“Jumping The Shark” Has Jumped The Shark

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Sharknado. There isn’t much that I need say about it. Even if you haven’t seen it, you have more than likely heard of it or its 2 sequels. You may have even heard that a 4th film in the series is slated for next year (2016). It’s become a cash cow that you currently have no escape from. There are shirts, posters, comic book tie-ins, and toys all looking to cash in on the phenomena. The premieres are treated as news stories by the celebrity-obsessed propaganda machine, more focused on the cameo appearances than on the actual quality of the film. Who gives a shit that there are like 2 & 1/2 rhinos left in the world?  The Micro Machine Man just got chomped on by a fucking shark!!!

The original Sharknado lured its viewers based on its ludicrous idea. While the idea of hybridizing creatures had managed to produce a few chuckles (Sharktopus? Mermantula??), the films themselves were usually quite awful. It appeared that the novelty of casting washed-up and/or forgotten actors was just as important as the creature itself. Sharknado was no different. Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, and John Heard aren’t exactly marquee names these days, if they ever were.

For the most part, the film sucked. Acting was sub-par, as was generally the case with films like these. The CG effects were also quite bad. You would think that more effort would have been put into making the sharks look more realistic, but such was not the case. However, the film’s biggest flaw was in making the viewer wait more than half the film’s runtime before kicking in the action sequences. If the selling point of your film is flying sharks, you had better bring them early and often.

Ratings wise, the film was a success. People tuned in to watch what promised to be some of the dumbest shit they’ve ever seen. And in those regards, it delivered. It was pretty damned dumb. It just wasn’t very good. Quality was never important. In no time, a sequel was green lit.

Compared to the original, the sequel was a massive improvement. The sharks are present from the opening scene, taking down an airplane piloted by Robert Hayes of Airplane fame. This clever cameo was just the first in a huge list of “celebrities” (using that term VERY loosely) that would show up, a gimmick that was blasted over the airwaves ad nausea by every entertainment “news” program out there. A gimmick that led to even larger numbers for its initial airing, and in turn spawned another sequel. (I’ve not seen the 3rd film yet, but the upcoming fourth film must mean that it performed well enough.)

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And as long as something is popular or successful, there will always be someone looking to get in on the action. There are a long line of Italian directors that made a career out of cashing in on money-making American films. (Reference our review of Contamination). Hell, Roger Corman became a legend doing it. So, it comes as no surprise that SyFy has now chosen to rip themselves off with another flick revolving around more creatures spawned by a natural disaster, and hoping to capitalize on its own cache of once notable names. In this case, the surviving cast of Police Academy.

Lavalantula stars Steve Guttenberg. Steve had quite a few other hits in the 80’s, such as Short Circuit and both Cocoon and Three Men.. films. However, he will probably be best remembered as “Mahoney” in the first 4 Police Academy films. Somewhere around 1990, Steve’s career just kind of died out, leading to a string of duds and TV movies. I do not think that this will be the film that re-launches his career.

Guttenberg plays “Colton West”, a forgotten 80’s action hero now delegated to starring in lower budget films. Guttenberg is in pretty decent shape these days, but not enough to believe that he was ever anything close to being the next Stallone. Maybe Frank Stallone. As the film opens, West is unaware that he’s making a creature feature, thinking instead that he is in an action flick that bears a very close resemblance to Die Hard. The scene he is currently filming is stopped when a nitrogen smoke bomb detonates in his hand. Michael Winslow & Marion Ramsey make their first appearances as the heads of the FX crew, and Winslow get to show off his trademark vocal effects while explaining why the stunt went wrong.

Look for Leigh Whannell of Saw and Insidious fame as the film’s director.

Not having actually read the script, it is not until after the scene has stopped filming that Colton finds out just what kind of movie he is making. He’s actually filming a killer spider movie. Not pleased with this directional decision, he walks off the set and starts driving home. As he’s driving, we can hear news reports over his radio of earthquakes that have begun rocking the area. He calls his house to tell his teenaged son that he is on the way to pick him up to go to a baseball game. His wife, Olivia (Nia Peebles), informs him that their son has left to hang out with friends as Colton has already made them late for the game.

As he continues on his drive home, a nearby mountain erupts into a volcano, catapulting fireballs onto the freeway. A few cars are destroyed as fireballs crash down on them. Out of the wreckage crawl large, lava breathing spiders. Lavalantulas. The spiders attack other motorists while Colton manages to find an opening and drive away. He arrives home in an understandably frantic state and tries to tell his wife what he’s just seen. However, due to his hysterical manner, and the news story that she’s just seen about him getting in trouble in a bar fight the night before, she assumes that he’s either drunk or on some kind of drug. Despite her disbelief, Colton grabs a shotgun and drives off to find his son.

Colton’s son, Wyatt is out riding bikes with a few friends, one of whom is his friend’s girlfriend, Jordan. It pretty obvious fairly quickly that there is some budding attraction between Wyatt and Jordan… but that shit will have to wait. The kids ride up on some people gathered around a hole that has appeared in the street. A spider jumps out and eats a female spectator. In the kids’ attempts to flee, the spider bites Jordan in the leg. They manage to escape and hide out in the remains of an abandoned movie studio.

In yet another Police Academy cast appearance, Leslie Easterbrook stars as the Wests’ neighbor, Doris.  Her screen time is just long enough for you to say “Hey, isn’t that the woman from….. err….. WASN’T that the woman from The Devil’s Rejects?”

Colton walks through the hills of Los Angeles after being forced to ditch his car. A passing “tour of famous Hollywood landmarks” bus passes him, the driver stopping the bus once he recognizes Colton. Colton tries to convince the bus driver that he needs a lift and that they need to leave NOW, but the driver is more concerned with trying to get photos of/with West. Colton distracts the driver long enough to hijack the bus, still loaded with tourists. Colton tells the passengers about the spider invasion, but they all believe it to part of some promotional gimmick. One of the passengers, Chris (Patrick Renna – The Sandlot) is a huge fan of Colton’s. As he’s showering Colton with adoration, spiders begin to attack the bus. Colton has Chris drive while he blast spiders with the shotgun.

Former Fox Sports anchorwoman Leeann Tweeden has a small part as a news channel’s field reporter. She shows up just long enough to remind us that youth and looks don’t last forever.

Olivia, meanwhile, is busy at home fighting off her own spider intruders. After one drops in through the fireplace chimney, she is forced to fight it with props from Colton’s old action flicks. These include a sword, throwing stars, and, finally, a pump-action shotgun. Military roll into the area to evacuate survivors and bust into the West residence first. When they enter, Olivia is strapped with shells finishing off the last of the spiders. Peebles definitely deserves some praise here as not only is her evolution into a badass fun to watch, but she is very clearly having a blast with her role.

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Colton and Chris head into downtown LA, still looking for Wyatt. More quakes rip the ground open and unleash even more spiders upon the city. It’s at this point that SyFy shamelessly verifies that they are whoring themselves when Colton runs into Ian Ziering’s Sharknado character, “Fin”, on the streets. Colton asks him for help, but Fin says that he can not, stating that he “has shark problems right now” before running off. It a pretty awkward scene, but not as awkward as the following scenes of the spiders attacking people dressed like superheroes, fruit, or even dressed as spiders. There is one very bizarre scene of the spiders torching a guy dressed up like Julius from Pulp Fiction.

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Meanwhile, Wyatt and his best friend are busy running from building to building as the spiders continuously give chase, all the while trying to get Jordan to some sort of medical assistance as, by this point, the bite has started to become infected. There are some personality clashes as the friend is more concerned about Wyatt looking like the “hero” in Jordan’s eyes, and less about getting her to safety. Honestly, I found these scenes to be quite uneventful, and at times they almost bring the film to a crashing halt. Actually, that may have been a good thing.

It’s eventually revealed that there are a series of interconnecting tunnels underground from which the spiders emerge, all leading back to a larger chamber wherein resides a much larger queen spider. A “mamalantula”, if you will. (The term is actually used in the film. I take none of the shame associated.) If she is killed, the other spiders will soon die out. Much like my desire to continue watching died out.

After spraying one with a fire extinguisher, it’s discovered that the spiders don’t like the cold of the nitrogen. A plan is devised to “smoke out” the queen spider using the nitrogen in the smoke bombs from the opening of the film. Thus, Winslow and Ramsey are brought back into the film to help with the final battle against big ol’ Charlotte. What? It seemed like a fitting name.

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In its attempt to mimic the success of Sharknado, Lavalantula makes the original film’s biggest mistake. It’s incredibly boring. While Lavalantula brings its titular creature to the forefront early and often, most of the scenes just degrade into a series of people running from building to building. While the spiders do attack the tour bus early in the film, they are suspiciously absent from most of the driving scenes later in the film. And there are quite a few of those too, driving from scene to scene only to not do much of anything when they get there.

The film culminates with the inevitable confrontation with the queen spider. While the ho-hum creature design and piss poor CGI can possibly be overlooked, what can not is just how embarrassing the scene is in every possible way. The idea of how Colton will battle the spider is not only incredibly telegraphed, but it’s just a clichéd concept made more inexcusable due to piss poor execution.

Directed by Mike Mendez, Lavalantula is a complete failure. It also a massive step down from Mendez’s last film, Big Ass Spider. Whereas that movie was not only a well-made ode to older giant-creature features, such as Earth Vs The Spider and The Giant Spider Invasion, it was also a fun, horror actioner in the same spirit as Tremors. Lavalantula is nothing more than a director cashing in on the latest fad and abandoning everything that made his previous effort charming.

The only positives that I can give Lavalantula is that at least once it managed to catch me by surprise when a character that I assumed would survive not only indeed dies, but dies what is arguably the most horrible death in the film. Otherwise, it’s nothing that you haven’t seen on SyFy before. And while the film was certainly not strong enough to become SyFy’s new “flagship”, that has not stopped them from already greenlighting a sequel. I can only assume that the cast of Summer School are signing their contracts now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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