Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus (US-2009; dir. Ace Hannah [aka Jack Perez])
The tradition of pitting one giant monster against another may have been developed within early SF novels such as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (where a plesiosaur fights an ichthyosaur) and US film classics like King Kong (— where the giant ape tussles with a T-Rex, and later a giant snake, for possession of Fay Wray), but it was the Japanese who perfected the “genre” in the cinema, tossing two or more impossible giants together in a running conflict that humanity can only stand back and watch with awed apprehension. For their monstrous tag team matches, the Japanese took to letting the monsters destroy random cityscapes while they battled each other. This was a good move. They were also willing to advise potential viewers as to what they were in for by putting it upfront in the titles — as in King Kong vs Godzilla ( ), Godzilla vs the Smog Monster ( ), Godzilla vs Biollante ( ), Gamera vs the Giant Evil Beast Guiron ( ), Frankenstein vs the Subterranean Monster Baragon ( ), and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). American monster cinema hasn’t been nearly so forthright nor so monster-conflict conscious.
The Asylum’s much-anticipated Big Critters release, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, does much to address this oversight — and it’s a positive trend. This is what giant monster fans want — as was abundantly indicated by the mega-interest generated by mere announcement of the title and by early publicity shots. Two giant monsters — really big ones, too — in conflict with themselves and human civilisation! Suddenly everyone was interested.
The result? Well, the film itself may not live up to all that fans hoped for, but it takes a giant step toward it and it’s one hell of a lark.
Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus is, as the title suggests, full-on B-flick monster cheesiness, made with a knowing enjoyment that is neither condescending nor overdone, only hindered by an inevitable imbalance between ambition and budget. As we all knew it would be, this is low-budget independent cinema, certainly when compared to mainstream blockbusters such as Jackson’s Lord of the Rings or The Incredible Hulk or even (yes, let’s admit it), the much-scorned US Godzilla (). There’s no way the film could offer state-of-the-art SFX. But it’s good to see that director Ace Hannah approached his task with obvious affection and does what he can within the limitations imposed on him. The SFX moments are occasionally very good and generally serviceable, and placed within a context that enhances rather than diminishes their effect.
The result is a film that it is totally possible to enjoy for what it is. It offers no depth of theme (apart from a notional stab at referencing environmental concerns), little plot complexity and (compared to the ideal) limited monstrous destruction. But it makes an honest stab at giving fans what they want. At the very least the film does not feel indifferently exploitative. Yes, it exists within a long-running tradition of exploitation monster flicks that goes back to the days of Bert I. Gordon and Roger Corman in his non-Poe mode, but like the best of those it gives the impression that someone cares and was willing to use the resources available to do their best. Such an attitude is not to be assumed. Many low-budget exploiters come over as cynical and careless, putting as little as possible into the production rather than as much as limitations allow. Hannah makes you feel that he wanted this film to be enjoyed and he worked diligently toward that end with what time and resources he had.
Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus begins effectively, with some of the best monster destruction in the film — and though the budget clearly wore thin as it went on, Hannah ensures that such glorious moments as the infamous scene where Mega Shark takes a bite out of the Golden Gate Bridge are spaced out tactfully throughout the running time. And the final battle is suitably climactic. It has been said that a movie needs only three or four memorable moments to make it a success — and if that’s true Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus has them. They may be quick, but they are memorable. As is usual for low-budget films, this one does get a little bogged down in unnecessary dialogue sequences at times (talking heads cost less than another giant monster scene), though it happens much less often here than might be expected and the dialogue is often rather good. At any rate, the film never seems to drag.
The problem of budget tends to intrude a little too often though. As effective as the existing SFX moments can be, for optimium effect there should have been more. For example, we are told about — rather than experience on-screen — key events such as the destruction of Tokyo, and even the Mega Shark’s attack on San Francisco does not go any further than its infamous Bridge-chomping — over in an instant, as impressive as that instant may be. Other attacks are similarly curtailed visually — a single spectacular moment, then on to someone telling us about the outcome. This is, however, all budget driven, and I can tolerate that. It is a potential lost rather than a reason to eject the film.
Hannah and all involved seem conscious of the absurdity of the plot and much of what is going on. But they play it just straight enough that we can go with them and the veneer of self-conscious melodrama becomes part of the enjoyment. If this was ever in doubt, the Scientists-At-Work montage scene, with its brightly coloured liquids and meaningless pseudo-scientific poking, peering and pouring dispels it. Lines such as “It rises!” by the soon-to-be-annihilated captain of a battle cruiser are also plainly tongue-in-cheek, and of course the idea that the only way to deal with two giant monsters is to encourage them to fight to the death is itself absurd. But as I’ve argued elsewhere a degree of absurdity is what these films are about. We all know that it’s ridiculous to think that a shark as impossibly big as Mega Shark could jump high enough out of the water to snare a passenger plane in mid-flight, but what the hell! It makes for a great moment. And it’s just the sort of moment we want! The fact that the film attempts to connect the Mega Shark with an actual prehistoric predator (Megalodon) doesn’t, of course, make the film any more realistic. It remains a fantasy creature as impossible as Godzilla.
With effective performances (some more hammy than others… yes, I’m looking at you, Mr Lamas… though to be fair the hamminess of his character is part of the joke), especially that of Deborah Gibson as our main focus of human interest, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus proves to be exactly what it was intended to be: an entertaining monster-mash B-flick. This is part of a long tradition in B-film production that goes back to the 1950s and Mega Shark is arguably better than some of the SFX monster films that fans still look back upon with nostalgic glee. It is neither ground-breaking nor destined for cinematic greatness, but for fans of low-budget monster films it is certainly worthminutes of your time — and it may very well become a cult classic. Hey, you might even watch it more than once!
As one of The Asylum’s most effective films, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus will hopefully also be one of their most successful, as I for one would like to see more from its titular giants.
Postscript: In a desperate attempt to identify where Hannah and the notorious The Asylum might have ripped off the central concept of this film, some commentors have claimed that it has tacitly violated copyright by reproducing Steve Alten’s MEG series of novels, especially as his latest, MEG: Hell’s Aquarium, was released at the same time as the film. While the possibility can’t be denied, of course, it hardly seems like a necessary connection to make. As the film’s characters are recognisable stereotypes, the use of the prehistoric shark Megalodon has been a standard of aquatic monster flicks over the past decade or so and, as indicated in my review, the monster mash itself has a long tradition, it’s obvious that The Asylum had no real reason to “rip off” Mr Alten’s work — or anyone else’s — at all. Neither he nor The Asylum can make much of a claim to originality.