‘Our viewers don’t care about tension, Brian, they just want to see contestants die horribly.’
In recent years, the Asylum have almost cornered the market in ‘mockbusters’ – shameless, minimal-effort, straight-to-SyFy coattail riders like Transmorphers, I Am Omega, Atlantic Rim and Snakes on a Train. These are mostly the sorts of films that give shit a bad name – after chuckling at the cheek of the title, few viewers can make it past the first commercial break. This sounds like one of their tossed-away cash-ins, but is actually a couple of steps up in ambition. The CGI dinosaurs mostly seem only a few computer passes away from the plastic T-Rex in Toy Story (marginally justified by the fact that they’re virtual reality avatars rather than the real thing) and the cast are mostly competent in roles that could have done with B movie guest stars psychos with the cachet of Danny Trejo or Gary Busey, but director Ryan Bellgardt – who co-wrote with Galen Christy – has gone beyond simply ripping off the Jurassic Parkworld franchise or even The Hunger Games and mashed up saur action with a futuristic gameshow public execution scenario (cf: The Running Man) and a few licks of complexity that evoke Death Race 2000 (and, oddly, the now-underrated Predators). Unlike the hacks who make most Asylum movies, Bellgardt is obviously involved and interested in his projects. The last film of his I saw was Army of Frankensteins, which shouldn’t be mixed up with Frankenstein’s Army and is pretty unique in its mix of mad science and time travel – this is less bonkers and more professional than that, but suggests he’s getting close to proper budgets and is making better use of his repertory company.
In the near future, a popular reality TV show – with a smarmy host (Ryan Merriman) and a Faye Dunaway-out-of-Network driven producer (Perrey Reeves) – hooks groups of Death Row convicts up to VR sets which transport them to a prehistoric landscape aswarm with dangerous beasts and deadly gameshow puzzles. If they get chomped by a dino, killed by a contestant, tamper with their Battle Royale head-exploding collar, or fail a challenge, the court-ordered lethal injection is administered. ‘Why do you think they picked dinosaurs to be the things we’re running away from?’ asks a doomed soul. ‘I don’t know, man,’ responds another. ‘ They tested better than robots?’ This season’s crop of killers includes a bitey cannibal (Luke Wyckoff), an honourable yakuza assassin (Tiger Sheu), brothers fighting for their mother’s healthcare (Kyle Penington, Rett Terrell), a man-killer who livestreamed the murders of pick-ups (Erika Daly), teenage apparent sociopath Joy (Katie Burgess) and convicted wife-killer Tucker (Adam Hampton), who maintains his innocence and has a lot of support in the audience. The last murderer standing wins a free pardon. The struggles in the VR world, not all of which involve dinosaurs, are intercut with the expectedly crass coverage (including adverts for action figures representing the contestants) and a simmering sub-plot about an anti-Jurassic Games underground movement (the Cavemen) who have declared an intent to sabotage the finale. Bellgardt makes all the players interesting, killing off most of the more cartoonish thugs early to concentrate on more interesting issues. Tucker has to survive with the added handicap of not resorting to murder – as the only contestant who claims to be not guilty he can’t just blow his rep by killing rivals who are happy not to extend him the same courtesy. And, if he didn’t kill his wife, who did? Just how manipulated is the narrative of the game? And does the host fully understand the computer program, which has made dinosaurs with realistic impulses rather than ones that would be convenient.
It seems like faint praise to note that this has a proper script and direction – with developing and interlocking stories, characters who aren’t as clear-cut as they seem, action scenes which are at least well-paced and serve a purpose and performances that don’t shit the bed, But take a look at, say, Megalodon or Geo-Disaster to see how painful movies without all these things can be. A final shoot-out is sketchy and poorly edited, but the climax brings several plots to the boil at once – and Bellgardt knows enough to downplay the mushy stuff in favour of punishing characters we want to see swallowed by a tyrannosaurus and comes up with a blackly funny trailer for the next season.