Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blue Demon (2004)

Blue Demon (2004)
Director: Daniel Grodnik 
Cinema 4 Rating: 3/9
Species: genetically modified great white sharks

"Four years and millions of dollars on this project, and all I've got to show for it is a couple of big sharks with pretty eyes?" - Lawrence Van Allen (Danny Woodburn)

Let's imagine that Daniel Grodnik, the director-slash-co-writer-slash-producer, (i.e. The One On Whom To Place All Blame) of the genetically engineered great white shark, straight-to-video purgatory flick, Blue Demon, falls into that much fabled Peter Jackson fan-boy territory. Jackson, much like Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury before him, credits the 1933 King Kong as the chief inspiration for his life and career in the realm of fantasy storytelling. (Kong, as regular readers of my original blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon, know full well is my favorite film as well, though I have yet to get either a life or a career, in any realm...) Jackson works his way from making small, independent B-movies to becoming an multiple Academy Award winner, and then he set out (though he had tried before Oscar came calling) to remake King Kong, the movie of his cinematic awakening. The success of this endeavor is generally considered to have attained a high level (I loved his version... mostly), so let's consider this the textbook example of the student at least matching the works of his teacher, if not surpassing him.

Now, let's make-believe that Mr. Grodnik's favorite film in the world is Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). Information apart from a filmography on IMDB is hard to find (they don't even list his date of birth on there... and they've got tidbits on some of the most minuscule careers on that site), so I don't even know how old he was when Spielberg's film came out. We will pretend, for the sake of this hypothetical situation, that he was in his early twenties then, and was so inspired by the film that he decided that once he made his way up the Hollywood ladder, he would make his own killer shark movie. His first credit on IMDB is as an "assistant to the producer" on a Peter Yates' 1974 comedy, For Pete's Sake with Barbara Streisand, and then from there he executive produced Starhops in 1978, and then came his first joint screenplay-producing credit, 1980's Without Warning, sort of a pre-Predator Predator flick (with killer alien flying discs, Martin Landau and Jack Palance -- for some reason, I really want to see this film again). Grodnik was on his way, but after churning out a handful of other screenplays up until '86, he stuck to producing mostly for the next twenty years.

Until Blue Demon. What was it that compelled him, after nearly twenty years of making films, to not just produce, and not just write, but make his directorial debut with a film about killer sharks? I can find nothing else in his filmography, apart from his executive production credit on Jim Wynorski's The Thing Below, released the same year as this film, that gets him even near the genre of giant killers from the deep. So, was it Jaws? Because, I can tell you, people have been remaking Jaws now for over thirty years, and apart from the camp-laden success of Deep Blue Sea (itself a likely godfather of this film), they have yet to get it even close to halfway right.

And that halfway mark is about thirty clicks off the port bow in this film, too. But let's get one thing straight right off the bat -- Dedee Pfeiffer, the cutie-pie younger sister of famous actress Michelle, is not to blame in her role of a marine biologist who has trained a sextet of pointy toothed killers to swim in formation and potentially defend our country from terrorists. (Yes, you heard that right...) For those that wonder if she can pull off playing a scientist, I just watched Tara Reid mumble her way through her archaeological dialogue in Uwe Boll's execrable Alone in the Dark, so Dedee seems like the gin-yoooo-wine article after that debacle. Even if she pronounces the scientific name of the great white shark, Carcharadon carcharias, with a soft "ch" sound instead of a hard "k", Pfeiffer is not to blame.

And neither is Danny Woodburn (Mickey from Seinfeld), who plays Pfeiffer's diminutive boss, and who has to endure a couple of jokes at the expense of his height (including reacting toward a portrait of Napoleon in his office, having a badly done forced perspective shot try to trick us he is much larger than his four-foot height, and not giving him a stepladder at a podium (at his own conference) so that he talks to the crowd and they can only see the top of his head). Here he uses the same commanding growl as the big boss that he employs to good comic effect as the foreman in the BK Stacker commercials. For the most part, the quintet of actual actors that were collecting paychecks for this stinkburger seemed to have shown up, said their lines with a modicum of conviction (even Jeff Fahey's epic scene-chewing role as J. Jonah Jameson-like General Remora -- yes, General Remora), and put the thing in their past before they even left the set.

No, I blame Daniel Grodnik, and Grodnik alone, both for the profound dopiness oozing out of the screenplay and for the inane things that his characters do and say throughout the film. But it is chiefly the conviction on the part of Grodnik that I call into question regarding the outcome of this film. Instead of one killer shark, we get six (five of them named after the Marx Brothers - sorry, the "Sharx" Brothers (don't blame me; it's in the script) and one called, for unclear reasons, Red Dog). But, for much of the film, they really aren't killer sharks. It should not come as a spoiler by this point that these sharks only kill five people in the course of the film. For those keeping track, that is less than one whole person apiece for these six fish, and only four of those people are chomped to death. Even though the film starts out slightly promising with an arm being ripped off a horse-faced actress who at least looks far too old to be in a sorority any longer, that is just about it on the gore front. Though it seems to be a natural contender, don't come looking to Blue Demon for your fix of cinematic gruesomeness. The sordid truth is that the type of person who loves to rent killer shark movies is going to most likely despise this film for being nothing but a guppy when it comes to killer attitude.

We, the shark-movie public, might all be watching this film for the wrong reasons anyway, since it seems that Grodnik wants nothing more than to make a killer shark romantic comedy. In keeping with his confusion behind the camera, the music leaps from a lame eerie-sounding synthesizer theme to a dopey-sounding, sitcom-level "wacky" theme and then back again without any regard for momentum or rhythm within the story. Most of the main characters play it cute and hammy, but the more serious moments are left to what are clearly actors unready for such emotional outpouring in a film (there is the possibility that most of the tinier roles are friends of the director), and thus there is a very unsteady mix of styles at play in the film.

The office of the marine biologists (which has a freezer full of meat inside it even though the pen where the sharks are tested seems to be an entire industrial warehouse and full buggy ride away) is filled from wall to fish-tank-painted wall with all manner of marine toys, video games, shark hats and stuffed animals, and it is hard to imagine that any scientists actually get any work done there. In fact, the first time we see Pfeiffer in the film, she is throwing a ring over a tall, cylindrical phony fish tank (one of those games that bubbles while the plastic fish dance about) to try and beat her soon-to-be ex-husband's office record -- did I forget to mention that she and actor Randall Batinkoff play divorcing marine biologists? (I wonder how that is bound to turn out...) I will leave it to the hardy viewer to discover how she uses this remarkable skill to defeat the villain in this movie, but I guarantee you that it will leave your neck stiff from the amount your head will shake in astonished disbelief.

Grodnik even stoops to having one of his cheaply animated CGI sharks (who are shown, over and over again, swimming past or towards us in formation... all of them in each shot... over and over and over again... ugh...) bring up the rear with a sign held out "comically" in his teeth, which reads "Do Not Back Up - Severe Tire Damage". It is at this point that one starts to wonder if Grodnik really means for the whole thing to be a comedy, and that the three deaths up to this point are merely token ones to bring about the "appearance" of danger in the rest of the film. Further confusion is added with the au courant talk of terrorists and suitcase bombs, but the next pair of attack scenes make me believe that perhaps Grodnik, despite his background of violent sci-fi and action films, really is seeking to make the first "killer shark romantic comedy family film".

A young girl (who I believe is the daughter of the director, though I am not sure) gets a warm and fuzzy moment with her screen dad after he falls in the lake while they are fishing. (Oh, at this point, I should mention: these are great whites bred to breathe freshwater as well as saltwater... yeah, I know...) Lucky for the girl, these sharks -- which otherwise seem to zip past us in CGI shots at about 30 knots -- whenever they are closing in on their victims on the top of the water, seem to move like VW micro-buses on a racetrack full of molasses. While Dad thrashes about in the water, dorsal and tail fins are moved about without regard to the placement and speed of the other fins, and by this point in the film, there is never any fear that his daughter won't be able to hug her father again and give him a heart-tugging "I love you, Dad". (Which, of course, she does.)

Another warm fuzzy occurs in the next attack sequence when two shy teenagers flirt with the idea of going skinny dipping, but the only thing dippy here is the dialogue. Actually, the awkward actress is wearing her suit already -- surprise!! -- but once they get and water and start making out, this is when the film enters dangerous territory:

Boy: "Y'know, that was my first kiss." (The girl giggles and starts to back away from him farther out in the water...) 
Boy: "Where are you going?" 
Girl: "To the moon! That was my first kiss, too!"
Boy: "Well, ready or not, here I come!"

This is truly an unfair tactic on Grodnik's part, because after lines like that, the viewer wants nothing more than for these two, and the writer, to get eaten. And not just by six biogenetically engineered great white sharks that can breathe in freshwater as well as saltwater and have above-average intelligence and can be controlled via laptop or even cellphone -- did I mention the above-average intelligence and the fact that they can be controlled via laptop or even cellphone? -- but by about eight dozen of them in a blood-and-guts cotillion beyond all human comprehension. But it won't happen, because the attack scenes in the latter half of this film seem to have been directed by the guy who does the commercials for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Chunky teen girl and her anemic boyfriend will likely go on to produce offspring who will spend their lives saying lines that Grandmas stopped saying in the 1930s.

Thankfully, the sharks do away with a chick surfer once the sharks manage to somehow breach the lake and hit the ocean. This thankfulness is short-lived, however, since this leads to perhaps one of the worst dream sequences to ever have Dedee Pfeiffer as a genuine wing-bearing angel with both a lot of makeup and cleavage. (I'm clarifying this in case she has ever been, or will ever be, in any other Grodnik pictures.) And really, there is still about half an hour left to the film at this juncture, and there is still the whole villainous plot to deal with, character issues to be resolved, and about three or four huge chuckles involving nuclear explosions and sharks in your future. And I haven't even gotten around to talking about the whole "eye separating from the pupil" nonsense at the beginning of the film. Literally, the film opens with Pfeiffer's serious-sounding narration, which itself leads you to believe that this will not be a film loaded with badly done intentional comedy, where she spews this monologue:

"It started out as an experiment. The first change we noticed was in the eyes. The iris separated from the pupil, and it followed movement. Like a motion detector. I'd watch them for hours on end, and when they'd see me, they'd stare back, unblinking, unemotional. Sometimes I swear they were laughing at me."

Well, I don't know where Grodnik is going with that "iris/pupil" crap, but due to the fact that sharks don't blink to begin with, this might explain why these predominantly unemotional creatures seemed to be, uh, "unemotional". And, Dedee, if they were laughing at your character, they'd probably do what sharks often do in attack situations: roll their eyes back. I know I rolled mine back several times in this film, not least of all when I started to think about what would cause Daniel Grodnik to want to attack the world with his falsely toxic fable of killer sharks not really going all that amok. If it was indeed a long-gestating desire to do his own take on Jaws, then he has certainly brought shame upon the tradition of filmmakers building upon the past. And if it was truly an attempt to construct the first "killer shark romantic comedy family film", well, then, sir, you have succeeded. It is indeed the first of its kind. But then, consider the final lines of Pfeiffer's narration: "But, we made a horrible mistake. We meant to take the next step in evolution, but we created a monster."

Yes, you have, Mr. Grodnik. And sometimes, I swear they were laughing at you. If only they were sure whether or not they were supposed to laugh.

RTJ

No comments: