Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Ice Sharks (2016)

Ice Sharks (2016)
Dir.: Emile Edwin Smith
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: A theoretically evolved, faster and more aggressive form of the Greenland shark.

Something that I have noticed about myself during Sharknado Week is my reticence in watching any of the films that are being aired while my wife Jen is in the room. Jen, being a more highly evolved specimen of purportedly the same species as me, cares not for this silliness. On the first one and a half days of the event, Jen was otherwise occupied with family business outside of the home, and so I made a full marathon day of Sunday, and knocked out a couple of other films early on Monday. But the evening premiere shark films that air at 9:00 p.m. when we are both in the bedroom? Well, I try to knock out a few minutes here and there if she goes off to prepare for bed, brush her teeth, or get something from the kitchen, etc. It's a disjointed way to watch a film, but it does allow me to catch up on notes if I am taking them (it depends on the film), and I have actually made a habit of watching a great many other films in that manner between bursts of writing anyway. But the second she gets back to the bed, or at least once I finish a particular scene, I switch the film off to something that both of us can enjoy, or at least something more compatible with her taste.

And by taste, I don't mean content necessarily; I mean quality. Cheap ass, haphazardly created, and often poorly acted basic cable shark films are not her idea of entertainment, and I am cool with that. It's not to everyone's taste; sometimes, it's not even to mine. But sharks are, ultimately, not the issue here. If and when I come across an actual shark film of some discernible quality I will share it with her. She may not like the film in the end, but I will happily vet the film first to see if it falls within the range of her general taste. A lot of this stems from the relatively small amount of time we do get together to enjoy films or even television. From my angle, why would we turn on something that is going to make both of us go, "Why are we watching this?" when we could use that time to go through the pile of higher quality productions we have been putting off seeing for ages? On my own, I will wade happily through all sorts of crap; with Jen in the room, everything changes.

When Dam Sharks! premiered on Monday night, I started my DVR recording of it while she was out of the room, and when she returned a few minutes into the film, I had planned originally to gauge her reaction to what I was watching as she sat back down on the bed, and then use that reaction to base my decision as to whether I would keep viewing. Since she was home the next day and we had some plans for part of it, and I wanted to keep to my announced schedule of writing about the first few Sharknado Week premieres on each following day, I knew that I had to knock out at least a chunk of Dam Sharks! that evening. But I got weirdly embarrassed when she returned to the bedroom – chiefly because the film was pretty bone-headed from the first scene forward – so my intent to discern her mood went away before I even got a chance to practice it. However, after we turned out the lights and she decided to read for a while, I flipped the movie on for about a 45-minute chunk to knock half the film out before I went to sleep.


This is most decidedly NOT a Greenland shark,
 no matter what the movie might say.
Then came last night's premiere of Ice Sharks. As you can see from the poster above for the film, it looks of a piece with other Syfy Channel-style shark films. In fact, I thought it was likely a followup to an atrocious film they premiered last year called Avalanche Sharks. The poster has what is clearly a massive great white shark bursting through some ice, while helicopters swirl about overhead. As usual, any scientific accuracy tends to go by the wayside with Syfy Channel shark movies, and so you try not to come to the table expecting anything close to an actual shark fact or even worrying about finding one. Let the stupidity wash over you for a couple of hours, watch a bunch of idiotic people who probably deserve to die anyway get killed, and let the couple of characters that show any sort of moral compass or backbone survive to or near the end to deal with how to stop the terror. Until the next film.

The situation was perfect. The wife got up to take care of some business just after nine, and so I thought that maybe I could at least watch Ice Sharks up until the first commercial break. My plan was flawless. Ice Sharks started up, and at first, there was little hope. There is an opening sequence with a man leading a team of sled dogs across an ice pack. Stopping briefly, he radios his position when he comes upon a polar bear, dining on a seal, in the near distance. Heading off again, the dogs stop short when they reach the end of the trail with just the ocean before them, and then we hear the ominous sound of the ice crunching. The trail gives way beneath the dogs, and they disappear, followed by blood spurting in every direction as they are presumably dispatched by something beneath all of that ice. The sled itself follows the dogs in, and the man is tied to the sled, so that it pulls him towards the water. Even though he manages to stop himself short at the last second, a large shark pops up out of the water and grips the man in its jaw, pulling him in a bloody smear towards the ocean.

It's a poor start. Not the scenario, mind you; I can buy into a string of sled dogs and their driver being taken out by some form of malicious creature. That's standard monster movie stuff, and I am fine with it. The problem here, in an opening scene that should at least establish mood for the remainder of the film, is mainly the effects that are blatantly piss poor when the shark enters the shot. The shark's rather grating insertion into the scene did not lead my eyes nor my mind to believe in pleasant times ahead within Ice Sharks. It did, however, make me laugh at loud at its sloppiness, and I thought, "Here we go!" believing that a milder form of Sharknado! was really at hand. I thought that I was in for an endless array of hastily written one-liners, incongruous effects, and inane attempts to spin blatantly insane concepts into gold.

And then, the next fifteen minutes of Ice Sharks happened.

Brothers acting like bros...
Ice Sharks got into its actual story, about a climate change research station in the Arctic that suddenly finds itself under attack by a handful of angry, hungry sharks (or "hangry," in the current popular parlance). Of course, no shark in real life ever needs to kill and eat as much as a shark in a shark film does; that's par for the genre, and if you cannot accept that, then you are watching the wrong movies. We meet a small group of dedicated scientists, and while we get a brief sense of who they are, it is mostly visual, and we get very few details about their lives. We know that there are an attractive pair that are clearly lovers, and there are a couple of bearded guys that are brothers. But, apart from names, we really know nothing about any of them, except that they like their mission.


"Hey, whenever we do it in this confined
space, everyone can hear us. Yeah!"
Before the first commercial break around twenty minutes in, I had started to feel an previously unknown sensation while watching a premiere film on the Syfy Channel: I was actually fairly caught up in the film, and not in an ironic sense. Jen came back to the room at about the twelve-minute mark, and I was already a little intrigued. She turned on her Kindle Fire and started playing a game, possibly assuming that I would probably turn off the film in a few minutes and we would watch a Daily Show or something else. But the first set of commercials came, and I had enough lead time on the recording to zip through them and begin the next segment of the film.


This is not a shot from a buddy cop picture...
What I had first noticed that was different was the more naturalistic style of the acting. Each of the actors playing the scientists seemed to have formed a cabal wherein they agreed that they were all on the same setting, and that setting was "understated". There was a relative calmness to all of the characters, even in a couple of early scenes involving shark-related encounters, and I was flabbergasted how the usual histrionics of shark movie (i.e. monster movie) cookie-cutter characters did not seem to be present here. There wasn't someone in the group with a secret past, or someone with an spoken fear of water, or someone plotting to prove their theories by jumping ahead of everyone else. Nope... it was absolutely, straight-on, "we need to check that sensor out there", "OK, get to it; I will go over those figures" throughout the film. All of the characters, no matter what the situation, seemed to be competent at their jobs. I have no idea if any of the science they are interpreting or any of the devices they are using are real or otherwise, and that doesn't matter. What were they doing out there? I don't know or care. In this fictional setting, what mattered was: did they look like they knew whatever it was they were doing? To a T. And efficiently as a well-oiled machine.

When the sharks enter the picture, the group of young scientists even tackle that situation as centered and as relatively calmly as the rest of their work. They theorize over what they are dealing with, and I got a small thrill out of the momentary clashing of hardcore shark silliness with actual factual information. I had thought early on how cool it would be if a Greenland shark made an appearance in this film, even if the poster showed only a very clear representation of a great white. I don't want people to start thinking that Greenland sharks are lurking out there waiting to devour every research scientist in the Arctic, but even the slightest attempt at actual fact in these things gives me a figurative science boner.

Greenland sharks can grow as large, even larger, than great whites in length, perhaps up to 24 feet, but have a number of factors going against them in being the nightmare predators of popular fiction. They are quite slow-moving creatures, their max speed being half as slow as the seals upon which they sometimes enjoy feeding, but they are even slower in their normal activities. Of course, living in extremely cold water areas where there are not particularly large populations of humans, and they themselves are a rather rarely seen (though plentiful) species as a result. They are often prone to carrying a copepod that feeds upon the corneas of their eyes, so many specimens end up being blind as a result. Oh... and that smell! They smell like urine, and it is reportedly a true affront to the senses. If you watched a Dirty Jobs episode a few years ago where host Mike Rowe went to Greenland to help a shark scientist perform an autopsy on a dead shark, then you might recall how stomach-retching the experience was for him. On top of that, their flesh, if ingested, is highly toxic, and can only be eaten after being prepared precisely. So, the Greenland shark definitely has some interesting specifics upon which one could possibly (with great effort) exaggerate for the purposes of a fictional narrative, but I didn't think that would be the case here in Ice Sharks.

The first attack in the film didn't even look like a Greenland shark. It wasn't exactly a great white either; it was closer to "generic Syfy channel shark," which is most often within great white territory though sometimes near the tiger shark range instead, but always a little off somehow in either instance. The shark's very aggressive, power-boating behavior was certainly nowhere near a Greenland shark, so it never entered my head as a reality. Then, the next attack occurs, which leaves a character with a severed leg beneath the knee in perhaps the goriest moment of the film. That shark has more of the coloration of a Greenland shark, but still does not approximate its physical structure. Another scene has a character guessing that maybe it was a Greenland shark after all, and another character replies that they are found at most about "800 miles southeast" from the station's location. Then comes the big theory that allows Syfy and their loyal film studios  to do business with just about any concept that crosses their path: the "highly evolved," rare offshoot of a regular species. Just like that, Ice Sharks became a film about Greenland sharks, only a more highly evolved version that seem to be able to swim about 25 knots and have a voracious appetite to match their newly notched up speed. Oh, yeah... and they can apparently chop their way right up through the ice to attack things out of the water, something a normal Greenland shark would never (or can't) do. Or any shark, really...

At this point, about 45 minutes in or so (real time, not movie time), I was still watching the film with Jen paying attention to her Kindle Fire. But I kept bugging her: mentioning Greenland shark facts, getting excited when the film would actually use a real fact (even though it was only to subvert it), comment over how low-key the film was in relation to other Syfy shark films, and other things that I was noticing. She gave me a couple of "Uh huh" and "Oh, really? responses, as she really was not interested, and so I tried to leave her alone. But I also realized that I was surprisingly hooked on the film at that moment. It wasn't good, exactly; it was interesting. It was interesting for all the things that it wasn't: it wasn't tongue-in-cheek silly; it wasn't fast-paced and eager to move directly forward to the next bloody attack scene; and it wasn't populated by party-hopping, coed idiots who just wanted to have a good time. I had mentioned to Jen that, apart from the open attack scene, which itself was arguably downplayed from what it could have been given the specifics, that this may have been the most sober-minded Syfy Channel original film that has ever been premiered on the channel. It was slow paced, serious, thoughtful in most places, and the characters seemed to have real drive in their every action. It was also, sadly, a little bit dull a times, but I was fine with that just to have the experience of something that wasn't blandly over the top.

I also mentioned to her a guess that the filmmakers may have watched John Carpenter's The Thing before making Ice Sharks, because the mood and the music rather matched that film, which itself takes place in a subzero environment (only the Antarctic that time). Part of the score for Ice Sharks seems like a pale copy of Ennio Morricone's theme music for The Thing, a low, burbling series of notes that somewhat approximate an inconstant heartbeat, with light bursts of synth decorating the fringes. (The mood from that score dissipates late in the film though, resorting to a more standard underscore.) And I am a guy who loves his comedy, but it was astounding and absolutely refreshing to find one of these films where there didn't seem to be a single, intentional joke, not even halfway near one for that matter. There is no goofy, comic relief character cracking wise or pulling oddball pranks, as everyone at the station, as I mentioned, is squarely committed to their mission. It was also nice that not every diving attempt in the film turns into instant death inside a shark's jaws, as the director continued to add as much suspense as possible into a subgenre where the luxury of slow-building, dramatic suspense has been largely discarded for rampant, unconvincing gore, flying sharks, and social media likes. I also liked that there is a thankfully low body count in this film, far lower than others within the Syfy Channel roster, and that the action was mostly centered on situation rather than pure exploitation. These were all among the factors as to why I stuck around last night as long as I did (about two-thirds of the film), as I continued to be intrigued by the developments in the film despite some of the effects. (Stopping at all was mostly due to my needing to attempt sleep as early as possible due to my ongoing, epic problems with insomnia; I finished the film first thing this morning.)

Sadly, Ice Sharks could not keep it up for very long. While the main cast keeps consistent to their acting plan throughout, the intrusion of others late in the plot betrays that what was going on in the claustrophobic environs of the research set while filming was a one-time thing. And the special effects likewise destroy the yeoman efforts of the cast at every turn. While there are a few later shots of the sharks that lightly work in not just believability of their existence within the frame with the actors, but also of their reality as a specimen of Greenland shark, they are few and far between. When the sharks eventually submerge the entire research station into the ocean depths for the last half of the film, and it turns out the station is practically airtight, it was a bit hard to suspend disbelief. I longed for the days of old school, professional scale model work or, hell, I would have preferred a static, in-camera matte painting of the station under the water rather than the shots that I get here.

Once again, we have a film that seems at odds with itself. As I mentioned in my review of Atomic Shark, it is almost like we have two separate crews and directors making the film. The opening scene of Ice Sharks, while thematically consistent, looks like it was made with a different type of film in mind than the one that then runs for the next 75 minutes. In some ways, the beginning feels totally tacked on in comparison to the rest. By contrast, the huge middle portion of the film is measured, generally thoughtful despite some excesses, and the acting is surprisingly believable and underplayed for the subgenre in which it occurs. The shark, in some of the closeups, even begins to look more like a Greenland shark, even if it never acts like one. And then, after all that, the finale takes us a good portion of the way back to what we had in the beginning, where the efforts to remain steady are thwarted by the requirement of having a big, dopey finish.

Looking up the other credits for director Emile Edwin Smith, it turns out he helmed a previous shark film, Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark, a few years back, which is a ridiculous but admittedly kind of fun flick. Otherwise, he has made his name as a visual effects supervisor on shows like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, Reaper, and their like. But his most noticeable recent credit is as the V.E.S. for the Sharknado series, the entire thing. As Ice Sharks was done for the same studio – The Asylum – that does Sharknado, his involvement in that series is not surprising. (It turns out Avalanche Sharks was made by a completely different studio, so it is not a predecessor to this film.) Since Syfy credits whip by so fast and the IMDb page is incomplete, I have no idea if he was involved fully with the effects in Ice Sharks as well.

I would be a bit upset to find out if he was, because given the content of the bulk of this film, Smith should have been aware that perhaps a little bit more effort could have been poured into the effects to make that element of the film live up to everything else. This film is a "could have been"; this could have been an example where The Asylum, which is clearly making some coin right now, could have put a few more dollars back into one of their other productions and made something a step above their normal fare. This could have been one of those projects. There is ample evidence on the screen that this sought to do a little bit more at a slightly higher level than their previous films had ever done.

At the very least, they did it well enough to make me forget myself for a short while last night, and make Jen sit through two-thirds of a shark film by The Asylum. Even if she was not actually even watching any of this silliness...

RTJ

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