Planet of the Sharks (2016)

Planet of the Sharks (2016)
Dir.: Mark Atkins
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: mutated great white with amplified telepathic abilities as Alpha leader of all sharks in the film; various non-mutated species of sharks, specifically hammerheads and bulls can be spotted.

The poster immediately to the right of this text speaks heavily of two influences. The first obvious influence, from even the swiftest sideways glance, is Jaws, which copies (though in a far more gruesome manner) the original film's image of the gaping maw of a monstrous shark rising up from the deep to swallow humanity whole. From the second influence – the title of the film itself, Planet of the Sharks – one can only surmise that someone has finally taken the logical leap in upping the renewed interest in the popular Planet of the Apes franchise, flooded the entire planet, and simply replaced the original concept's primates with sharks. I figured that such a thing might happen at some point along the way on our journey to total shark film awareness, and the fact that Planet of the Sharks hadn't already occurred in some form – at least, a good deal before we got to the idea of tornadoes chockfull of sharks – has been surprising to me in some small measure.

The first signifier that this film has
"Planet of the" in the title...
Sure enough, early on in Planet of the Sharks – the fourth premiere film of the 2016 Sharknado event on the Syfy Channel last week – a roving camera sweeps through the ocean depths to show us that water levels have risen to record levels to destroy most of what mankind has spent millennia building. On its trek through the murky waters of what will turn out to be the Atlantic coast of North America, we will get a clear reference to the old Apes franchise. Outside of talking gorillas wearing armor on horseback, it is easily the most identifiable signifier of that franchise: the Statue of Liberty, which, in the case of the first Apes film in 1968, we saw with only its torch-bearing hand and head protruding from the sand in which it found itself buried since apes took over the earth and the human world fell into disrepair. In Planet of the Sharks, when we first see the famous statue, we see the whole of it surrounded by water, and there is no loincloth-clad Charlton Heston to scream his head off about those "damn, dirty apes!" The camera merely drifts past the French-bestowed American icon of freedom, carrying on emotionlessly forward so we may view the remainder of the too slow credits while we see the rest of our world submerged beneath the waves.

And what we find in the shark-heavy future of this film is less Planet of the Apes than it is Waterworld, a film itself obviously heavily influenced by George Miller's Mad Max then-trilogy (with a little bit of Namor/Aquaman thrown into the mix). But there is no super-powered fish-man in the lead role here, though they do try to give us a variant on good ol' Max in the body of one Dillon Barrick, the captain of the Osprey. However, while he does have a noticeable accent, Barrick is not an Aussie like Max, but is embodied by the South African actor Brandon Auret, who is known in a cinematic sense mainly from small roles in all three of Neil Blomkamp's feature films (District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, in order of both chronological release and descending excellence). Barrick is appropriately scruffy and gruff, and barks orders somewhat unintelligibly when necessary. The problem with his character in Planet of the Sharks is that Barrick is neither mad like Max, nor is he overly heroic, merely content with being the right guy at the wrong place, but lets others handle a lot of the action most of the time. Or when he tries to be heroic, others – especially pesky, know-it-all scientist types – insist on doing it their way.

Planet of the Sharks has a focus problem. In fact, it has several focus problems. It wants to give us a hero, but splits its heroics up between too wide a cast of people. It wants us to think other characters are really important to its story, but they really are just extra baggage and/or fodder for the film's villains. It wants to tell to tell that hundreds of people live in particular places but never come close to convincing us that more than a handful do. It wants to take on an epic adventure the size of an entire planet, but only has the budget to center on a small area in the middle of an ocean. But, its most major problem is in its very premise. It wants to be Planet of the Apes, only with sharks. It wants to be Waterworld, only with sharks. It wants to be Max Max 2: The Road Warrior, only with sharks. But Planet of the Sharks fails itself because it really doesn't deliver on the one area that its title promises: sharks.

Good ol' Sparklenose!
Oh, Planet of the Sharks has a shark, all right. Boy, does it ever have a shark. And it's a whopper. An abnormally large alpha shark of the great white species that I shall refer to as "Sparklenose" for the duration of this review. You see, it's not enough that in Planet of the Sharks that the icecaps have fully melted, the world continues to heat up more and more, and that 95% of the earth is now covered in ocean water. It's not enough that mankind (in a scenario that I rather applaud) has been reduced to living on makeshift raft homes in the middle of the sea, huddled together for safety against nature. (Really, it's what we deserve as a species...) No, somehow, one particular shark, the aforementioned Sparklenose, has mutated so that her ampullae of Lorenzini – the electroreceptors found on the nose areas of sharks which themselves are already a form of shark "superpower" – have been heightened so that they glow openly and allow Sparklenose the ability to basically control the thoughts and actions of scores of other sharks. And with plankton no longer developing in the oceans, thereby depleting the life forms dependent on it as a food source, the sharks have turned to dry land, or replications of said area, to find a replacement. And so Sparklenose has turned to hunting humans with an army of fellow sharks at her beck and call.

Bea... what is she good for?
Absolutely nothin'...
Early on, we are given other Mad Max calling cards. We are given a replacement for the Feral Kid from The Road Warrior, a water-town orphan named Bea, in a mostly mute, big-eyed performance. There is a feeling for much of the film, as there is with a couple of other characters – including Barrick – that maybe there is something important for Bea to do coming up in the battle against the sharks. Maybe she plays a big role in a prophecy or has a certain perception others don't that lead them to victory ultimately. But Bea, like other raft people in the film, is just another raft person, it turns out, and is nothing special to the film. Bea's role is meaningless, apart from showing how kind Barrick is in the opening scenes, and how similarly thoughtful another character is later on in the film. We also get a chopper pilot who is dressed similarly to the gyro pilots played by Bruce Spence in the second and third films in the Mad Max films (the characters Spence plays in both films are actually not meant to be the same pilot, just similar characters).

"I weeellll keeellll him!!!"
Another character that could have walked out of a Max film that turns out to be a red herring very early on is Joanne D'Amato, the Creole-sputtering (I guess?) leader of a water-town named Salvation, which supposedly has 400 citizens though it looks like it was built to hold 37. Arguably the most annoying character to ever appear in a Syfy original premiere shark film, D'Amato is played by Angie Teodora Dick, whose real-life last name belies her character's attitude in this film. As an actress, Dick is truly chewing scenery far above her pay grade. Twenty seconds into her performance, I was ready for Dick to be eaten by a shark, and the fact that I actually had to wait a few minutes for this to happen means that the producers owe me some of their royalties. There is a sense early in her performance that Dick's role will actually turn out to be much bigger in the end, due to a couple of closeups that are held too long. Whether these were meant to mislead intentionally on the part of the director is hard to say, because it is hard to detect much of a deft hand at anything in the anywhere else in the narrative. But it does seem briefly like she is going to go on to be a big Dennis Hopper villain à la Waterworld, and I thought that I was going to have to put up with her babbling mouth full of nonsensical gibberish for the entire running time. 

Count yourself lucky, shark! She could
have acted you to death...
Lucky for me, this is a shark film. D'Amato and her tribal goons take a defensive stand against the sharks in which they beat the docks with their weapons to draw the sharks to them and then attack the finned invaders with everything they have, stabbing and shooting anything that moves in the water. It almost looks like a real word 1970s snapshot of humanity on the ocean's waters post-Jaws, desperate to destroy anything that looked like a shark in even the slightest way. Dick, playing the head of this slice-and-dice-fest as all outer rage monster with no inner sense onscreen at all, does what she did in her previous scenes: goes hog wild. As D'Amato, she continues to grunt and growl and sneer her way through her dialogue, and when her character savagely spears a good-sized bull shark, thanks to awkward computer graphics, she is able to lift it out of the water easily and up into the air. Soon enough, after the film's good guy scientists witness the rampant carnage disapprovingly, D'Amato will get a little too full of herself – as is to be expected of her type –  and decide to take on even bigger prey, which will prove her undoing... thankfully. I could not take much more of her. Please don't work again.

Oh, snap!
Shortly after D'Amato is dispatched, Barrick gets his last true heroic moment in the film when he has to take on one of the goons from the town who is attempting to steal the Osprey by driving off with it during the melee with the sharks. Barrick and the goon get into one of those traditional big guy vs. big guy brawls that often end up in land-based films with one guy holding the other guy over some sort of precipice or a tank full of boiling whatever. In the case of Planet of the Sharks, we have the ever-present threat of leaping, monster fish with giant, pointy teeth, so perhaps the ante is upped even further during this knock-down, drag-out fight. The goon gets the upper hand and has Barrick's oily haired head hanging over the port side of the craft, but in a magnificent display of expert timing, Barrick manages to flip places with the goon at the last second so that the bad guy's head is neatly snipped off by the approaching jaws of a breaching great white as it jolts through the air next to the boat. This, of course, means that Barrick had to anticipate that a shark was definitely going to be jumping out of the water to eat someone's head, even though he had not actually witnessed such a thing exactly thus far in the movie. Watching the clip in slow motion (see the collage to the right of this paragraph), there is hardly any definition to the shark or its actions; just a shot of the actor's heads at the beginning, the barest sense of shape and motion in between to give the impression of a flying shark removing something, and some quick arterial spray at the end to sell the illusion.

Dr. Caroline Munro (Christia Visser), scientist/welder.
As I mentioned briefly, the actual good guys in this story – and its true focus – are a small group of scientists at an ocean-bound facility called Vestron, who are, among other projects, trying to shoot a rocket into the atmosphere to reverse the warming trend to eventually allow the earth to become oxygen-rich again and make the ocean levels lower to create land. Perhaps because it requires less animation and special effects, far more of the movie is focused on the lab-bound activities of the scientists than on the sharks, which is fine if you aren't intent on doing a decent job with effects in the first place. The two main doctors here are Dr. Shayne Nichols (played by Stephanie Beran, but who seems to play second fiddle to her tanktop at times) and Dr. Roy Shaw (Lindsay Sullivan). We met the Joanne D'Amato character earlier; here too is evidence that director/co-director Mark Atkins seems to be having some fun with character names in dropping references to either directors (Italian sleaze-master Joe D'Amato) or combined actor names from Jaws itself (Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw). Item #3 in the evidence drawer is the introduction of another actor-named scientist in the film, Dr. Caroline Munro, played by the most adorable actress to wear a welding mask since Jewel Staite on Firefly, Christia Visser. Unfortunately, Munro's love interest is proof that the future of Planet of the Sharks may be this close to being called Planet of the Hipsters: a bowtie-clad, manpurse-wearing, spiral earring-bedecked, bearded weirdo (John B. Swart), who happens to have a Japanese name (though he is clearly not Japanese) and carries a samurai sword. (Yes, he will use it later.) [For the record, director Atkins made the first John Carter film to make it onto video – Princess of Mars – the one with Trump boytoy Antonio Sabato, Jr. as John Carter and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris. And, yes, this film exists, and it is painful to behold...]

"Hey! Are we all great whites in this shot?"
Though I got down severely on Angie Teodora Dick's aggressively awful acting earlier, I should add that the remainder of the performances in this film are pretty squarely solid for the most part, especially when the scientist characters are given mostly technobabble to spit back out to the cameras and have to sound like crazy plan after crazy plan might actually work to save the earth instantly. Or when they have to say lines like "I don't know what your problem is with me, but I suggest that you deep-six it" or "She's controlling an army of sharks!" None of the actors are award-worthy, mind you, but they are solid enough to get their jobs done efficiently and believably, which is what you want in a film involving killer sharks taking over the entire world and treating people like livestock.

Just hammers in this shot...
Where the film is really disappointing is in its handing out of its sharky treats. Apart from good ol' Sparklenose, who gets the largest proportion of screen time fish-wise, there is a dearth of definition in the shark scenes. We can clearly make out the outlines of hammerheads in a couple of underwater scenes; I am guessing that hammers were chosen because their profiles are so distinctive as to not be mistaken. Hammerheads too figure into the attack scene in Salvation, as does a bull shark that is clearly speared by D'Amato. But in a world which is run by sharks, where are the tigers, makos, whitetips, blues, and other large sharks? Why are we seeing so few shark species in this film? "Ah, we got three types... we're good!" seems to be the mantra here. In fairness, there are probably others that are intended somewhere in the film; it is likely the graphics just aren't good enough to be able to tell them apart from the other sharks. But mostly the film is content just being Sparklenose's show, which isn't Planet of the Sharks at all. It's really Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side.

Probably not something you want
to see on your Pokemon Go! app...
But Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side really suffers from its low budget in other areas (which really can't be avoided in such productions, so it feels mean to even mention it sometimes). I said earlier that one town was said to have four hundred citizens but seemed like it couldn't hold that many by its design, and so it goes that no scene ever felt like more than fifteen to twenty people actually populate any given area of this world. If the filmmakers were actively trying to sell the paucity of humans on the planet, they did a good job just by natural lack of budget alone. And yet, the sets aren't too bad, even the ones that are solely designed by computer, and the film has a consistent look and feel. It's really only when the shark world attempts to match up with the real world that the film runs into trouble in a design sense.

Man, sharks are getting so good at this breaching
thing. Just like people in the Olympics...
Now, even stupid science fiction, well-filmed, can be fun science fiction. (And likewise, smart science-fiction can be deadly dull on the big or small screen if improperly handled.) A scenario may be ridiculous to the extreme, and depend on a lot of leaps of faith, but in the hands of a master craftsman, or even just an agile humbug of a showman, the results could turn out to be a legitimately good time. Lacking either one, Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side is left to its own devices and comes up fairly short. Still, the film is not without its pleasures. In order to enjoy this film, you will have to believe that a normal great white shark (albeit one with heightened electro-sensory organs) can leap far higher into the air than usual to take out a helicopter, that a shark can telepathically will another shark to take an arrow to the heart for her, that the best way to get out of a fight is to have a shark bite a guy's head off at the last second, and that parasailing in and out of anything is the most efficient way to escape a bomb blast radius. You also get to watch a truly horrid actress meet her fate. And a cute rocket scientist in a shirt tied to her midriff welds for fourteen seconds. If you are ready to believe in any of this, you can enjoy Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side.

Besides, there were far dumber films shown during Sharknado Week, including ones with Sharknado right in the title. So, Planet of A Shark... and a Few Extra Sharks on the Side, has that going for it as well...

A little Christia Visser for the trip home...
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