Monday, December 23, 2013

Project Terrible: Super Cyclone

Welcome back to Project Terrible! Today's pick comes to me from Michele of The Girl Who Loves Horror.

That sounds like a fighting anime special move. "Take this! Suuuuu-perrrr Cy-CLOOOOOOONE!"
Super Cyclone is a disaster movie starring Ming Na as atmospheric scientist Dr. Sparks and Nicholas Turturro as oil rig structural engineer Travis. It's also by...

Never a good sign, really.
You can probably guess the basic plot of Super Cyclone. Nature goes crazy and tries to wipe out California, and Sparks and Travis, among others, try to survive it for long enough to figure out how, if possible, to stop the storm. Meanwhile, the people in the midst of the storm (in this case, primarily workers on an oil rig), just try to stay alive. There's not much more to it, plotwise, than that. Similar to Air Collision, this is a movie largely about people trying to get to the place that has what they need to stop the problem, while other people just try to live through it.

However, the comparison to Air Collision isn't really just. This is a much better film than Air Collision.

The location from Ballistica, The Three Musketeers, and A Princess of Mars returns!
I'm going to be complimenting an Asylum film here, so be sure to keep your guard up. This may be one of the signs of the end of the world.

Super Cyclone is a simple film, but it's not a bad one. I'm not going to come out and call it good, for reasons I'll get into below, but it is probably the best Asylum film I've seen in terms of quality (not hilarity--I think Ballistica or The Three Musketeers would win there).

Unlike Air Collision, this film manages to make the journey from place to place entertaining by means of dangers that at least somewhat make sense for the overall situation, and don't feel overly contrived. The situation itself is way over the top (I should note that they state that the storm will have 1,000 MPH winds, which beats the storm movie I gave Alex Jowski this round by 500 MPH), but the dangers that arise from it almost always make some kind of sense. Aside from the high winds, lightning, tornadoes, and rain, there's an oil rig involved so we actually get oil rain at one point, and even flaming rain/hail at other points (I think the explanation was that the oil ignited, but honestly I can't recall. Anyway, it didn't sound like absolute bull).

The cast helps. The Asylum has two strong leads in Nicholas Turturro and Ming Na. They seem so much more natural in their roles than a lot of other Asylum leads have been. It really benefits the film, especially since the film focuses mostly on them throughout. For the most part, in fact, everyone involved pulls their weight here. There are one or two cast members that seemed a little stilted, but it didn't have a severe impact. Honestly, just about everyone seems to be able to properly portray the worry, fear, and occasional bravado or sorrow called for by their roles.

The Asylum actually even does a fair job with effects this time out. There are many points where the CG is a little off, as usual, but it still seems better blended than the standard Asylum CG work. The fire-rain actually looks cool, there are some good wind and rain effects, and the effects shots that aren't so good (most notably a dam breaking with water that just doesn't look right, and a couple shots of ships being picked up by a tornado) don't really hang around too long.

Most importantly, the characters are doing things here. There are two main stories we follow--Travis and Dr. Sparks trying to get to the military base so they can get what they need to solve the problem, and the oil rig workers trying to survive. In both cases, the characters are taking action to overcome their problems. You don't get any of that "well, we can't do anything, let's sit on our hands" stuff that Air Collision had, and in an additional difference from that film, the things the characters do actually feel like they're accomplishing things. It doesn't always turn out well for them, but you always have a feeling of hope for the characters and you can actually root for them because they seem capable in the midst of danger.

It isn't all wonderful, which is why I'd characterize this film as "not bad" rather than "good." There are several problems that hold Super Cyclone back.

First off, let's talk about the overall plot. I mentioned that it is simple, and it is. It's too simple, in fact. There is nothing going on for the characters other than "survive and stop the storm." No one has fears to conquer. No one has hidden heroism to unlock. No one changes. No one grows. Aside from a couple incidental, extremely minor scenes, there's no conflict between humans. There's no coward trying to survive at the expense of others, and there's no one trying to take advantage of the situation. All of the things that usually add deeper or more personal conflicts to disaster movies are missing.

Because of that, the film is limited to just survival as a conflict, and there's only so many ways you can make that interesting. Sparks and Travis (and for a while, another scientist friend of Sparks) are constantly running into troubles with nature on the way to the military base, and while each individual trouble is actually fairly interesting on one level or another, it eventually begins to feel too repetitive. For the majority of the film, almost every scene with them is just a natural obstacle to overcome. The film does smartly interject two scenes with a minor human antagonist (once an armed man who they have to take a truck from, and the other an army officer who tries to capture them and take them to the military base--but it's the wrong base, so they have to escape), but otherwise, it feels like the same thing with a slightly different portrayal over and over. It gets tiresome, and this is one of those films where I think you could trim about 15 to 20 minutes and come out with a stronger film.

Second, while usually the effects are actually acceptable, there are some points where they seriously let the film down. In particular, one scene where one of the major characters dies is impossible to take seriously because of how its shot, and how bad the effects are. There's a point where a crack has formed in the earth and a tree has fallen over it, so the characters have to cross the tree to get over the gap. The gap is barely ever shown, and the characters are basically shown wobbling about from the waist up in a way that looks totally fake. One finally falls in, and we get this extremely brief shot of a really obvious CG pit with him kind of superimposed falling in. It's interesting, actually, that this is a case where it's a lack of effects that's causing the problem, though terrible effects would have been just as bad. But really, a couple good overhead shots while the people are crossing the pit would do wonders. It's unfortunate that a death scene for a major character is so underwhelming.

Furthermore, a lot of characters over the course of the oil rig plot die by means of falling into boiling water (due to the oil rig having drilled into an active volcano, which is what starts off the plot by means of somewhat dubious science). These scenes always look ridiculous, because the Asylum did absolutely nothing to show, effects-wise, that these men were suffering burns from superheated water (or in fact to show that the water was superheated in the first place). It actually took me a while to realize what was supposedly happening to them, as all that it really looks like is that people fall into moderately choppy water and then just kind of spontaneously forget how to swim, flail around a little in comedic fashion, and yelp unnaturally. The use of some basic "scalded skin" makeup and maybe, I don't know, a little steam or something would do wonders for those bits. And again, some major characters die that way, so it hurts the film.

Honestly, those are the major issues. The film is just too long for the concept it has, and either needs to add an additional source of conflict or cut about 15-20 minutes of run time. There are plenty of good disaster movie conflict sources--opportunists, corrupt officials, people driven mad by the disaster, even simple family concerns playing out while the disaster is going on. If it would grab one of those and run with it, this could be a much better film. And the effects, while not bad overall, do just have some nasty parts where they take you right out of the movie. The Asylum really does need to improve on those if they intend to keep trying for large-scale stories like this. If they don't, their films will continue to fall flat at the worst possible moments.

Wait, no! Trees don't form a solid wall that would reliably block water like that!
There are more minor issues, too:

  • Some cast members are better than others at acting out the effects of being thrown around in the helicopter or otherwise in the storm...depending on the actor or actress focused on, those scenes can be dramatic or silly.
  • Did climate change cause the superstorm, or was it the oil rig breaking through to the lava? For most of the film they pretty clearly say it was just the oil rig, but at one point they raise the specter of climate change and pretty much say that its responsible...then they go back to saying it's the oil rig. I mean, it could be both, sure, but it's worded in such a way in all cases that it sounds exclusive.
  • Hey, you know what would stop you from floating out of your seat when you get sucked into the middle of a tornado, maybe? Seatbelts. Just saying. Wear your seatbelts, folks.
  • "People are scared, confused, and most of them are armed. It's not a good combination."  As of 2007, California had a gun ownership rate of about 21.3%. I'd say that makes it nearly impossible for "most of them" to be armed, at least in any fashion worth bringing up to a military commander.
  • There are a lot of shots of characters flailing in water in this movie. A lot. Aside from the boiling scenes, we've got a few "man overboard" moments and the point where the dam bursts and floods a road (pretty unrealistically, I might add) that some marines are driving on. We spend a lot of time watching people having a nice swim.
  • There's an odd bit when we've got like 20 minutes left where Sparks and Travis reach the military base and explain their plan...and the film introduces a totally new character to fly the plane for the plan. This is just one of those things that a lot of films get wrong--this will feel so much more important if you use a character who has been in the film the whole time. Have this air force guy helping with relief efforts, or flying scouting missions for a missing person, or something. Then, when you pull him in for the plan, we can really get behind him and be emotionally affected by the mission. (Also, it would give us another story to follow here, which would mean less repetition on the Sparks and Travis plot.)
  • The ending of the rig plot is pretty disappointing. I'm not going to spoil it, but let's say it involves more really dumb-looking "boiling in water" shots and a sudden loss of character motivation that doesn't feel right.

Honestly...this wasn't a bad film. It's a pretty standard disaster movie that you've probably seen a million times, and it doesn't really break any new ground. It has a pretty good cast, which works to its favor, and it works well enough for the most part. Really, it's just that it's a pretty repetitive film. Without any subplots, side motivations, or internal conflicts, there's just not anything going on other than "we have to get to the base!" That's not enough to make it an entertaining film. Fortunately for me, it is enough to stop it from being a boring one in this case. It's somewhere in the middle, so it wasn't a horrible thing to watch. I can't recommend it, but I can say that I found things to enjoy, and that I hope this and a couple others I've watched might be a sign that the Asylum is starting to figure out how to actually do this "making a movie" thing correctly.

Whoever wrote the Netflix description for this is apparently unfamiliar with the location of California.

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