Thursday, July 9, 2009

SEA BEAST (2008) d. Paul Ziller

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Imitation is often referred to as one of the sincerest forms of flattery. That is certainly the case in the creative world where modern painters pay tribute to ancient masters by referencing their older efforts in new pieces. In the music world, sampling was all the rage a number of years ago, and while it may not have been all that sincere an effort at paying respect, there was a backhanded compliment there to be sure. Photographers often reuse old poses and concepts in their work, trying to update the brilliant ideas that have gone before. I don’t know how many times I have seen that image of Marilyn Monroe revisited where she is wearing a white angora sweater pulled down over her bare legs and set against a red backdrop. In the film world, it is VERY common to see old ideas rehashed or reworked in new films. The problem with such kind-hearted emulation is that if you have a good memory, and I do, and you’ve seen it done before, and I have, and it has been done better, than the end result may not be fully satisfying. Such is the case with SEA BEAST (aka TROGLODYTE), a film that borrows from several older sources, including very ONE famous wellspring in particular, and as a result it has its entertaining moments, but it doesn’t quite live up to some of the more innovative or at least wacky installments in The Maneater Series.

SEA BEAST is the story of the McKenna family, who are a part of a fishing community somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Will McKenna is a down-on-his-luck salmon boat captain whose fortune turns even sourer when a couple of crew members of his ship die under some very uncanny and unpleasant circumstances. Before long, Will becomes convinced that a “sea creature” is wreaking havoc, but no one believes him. This bloodthirsty monstrosity kills quickly and then vanishes, is not completely visible at all times and no one else has been an eyewitness to its ghastly killing methods. With the help of a plucky young marine biologist named Arden and his daughter Carly, Will goes on a hunt to bring down this menace before the rest of the village ends up as fish food.

SEA BEAST has a very good premise that is none the worse for wear, in which some denizen of the deep has come ashore, it can’t be seen and it even evidences predator tactics reminiscent of the angler fish or the “sea devil”. While none of this is terribly novel, it doesn’t have to be. The thought of a slimy, barnacle-encrusted fish-reptile that has the power to cloak itself and then kill in a variety of terrifying manners is perfect “monster movie” fare and can be entertaining for even those of us who have seen this kind of flick or TV episode before. The problems begin when the story begins taking on the elements of JAWS and JAWS 2, not that JAWS hasn’t been ripped off in an thousand ways over the past 35 years. When “sampling” from a famous predecessor, the best way to sincerely imitate is to do so in narrative but not conceptual fashion. For example, SNOW BEAST (1978) borrows from JAWS quite steadily, but since it is a story about an abominable snow-monster and is set in a ski-resort, the parallels are less obvious. In the case of SEA BEAST, the similarities strike the viewer in the face with the force of a cast-iron skillet. The settings are both sea-side villages. The main character in JAWS is a police chief; while in SEA BEAST the main character’s older brother is the police chief. The main character Will however, struggles with people not believing his stories about a monstrous killer, just as Chief Brodie dealt with doubters in JAWS. In SEA BEAST, there is a Quint-like character named Ben who is an old salt willing to sell his life for the kill. The main difference in SEA BEAST and JAWS, beyond the creature that is being hunted, is that a second story emerges in SEA BEAST taken right from the pages of JAWS 2. There are randy teenagers in trouble and threatened by the dangerous beasties, one of them being the main character’s daughter. If that weren’t enough, the demise of the villainous and venomous bottom-feeder in SEA BEAST bears a striking similarity to the death of the Great White in JAWS. I’ll say no more. To add to the pig-pile, if you like further references from the past, there is even a pair of scenes where the characters prepare to do battle with the creatures by creating weapons from handy-dandy objects lying around and fortifying their dwelling against all manner of fishy assault. To anyone familiar with 1980s television, this felt right out of The A-Team or McGyver. At no time during SEA BEAST did all of this imitation of older plot concepts and story ideas feel like thievery, rather it truly felt like sincere flattery by utilizing a proven formula. The difficulty here is that for veteran film lovers, instead of feeling fresh and creative, it will only feel worn-out and hackneyed.

On a technical level, SEA BEAST is a mixed bag. There is some lovely photography of the soaring ocean side cliffs and islands where this film was shot. Many of the shots were done at sunset or on bright, colorful days, or on misty, foggy mornings. As a result, a viewer is briefly treated to some thoughtful and well-executed camera work on occasion. Most of the shots of the characters are effectively done as well and the scenes are well lit. Unfortunately, that kind of quality is not consistently seen throughout the picture. The action scenes suffer from the modern plague of being shot too close, edited too rapidly and they evidence hand-held techniques or replications of those tactics that continue to induce nausea and frustration in the movie-lover. The visual effects are also of low quality at select times as well. While the creatures themselves are passable, the storm-tossed boat scenes to open the film are appallingly bad and looked no better than an old video game. The same can be said of the conflagration that ends SEA BEAST. I’ve seen more convincing flames drawn on my student’s depictions of the Battle of Fort Sumter. To add to the sense of mediocrity, the acting in SEA BEAST was not stellar despite the cast being a mix of seasoned adults and young people. Some of the cast has clearly had some experience in the acting world, but most of the performances were a little flat, not bad, just uninspired, as if the cast members realized they were walking over a well-traveled path and felt like their efforts were not going to be enough to enliven this somewhat weary old nag. Was it me or did the two female leads, Miriam McDonald and Camille Sullivan look suspiciously like Tory Spelling and Kate Winslet? More sincere flattery here in the form of imitation or was it my imagination?

As has been the case far too often with a Maneater Series disc, there are NO supplemental features. In the case of SEA BEAST, part of this may be somewhat forgivable since there aren’t many recognizable names, Corin Nemec (of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose fame) being the lone exception. Herein lies another problem. If you’ve got a film that may not have much zing, you’ve got to do something to jazz it up. Why not put in a screenplay writer’s commentary or a short director’s interview? With that addition, you inject immediate interest and the astute film-lover can find out answers to questions as to why SEA BEAST was so imitative and why the cast seemed to sleep-walk their way through this motion picture. Including only four auto-play trailers at the opening before the Main Menu engages continues to not be a Bonus Features section. I feel like a broken record saying the same thing over, and over, and over, and over, and……, sorry, I thought I was an RHI-TV dvd producer.

SEA BEAST is not a bad film and it could be very entertaining for someone not initiated in JAWS lore or other cinematic elements emulated throughout its entirety. In the end, I wasn’t bored or disgusted, as I too often am by what passes across my desk. Having said that, I felt like SEA BEAST was a missed opportunity. Any story about ocean oddities munching on people’s parts and snacking on their sinews has something going for it. Why not make the salt-water baddies Wall Street anarchists who hijack a jetliner to New York and start snapping at financiers and insider trading scum in an attempt to manipulate the commodities market? An insane idea I realize but it might have worked and it would certainly be new and out of left-field. Remember, I thought of it and expect a cut when WALL STREET WALLEYES becomes the next big cult classic.

No comments: