Destroying the World on a Budget

Review of Megafault (US-2009; dir. David Michael Latt)

by Robert Hood

megafaultThe development of CGI as the standard methodology for SFX films, big and small, has not only increased the number of films that include giant monsters, even if only by way of destructive cameos, but has given a huge boost to the “apocalyptic disaster” flick generally — no doubt aided and abetted by the plethora of social, political and environmental uncertainties currently thundering around in the Zeitgeist.

Once upon a time the ability to convincingly show massive destruction on a grand scale was confined to well-cashed-up productions that nevertheless were limited in what they could manage — with infrastructural destruction confined to the collapse of miniature buildings plus live-action superimposition or other double-exposure antics. Now, as computer imaging and digital manipulation gets more and more sophisticated audiences get to see, with reasonable-to-astonishing results, destruction even at the scale of Emmerich’s utterly over-the-top exercise in global vandalism, 2012 (US-2009; dir. Roland Emmerich).

Moreover, as the techniques developed for the big-budget films become generic and available as templates, small low-budget productions can manage higher and higher levels of SFX destruction — after all, in their most basic form pixels are reasonably cheap, or at least reasonably accessible. The results are never as detailed as those of the best of the Big Flicks, as this requires time and it is via the need for time that budget costs escalate (leaving aside the problem of obtaining expensive talent). Hence, low-budget CGI scenes of destruction are rarely as inventive or as extensive as those featured in the upmarket films that they shadow. Nevertheless, a higher level of FX sophistication is possible than has ever been possible before and occasionally the results are pleasingly entertaining in their own right, depending on ordinary cinematic qualities (such as those governed by script, acting and direction). The Syfy Channel has been clogged with world-annihilating movies for some time now.

Megafault (US-2009; dir. David Michael Latt) is one of the more effective of exploitation film company the Asylum’s oeuvre. Recalling conceptually if not dramatically or politically that disaster film from a previous era, Crack in the World (US-1965; dir. Andrew Marton), Megafault features a very destructive crack in the Earth’s crust that is expanding through the middle of the US and threatening to ignite the super-volcano that lies in wait in Yellowstone National Park. In the process it destroys buildings, ignites explosions and causes avalanches. As such, it is the latest in the Asylum’s series of apocalypse-themed films, which show the End of the World via exploding sun (2012: Supernova), polar shift (2012: Doomsday), asteroid (The Apocalypse), general global instability (Countdown: Jerusalem) and meteor showers (Meteor Apocalypse) — most of which add some mix of mega-weather, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruption and whatever else springs to the globally destructive mind.

street-explosions

building-down

avalance

Megafault is reputedly one of the most expensive of the Asylum’s films to date and it shows more in the quantity of SFX shots than in their quality — though there is an increase there, too. Written by producer Paul Bales, the script is reasonably well structured, with decent dialogue and characterisation, and a gradual build that generates suspense enough to sustain the run toward its unlikely, yet quite affecting, climax. Despite a larger budget the SFX are limited, sometimes a little repetitious, sometimes unconvincing — with fiery explosions that don’t quite sit in the picture and moments of superimposition that are not colour-graded well enough to meld their components together in a convincing way.

Yet despite this, the major SFX — huge cracks in the ground and falling buildings — work well enough to allow anyone who wants to run with the film to do so. They’re not good enough to completely stifle criticism, but I found them sufficiently consistent to allow me to accept their artificiality — which is all I need really.

roadworks

With few exceptions, even mega-budgeted SFX films don’t look completely real, so why should we expect miracles from B-movies? And most importantly the scenes of destruction come at regular intervals, well spaced through the scenes of human drama so that we don’t feel too cheated. After all, apocalyptic films are about destruction, so we need to see enough of it to satisfy our primal need for vicarious danger, even though the humans affected by it are what makes us care.

We certainly get lots of unlikely scenes of the protagonists running ahead of the rapidly moving crack (a generator of suspense that was done to death in Emmerich’s 2012). This is one of those earthquake-film tropes that now seems de rigueur. At least here — in a low-budget context — the missed-getting-killed-by-a-hairs-breadth suspense of it all isn’t driven into overkill by endless variations on the theme.

beating-the-crack

The late Brittany Murphy (pictured below) — who died on 20 December last year, a month after the film’s release — does an energetic job of making the usual contemporary disaster-film role of the attractive young female scientist tolerable (and sometimes even believable), playing a seismologist whose knowledge may hold the key to avoiding world-class disaster.

brittany-murphy

Eriq LaSalle plays an “ordinary Joe” miner and explosives expert, caught up in events when he detonates a massive series of explosions for some vague geological purpose, and who hence feels as though he is responsible, despite reassurances to the contrary from Murphy’s expert. At any rate he’s an interesting character and a main driver in the film’s human drama. These two help us get emotionally involved enough that the film’s measured attempts at generating suspense actually work (most of the time anyway). In the end, we may even get close to overlooking the nonsensical, and visually limited, nature of the final sequence.

All-in-all a decent B-movie, exploitation-genre effort from in-house director David Latt. While suffering from the generic faults of the disaster film sub-class of action adventure, 2012 included — science that strains credibility, an unlikely level of narrow escapes, poorly developed political background, etc. — Megafault is an entertaining example of doing big-scale action on a small-scale budget. Are you willing to go with the exploitation requirement that we believe an artificial hole in the ground the size of the Grand Canyon can be created in a matter of hours? If so, you’ll probably enjoy this.

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