Monday, July 25, 2016

Atomic Shark (2016)

I am unsure if this poster is for the same
movie or an earlier conception
of it, since the shark in this film does
not have anything strapped to its back.
Atomic Shark (2016)
Dir.: A.B. Stone
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: great white shark mutated by atomic radiation; has red hot, glowing dorsal fin that can slice through people and objects (or so it seems); scores of other sharks, seemingly all great whites, appear late in film.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in awe of a Philippe Cousteau documentary – Nuclear Sharks – where Cousteau and his crew, including his wife, Ashlan Gorse, visited Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, an area where the United States performed a series of atom bomb tests over a period of a dozen years from 1946 to 1958. Our country, in seeking to further study atomic power, decimated the area, and even distant populations thought to be out of the direct path of the explosions experienced medical difficulties (up to and including death) from the radioactive fallout. While much of the area has rebounded, with new life in many areas undersea, the islands of the Atoll are still rife with radiation, and Nuclear Sharks made for a interesting and rather haunting experience as I watched the Cousteaus and their crew dive about on a scientific study of the reef sharks in the area. As shark documentaries go, it was my favorite of this year's Shark Week shows, especially because it was laden with a deep sense of sadness at the folly of mankind's battle against its own existence.

What a difference a fortnight makes. Same ocean, same order of sea-going creature, same form of energy... far different outcome, and a decidedly far different tone. It's not that there aren't characters in Atomic Shark, the first of six prime-time premiere shark films airing during Syfy Channel's second annual Sharknado Week event, concerned with the environment and the toll that mankind is having upon the world. There are and they are deeply involved in its plotline. It's just that the film itself is not really all that concerned about anything at all except making a big stupid shark movie.

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Along with a similar title, the beginning of Atomic Shark actually bears a superficial resemblance to the start of the Nuclear Sharks documentary, with the image of a great white shark cutting through the water superimposed over black and white of real atomic testing blasts. Also as in Nuclear Sharks, we hear the voice of scientist Robert Oppenheimer as he speaks his famous quoting of a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." When the narrative portion of the film begins, all such pretensions are whisked away instantly. We see a small craft piloted by Rottger, played by the reliably grizzly Jeff Fahey (who was playing the grizzled type even in his pretty boy days back in the '80s). As Rottger tows a lady friend on water skis through the waters off of San Diego, they are suddenly pursued by a large shark fin. The most noticeable difference between this fin and others is the fact that it is glowing red, and as it cuts through the ocean, the water seems to sizzle around it. When the skier panics and loses her grip on the towrope, she is clearly doomed, and when her time comes, there is black, bubbling water around her. When Rottger gets to her, she is nothing but a charred, bloody corpse... and cut in two to boot.

Fahey... the eternal boat captain. (Besides Hef, that is...)
Back on the shore, a jogging lifeguard named Gina (Rachele Brooke Smith) discovers a fish in the sand that has been carried in by the surf. The fish looks as though its skin and much of its flesh have been rendered away, almost as if dissolved by acid. At the same time, the movie plays its first card in showing us how tuned in the filmmakers are to current social media trends. The film cuts to a video of a hardcore conservation group attempting to report the disturbing trend of mysterious fish deaths along the San Diego coastline. We also meet another lifeguard named Kaplan (Bobby Campo, most recently a series regular on the Scream TV series), who is pretty much confined to life in the first aid tent since he busted his leg. In his spare time in the tent, he has developed an interest in drone technology, which he uses at one point early on to carry a lifejacket to a cramping swimmer before Gina can swim out to her.

#MEEEEE-YOW!
The bulk of Atomic Shark's action will take place on this stretch of San Diego beach, and we get to know two other lifeguards rather well in this time. The first is the head lifeguard, Reese (Adam Ambruso), who is imperious and regimental, and absolutely lacks any trace of a sense of humor. We also meet Kylie (a fetching Jessica Kemejuk, who reminds me a bit of a young Jennifer Aniston), a social media-obsessed, selfie junkie, who seems to care more for her appearance than actually getting into the water to help someone. Kylie gets the comic relief plotline of the film, as her looks attract the attention of a preteen who fakes drowning to get her to swim out and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him (successfully, and with the grudging help of Fahey's character, I might add), and who buries himself in sand later to get Kylie's attention once more. (Somehow I sense it will not work out between them...)

Even when Kylie tries to warn a doughy, hairy guy out in the water about the shark in the vicinity, the man cannot help but see Kylie in an imaginary closeup giving him come-on looks rather than warning signals with her arms. Her vision in his mind is as she would appear on one of the social media outlets she frequents, with hashtags like "#COMEHERE" or a peach emoticon. (It is likely that his character may have checked her out on these sites, having seen her on the beach so much, and because she is proud of her "87,000" followers.) My favorite gag to this effect is where Kylie is posing with the kid buried in the sand for a picture, and we see "#SAVINGLIVES" on the screen as an ironic comment from the filmmakers.

At some point in the film, one of these girls will call
the other one a "bitch". Want to guess?
The basic plot is that Gina and Kaplan get involved initially with the couple behind the conservation group to alert the world about the mounting fish deaths plaguing the area, and to find the source. (There is talk of a wrecked Soviet submarine thirty miles south of San Diego.) But once the shark attacks start occurring, the four band together to try and stop the rampaging atomic killer. Along the way, they have to enlist – if blackmail can be considered enlisting – the aid of local pervert Fletcher, who uses drones to not only steal the bikinis from sunbathing girls on the beach, but also films them surreptitiously and posts the videos on his porn site. That the pervert is played by David Faustino – good ol' Bud Bundy from Married with Children, himself a world class perv – is perfect casting in my book.

When the shark attacks occur, they are frequent, bloody and, most of all, fiery. Anything that gets near the atomic shark catches on fire, so that the normal torrents of blood in shark movies are accompanied by little spurts of flame or even larger bursts of orange glow. The filmmakers really latch on to the notion of that glowing red fin (probably a wise choice to eat up a decent amount of screen time), but seem even more pleased with showing the goofy-looking, mutated shark in full closeup, its skin mottled with red and black, and constantly looking more like a third story apartment fire than an actual shark. Which brings me to the quality of the special effects, which vary from pretty terrible at times to middle range OK, which pretty squarely places the film in the realm of the usual Syfy Channel output.

No truth to the rumor that this was the
original poster for Hoop Dreams.
This is not to say there is not some cleverness in even the merely OK effects. There is a scene early on where a group of YouTube savvy goofballs show how cool they are as they zip around on jet skis and take to the skies (but only so high) using those increasingly popular (with very good reason) water propulsion jetpacks. Of course, they are attacked by the atomic shark, but when it happens, he leaps through the loops of the propulsion tubes. Because he is an atomic shark, he sets the tubes on flame around him, so that as he bears down on the jet-packer to snap off his little head, the shark looks exactly as if he has been trained to jump through a flaming hoop. It's a cute touch that is punctuated suddenly by blood and even more death.

Another fun effects scene takes a cue from Monty Python. (Or, I assume they took a cue from Monty Python; who knows with today's kids?) In a nearby restaurant called (humorously) Tales from the Dockside, we are shown a Yelp-style review page where the place has three stars. Gina, Kaplan, and the conservationists go for drinks, but it turns out an egotistical food-show host is filming a segment there. Trying out the cuisine, the jerk is served fish, but no one is aware it is a recently caught specimen of the same type of fish that have been turning up dead and burnt on the beach. (Such an occurrence does not really make sense, but go with it... the payoff is grand.) The host and several others in the place take a bite of their food, and if you know who Mr. Creosote is, then you not only are aware of Monty Python, but then you also know the likely outcome of this poorly timed meal. Rest assured, the result is grandly gory and gooey. And, of course, fiery. Best of all, we are shown an update of Tales from the Dockside on the Yelp-style page, as the restaurant in the background goes up in flames, and its rating has dropped down a single star.

However, other scenes simply do not work well on the effects level. There is a point where constant chumming of the water brings about scores and scores of shark fins across the horizon that bear down on the boats. Since all of the fins seem to be of the same exact shape and size, and the same size as the atomic shark, it may be assumed that each fin belongs to a great white shark as well. The approach of the fins en masse only points up the hokiness of the effect; their number, and this viewer's assumption of the species at hand, means that there may be more great whites in this one scene than have been generally counted along the entirety of the California coastline in a single great white season. Even an oil tanker full of chum would not bring that many great whites to the scene so relatively quickly. Another downturn in the effects is any time (and there a few of these moments) where the shark has to lurch its way across the beach or the ground, either to get back in the water or to eat something. Awkwardness is expected, of course; a series of short bursts of smooth, weightless slides is not, whether you are powered by atomic radiation or not.

But, the film has fun with some of the silliness of the concept, and gets beyond the wishy-washy effects. Late in the film, left with few options, the remaining survivors come up with a plan to not only escape but also destroy the shark that is so absolutely ridiculous that it is quite clearly the sort of plan that one comes up with when you are only left with this, and this, and this, and are caught in this specific scenario. The film has to work a little hard to ensure that they are left in that exact situation, and be mindful that not a speck of the plan will work unless the shark they are dealing with is an atomic shark. (Regular shark? Well, as long as they stick to real life and not exist only inside a shark movie, they probably wouldn't have to worry too much as long as they keep to the boat until they are rescued.)

Deep into the film, there is a tonal shift (or seven), and some characters seem to become aware they are in a Syfy Channel movie. There is a bit where one of the characters reveals a surprising darker side, and during the ensuing possibly to-the-death battle with another character, keeps having their murderous efforts thwarted over and over. As this occurs, the music score playfully rises and falls with each failed attempt. Without a speck of romance in Atomic Shark – except for various characters (and myself) being moony-eyed over Kylie – the film suddenly decides it needs some romance, and then instantly dashes those notions a couple times over in succession. The film takes pains to build drama over the identity of one character in relation to another, but then when that identity is revealed (you will have it figured out in the twelfth minute of the film), the film shifts as it none of it meant anything at all. Honestly, the last third of the film feels as it was made by an entirely different director, writers, and crew.

That said, despite its rampant inconsistencies, I had a fun time watching Atomic Shark last night, even after a full day of watching six other Syfy Channel films before it (only one of which I had not seen previously). One does not come to these movies expecting quality, but sometimes it is the little touches that separate the real, bottom-of-the-barrel scrapers that often get shown on the channel (Shark Assault aka Shark Week, anyone?) from a film like Atomic Shark. This is nowhere near being a good, quality film, but Atomic Shark can be enjoyed for its obvious sense of humor in many scenes, and its ability to play it straight even when it is very clear that everyone involved knows exactly how silly all of this is.

Maybe, for at least the first two thirds, Atomic Shark was intended to be the first deadpan shark comedy. I don't know. But I do know that I doubt that I will ever eat fish in a restaurant again.

RTJ

To read my introduction to Sharknado Week 2016, click here.


The official trailer:

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