “Hello,” they say, “I’m crap. And honestly unashamed. At least I came in on time and under budget. I’ll make money, and keep my Master in food and clothes for the foreseeable future. What more do you want?” For some, that would probably be enough. But around here we like to shoehorn the films we see into some greater narrative or another. What better narrative than the decline of Roger Corman, not as a man, but as a Bad Movie institution?
Was a time when the Sci-fi channel didn’t bother making its own crap. There were far, far, far too many pre-existing, crappy syndicated sci-fi shows one could buy up on the cheap and use to plug holes in the schedule, like a frantic bricklayer working overtime to build a mafia front, knowing that the Don is not as forgiving as, say, Darth Vader. Then the Dark Times came upon us all and the Channel sold out to USA…and thus to NBC, and thus to General Electric. Awash with this new, corporate cash, the channel began regularly premiering its own films. To an outsider, the process resembles a feces fight inside a monkey cage. The channel flings monetary poo at primates lower on the social pecking order, who quickly respond in kind by lobbing back handfuls of cinematic excrement. Unfortunately, these often pass straight through their intended targets, escape the bars, and hit the “SyFy” channel’s dwindling audience in the face.
In the monkey cage of shit-cinema, Roger Corman is King Kong. If you want a giant monster movie in twenty days or less, he’s the God/Monster to placate with blonds chained to stone platforms. But Corman’s got serious hiring problems. The deficits of time and (let’s be honest) talent that marred his pictures from the 1950s and 60s have only gotten worse. Case in point: Sharktopus.
Eric Roberts – know around these parts as “that bad guy from D.O.A.” and known in the wider world as “that bad guy from The Expendables” – figured Sharktopus “could be nothing but epically bad so I got on board with total humor and ready to have some fun.” Putting that into practice, Roberts plays Nathan Sands, who will be our Affably Evil Scientist for the remainder of the picture. Together with his Banally Evil Scientist daughter, Nicole (Sara Malakul Lane) (who’s sure to be rehabilitated by the love of a Good Man) Nathan’s created a radio-controlled octopus/shark hybrid as part of the U.S. Navy’s latest dunderheaded foray into genetically-engineered super weapon development.
Just once I’d like to see a scene where some scientist tries to justify something like Sharktopus‘ Project Blue Water to a room full of suits and salad chests. “Give us a billion dollars and we’ll have a half-ton, man-eating monster in your hands by Christmas. But don’t worry: a few electrodes in all the right places and it’ll be as docile as a kitten on bennies.” Ri-iiight…
I get no love for that dream here. Sharktopus opens with Project Blue Water already Go, field testing its pride and joy, S11, off the California coast. A visiting Commander (Brent Huff) arrives just in time to watch S11 (in a wonderful inversion of the traditional Jaws rip-off that’s the last genuinely-original thought in this film’s damn fool head) save a bikini-clad bather from a standard issue shark. (Sharks all look like Great Whites, right?) Impressed, Commander Cornholio orders Blue Water’s baby to shadow a passing powerboat. Bad Idea? You be the judge: the boat motor knocks S11’s brain box all to hell, freeing the monster to swim south of the boarder, absent Project Blue Water’s midigating control.
Down Mexico way, the Sands recruit former Blue Water employee and current Chris Evans lookalike Andy Flynn (Kerem Bursin) to help bring S11 back alive. For three hundred grand. Because Flynn’s apparently a mercenary. But not the bad kind that murders people to keep themselves in speed and booze. No, we’re meant to intuit that he’s the good kind of mercenary, possibly an ex-U.S. Serviceman slumming in Mexico now that he’s gotten out of the proverbial shit, with a piece of shrapnel from Baghdad to prove his bona fides…though that don’t work on Nicole Sands, who casually brushes off his attempts to melt her icy heart. How long will that last?
Never mind. It’s time to shift focus over to Stacy Everheart (Liv Boughn) who will be our Reporter for the remainder of this monster picture. An investigative journalist for “CNE” (because slaves of the GE monopoly are forbidden from infringing upon Time Warner’s trademarks) Stacy enters the show talking to local drunken fisherman Pez (Blake Lindsey), who’s got this story about some kinda…octoshark…that he saw off the coast. Stacy’s skeptical…until the creature attacks a resort beach right behind one of her stand-up shots.
Real reporters sacrifice their first born for this kind of break, the kind you only get in the movies. As a Movie Reporter, Stacy follows the usual arc from Careerist Superbitch toward Actually Pass For Human, even as Flynn and Nicole dance the inevitable dance of Designated Romance. About half way in I paused the film and wrote, “Nathan, Flynn’s friend who’s name I can’t really remember (Santos, played by Julián González), and Stacy’s camera man are all going to die.” And lo was it so. Sharktopus‘ makers had to be conscious of its predictability. Otherwise, they wouldn’t play so many deaths for laughs. I feel our director, Declan O’Brien, only lingers on the others because he knows it’s expected. Serving up stock character buffets to their titular monsters is just something Jaws rip-offs do.
Sure, it’s all patently ridiculous garbage, but I suppressed the urge to slash open my wrists by holding out for those few, beautiful, brief moments when quality pokes its head out of Sharktopus‘ waters. Once news of the monster breaks live on CNE (courtesy Stacy Everheart), Nathan Sands prepares for a classic ass-chewing, courtesy the U.S. Navy, by ordering himself “a great big, enormous Scotch.”
“Three and neat, sir?” Sands’ PA asks.
It’s a rare, human moment and a decent joke to boot. Too bad there’s not more of them and less doggy CGI. Less recapping of the plot as well. Anyone who tunes into the middle of something called Sharktopus should know what they’re getting themselves in for. But we just have to honor those who tuned in during the commercials. That explains why the parts of Sharktopus that are flagrant Jaws rip-offs seem so mechanical.
It’s like an old comedy routine: set-up, punch line, repeat. A blond bunny finds a gold doubloon in the surf with her handy metal detector. Sharktopus kills her. A woman goes bungee jumping for the first time. Sharktopus kills her. A trio of waterskiiers upset a douchebag’s afternoon fishing. Sharktopus kills them. A pair of dockworkers that look like window washers discuss various “ways to go.” Sharktopus eats them. And so on. And so forth.
Thankfully, Flynn proves intelligent enough to know neither sharks nor octopi behave like movie spree killers. To the surprise of absolutely no one who’s name isn’t Nicole Sands, Daddy Evil Scientist pushed the creature’s aggression level to 11 when his daughter wasn’t looking. Will this revelation prompt a reconciliation between Nicole and Flynn? Gee, we only have a half-hour to go. It better.
Sharktopus shares a lot with classic Corman productions: the bland-as-cardboard lead stories, the extras hired off the street, the stop-and-go plot that rubbernecks every time the monster appears. The incidental characters who are more interesting than the main cast.
For example, pirate radio host Captain Jack (Ralph Garman) steals the show twenty-four minutes in when his First Mate, Stephie (Stacy Hennessy), hands him some breaking news. “Apparently a half-shark, half-octopus has been sighted off the coast,” he announces to his radio audience, “two miles south of Playa del Sol. According to sources…it is armed and dangerous.” Buh-dum-tish. “So, what is this, Stephie? Is this some mad experiment gone horribly wrong?”
“Maybe they’re doing a movie,” the kittenish Stephie (who’s wearing the best bikini in the film) replies.
“Oh, I can see that now: A former Navy S.E.A.L.-slash-oceanographer is tracking down this abomination before it takes anymore lives.”
It’s funny cuz it’s true. And it’s a rare instance of positive satire. Like all those times a character in a Slasher film decides to book because they’ve seen enough horror films to know a guy in a mask is never friendly. Little moments like this leaven what would otherwise be a stale waste full of non-comedic deaths that feel more like padding than anything else.
And there’s already way too much padding here. That’s another Corman Correspondence: the film’s massive ADD. Everything, from an extra’s bikini-clad ass to surprise musical montages to a dance troupe performance in the street, distracts us from the main plot. But only until the Sharktopus appears, dragging the lead characters behind it.
And what leads they are. What does it say about a film that I can say, without irony, that Eric Roberts is the finest actor in it’s cast? The rest couldn’t sell wood any harder if they all worked for Home Depot. I know they’re essential to all this, and if this were a real movie it’d be their movie instead of a cheap special effect’s…but they’re so witlessly incapable of a convincing line read I cheer every time the film leaves them.
Fact is, the Sci-fi Channel should’ve turned to Corman years ago. Back in the 80s, Corman commanded an entire generation of talented, driven individuals, many of whom would go on to become the insanely-rich, Designated Genius filmmakers of our day. (Everybody wave at Jim Cameron. Hi, Jim! You rich asshole.) These days, Corman’s slumming and it shows.
Mike MacLean’s screenplay is a reheated plate of cliches that were chewed over and spit out by every hack and their grandmother back in the early ’90s…when even Peter Benchely himself gave this sub-genre up and dedicated his life to undoing the PR hit job he pulled on sharks as a whole (and Great Whites in particular) back in the 70s. Declan O’Brien is a schizophrenic’s director. Half the time it’s all static shots and TV edits, declaring “to save time, we filmed this with two cameras.” Then all of a sudden O’Brien’s camera goes all shaky, like a Paul Greengrass film suffering withdrawal symptoms or early onset Parkinson’s. There’s no more rhyme or reason to the change-ups of directorial style than there are to the changes in the script’s tone, or the quality of the acting. Occasionally, all three align within an isolated scene…but not often.
Nevertheless, Sharktopus is livelier and more fun than any Jaws rip-off I’ve seen since the mid 90s. Why? Because there’s no way to take it seriously. And unlike The Beast, Jaws 2 through 4, or Orca, Sharktopus only asks we take it seriously half the time. Its body-count-enhancing side characters provide enough humorous asides to keep things from growing ponderous…like certain films from the De Laurentiis Group…or, for that matter, an early-90s Roger Corman. The one who gave us Carnosaur.
So there. It’s better than Carnosaur, but still light years away from Corman’s own films. His hand is missed behind the camera, and his hiring policies suck. Still, he’s helped finance a perfect example of everything wrong with a modern American daikaiju productions. It’s cliched, its repetitive, and it would be boring if the special effects weren’t so bad. (And I’m using a very loose definition of special effects in that statement, encompassing all the aspects of a production. Because let’s be honest folks: everything you see in a film is a special effect.)
But, really, I could say the same about any number of film’s Corman’s produced in the last twenty years. What’s the man doing with himself, making shit for the Sci-fi Channel? Thirty-two years ago, he produced Piranha, Grand Master of all Jaws rip-offs. Guess not even he can call the same lightning down twice. (See also, Piranha 2: the Spawning). Where, I ask you, are this generation’s Carpenters and Camerons? When will they rise up again, to see Roger Corman’s later films match the undiluted wonder of his early ones?
Wake me whenever that happens. By then, we’ll be on Saw XXVI, talking to a whole generation of morons who’ve never seen the like of this. More fool they.