Grabbers (2012)

Posted on March 12, 2014

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Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is an ambitious suck-up who volunteered for temporary duty on a remote Irish island. The local Garda, Ciaran O’Shea (Richard Coyle) would rather keep right on drinking himself to sleep than put up with her by-the-book ways. Then some whales wash up on the shore, mutilated, and people begin to disappear…

Short Version

A lighthearted monster movie

Long Version

I love action movies. I realize that some of my readers already knew that, having been friends of mine for twenty or more years. I just want to state it clearly for my other readers.

Over the last thirty years, I doubt a single major action movie release has escaped me. Many of the lesser releases have also passed before my eyes, including quite a few straight-to-video releases.

I’ve watched a lot of Olivier Gruner movies.

I never understood, until recently, how anyone could find an action movie boring. I get it now, and Grabbers gives me a chance to discuss it.

Action movies are boring when they are predictable. Action scenes are boring when there is nothing at stake.

You know how Sean Bean dies in everything he’s in? Bill Paxton used to be the same way. We knew, as soon as that actor got screen time, that when something bad happened it would happen to their character.

The main character is never at risk of death, or even of real injury. As audience members, we know that. Since nothing is at risk, we can tune out until the explosions stop and the dialogue begins again.

That’s why TV shows like American Horror Story and True Detective work so well. Because those characters only last for one season, anything can happen to them. Next season the show will continue and the actors may even return, but their characters will be new.

Suspense (and comedy) come from the unknown. Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme had their moments in the sun because their action styles were very different from what we had seen before. Even though we knew their characters would live to the final credits, their movies were exciting because we didn’t know how they would overcome their obstacles.

Similarly, guys like Robin Williams and Dane Cook used to be hilarious precisely because we never knew what they would do next. As they gained popularity, they had to tone down their acts in order to keep getting film work. We got used to their schtick, and we got bored.

We build suspense first by creating interesting characters. The audience has to care about the characters, or all the action in the world is simply boring.

It’s blindingly obvious in Grabbers that Lisa works as hard as she does because she feels that she has something to prove. She takes a lot of sexist gaffe, and she wants people to see her as a competent police officer and not as “just” a woman. Later we learn that her family favors her sister, so she has always tried to excel and to stand out. She’s an underdog, and everyone roots for the underdog. Ask any Red Sox fan.

For his part, Ciaran is obviously a romantic who crawled into a bottle after a bad break-up. He also sincerely cares about the people of the island he calls home. He knows them by name, and they know him. He knows what they get away with, and they know why he’s drunk. We root for romantics, and we like people who are liked.

So far, so good. Next we need an interesting context. Our characters can exist in a vacuum, but establishing why they are there and alone is part of the interesting context.

Here, I think, Grabbers falls down. I wanted to know more about the island and why those people chose their isolated lifestyle. The movie does give us the town drunk, a marine biologist working on the island, and the couple who own the pub. There are lots of other people, but we don’t get to meet them. The supporting characters never really gelled to give me a sense of setting.

Instead, it felt to me like we were on an island because that was an easy way to limit the scope of the film and keep the budget down.

However, the nature of the setting as an isolated island did build claustrophobia. The people were on their own, and had to figure out a way to survive without the cavalry riding in. That’s good. It heightens tension.

Moreover, Grabbers takes its time introducing the monsters. At first we see nothing but their effects on those they attack. Then we see one, but we’re not sure what it can do. As the characters learn more, we begin to see that the scope of the problem is much larger than we originally understood. Also, those first monsters we saw were just babies.

The solution to survival turns out to be boozing. Apparently, the monsters cannot metabolize alcohol. The town drunk survives an attack because his blood tastes like poison to the monsters. So the cops pack everyone into the pub and host a lock-in.

That was about the point that I felt the movie stopped being interesting. We’ve seen people fighting monsters before. There was no real way to heighten tension, add complications, or increase risk. Oh, the pub caught fire while the monsters are outside? Everyone is already drunk. There’s no reason for the monsters to attack them. Just save enough booze to keep everyone lubricated.

Conclusion

Grabbers is a fine monster movie.

It’s far better than most that we’ve seen (look back at this Halloween post, or this one, to see what I mean). I could really tell that the filmmakers cared about their script, their location, and their characters. The cast included several people I knew (Bradley from Primeval, Coyle from Coupling, Bronagh Gallagher from The Commitments, Russel Tovey from Being Human, and so on) and who are good at their jobs.

The fact that it’s not perfect is useful for illustrating points about action sequences, but otherwise meaningless. No movie is perfect.

See Grabbers.

Meanwhile, I’ll consider writing up a WWE movie as a contrast for how you can have good action and still not make a very good movie.

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Posted in: Movies