Chris Jordan digs through the new sequel in the Tremors saga.
I was starting to get worried that the graboids – those giant sandworms with the tentacles and three-point jaws – had gone extinct. There hadn’t been a confirmed sighting in over a decade, since 2004’s Tremors 4: The Legend Begins; surely enough time to at least put them on the critically endangered list. But as it turns out, they’re alive and well after all. They were just hibernating, waiting to be awakened by the rumbling sounds of nostalgia for ‘80s and ‘90s horror. Perhaps it was the loud stomping of Jurassic World that woke them up, or the big commotion surrounding the Ghostbusters reboot. Whatever the reason, the subterranean beasties have decided that the time is right to relaunch their series. Michael Gross is even back as the graboids’ nemesis, gung-ho survivalist Burt Gummer. Unfortunately, what isn’t back is the quality of writing that made (most of) the series so much fun. There certainly are worse straight-to-video horror flicks out there this Halloween, but Tremors 5: Bloodlines is not the triumphant return that the beloved franchise deserves.
|"On this episode of Graboids vs. Food..."|
The first red flag that something may be amiss is the fact that this is the only entry in the series – including the short-lived Sci-Fi Channel show – to not be written by franchise co-creators Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson. No matter how goofy and dumb the past sequels got, those two always brought a clever, witty, self-aware sense of humor to the films that at least made them endearingly tongue-in-cheek. Earlier this year when we wrote our Gremlins vs. Critters vs. Tremors movie battle, we unanimously gave Tremors the victory, calling it “a deceptively smart movie that plays very dumb, with hilarious results.” Tremors 5 is just very dumb. I have a major soft spot for this series: I like Tremors 2 nearly as much as the original, and while Tremors 3 is extremely goofy and cheesy, I really enjoy it as a guilty pleasure. That said, I found this latest sequel extremely trying at some points.
It at least begins with a pretty funny (and fairly logical) update to our returning main character’s life: Burt Gummer is now the host of a Man vs. Wild-ish reality show. These early scenes are probably the funniest and most inspired, as Michael Gross’s deadpan humor brings some good laughs to a right-on parody of self-serious reality TV. But then we meet his camera guy, obnoxious Steve-O-ish bro Jamie Kennedy (yes, a little-advertised straight-to-video sequel really is where his career is at right now), and we start to get the feeling that this could be a long movie. Knowing how much snarky genre satire the previous Tremors films had, I had hopes that Bloodlines might prove to be a satire of reality shows, done partly as a mockumentary. But no, this angle promptly takes a back-seat to a plot that is little more than a paint-by-numbers re-tread of Tremors 2.
|"Hey Kennedy, aren't you supposed to know a thing|
or two about formulaic horror movies?"
One would have thought that in the intervening decade some writer (preferably Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson) would have thought of something new for this series to do; some compelling reason to bring Burt back for another story. At least all three previous sequels had something different to offer. Tremors 2 was basically just another monster flick, but it came up with some really cool and unexpected twists about what the new creatures were and what they could do. Tremors 3 got some good comic mileage out of Burt having to come to terms with his cult celebrity status when he just wants to keep his reclusive lifestyle. And while Tremors 4 being basically the same as the first one except in the Old West felt slightly desperate, it at least switched up the formula. This one is literally just like a greatest-hits compilation of recycled scenes from past movies, with a plot that does nothing new. They could have taken a cue from a certain other late-in-a-franchise sequel called Bloodline and set this one in outer space and I would have been happier. If they couldn’t do something really new, or at least make it really good in its own right, why bother?
When Tremors 5 gets down to business it at least manages to give us some fun monster attack scenes. The revamped creatures all look really cool in their designs (the updated “ass blasters” look downright awesome), and the movie is at its most fun when it goes into Big Dumb Monster Flick mode. But even then, at this point we’ve seen just about all the variations on what the series’ creatures can do, so most of these scenes will basically just have you thinking, “ah, I remember when this happened in Tremors (insert number here).” There are a few moments when this movie’s baddies stand on their own, but most sequences are little more than fun but familiar. There is one other thing that is fairly disappointing about these creatures: they are almost 100% CGI. They look pretty good: slightly rough around the edges here and there, but generally solid for a low-budget flick like this, and certainly better than something like Sharknado. It’s just disappointing to not see any noticeable practical effects at all (not even for the graboid tentacles) when they were such a huge part of the previous films’ charm.
The use of CGI monsters is understandable, though, for a low-budget film in this era. What isn’t understandable, and what ultimately does the film in, is its really bad script. In addition to recycling the plot from a past Tremors film, it is totally lacking the series’ signature sense of humor. Instead of the clever, tongue-in-cheek genre-skewering that the series is known for, this script thinks it is being witty to directly quote, point-blank, some well-known scene from Jaws or Jurassic Park or Die Hard. This isn’t even done in any remotely clever way; it’s just “hey guys, that line was from Die Hard – get it? Isn’t it cool that we referenced a movie that’s cool?” Most of the script’s humor is at this same fairly low level, with entirely too many pee jokes and things of that caliber. There are times when it is downright embarrassing.
Aside from Burt, only one main character (Pearl Thusi’s South African veterinarian) is likable or interesting. Beyond that, the newcomers are little more than sketches or caricatures, and at least a couple are very irritating. The movie’s stock Unscrupulous Rich Guy character is bizarrely reminiscent of Matt Berry’s parody of Unscrupulous Rich Guy characters on The IT Crowd, only no humor is intended; the character is just such a self-parody that it resembles an actual parody. But by far the worst is Jamie Kennedy, as a character who is clearly intended as endearingly buffoonish comic relief, but just comes off as an intolerable jerk who’s miserable to be around. His character is here to recreate the comic double-act of straight-man Burt and a goofy loose-cannon foil, which both Tremors 2 and Tremors 3 pulled off quite well. But that doesn’t work when the foil is an absolute tool who sucks the humor out of most scenes. Michael Gross is still as great as ever; his lines aren’t as funny, but his performance is right-on. Too bad he has to carry the movie himself: with so little help, all he can do is make it as less-bad as possible. He’s the only shining light in a script that is so dumb and juvenile that I counted about half a dozen gags about guys peeing in the desert.
I’m not trying to be unfairly harsh to Tremors 5, and I certainly didn’t go into it expecting to write a review this bad. I’m a big fan of the series who still revisits even the often-mocked Tremors 3 every now and then, and honestly enjoys it for the silly bit of camp that it is. I thoroughly expected this latest sequel to be a lot of fun, if not exactly award-quality cinema. I am genuinely surprised that after a decade all Universal Studios could scrape together is a poorly-written compilation of cover-song renditions of the Tremors series’ greatest hits; a film that feels more like a cash-in on nostalgia than a triumphant franchise re-launch. It isn’t the worst straight-to-video flick you’ll find this season – at least it’s better than The Asylum’s usual output – but it should have been so much better than this. It has its moments that Tremors fans will enjoy, but nothing more than that. At least the monsters look really cool, and the scenes with them are still quite a bit of fun, even if the lack of practical effects is disappointing. Michael Gross likewise does what he can to save the film, bringing the same deadpan sense of humor that made Burt Gummer a classic character in the first place, and he is able to make a few scenes work, even if the script works against him. But ultimately a Tremors film deserves better than to be just another bland and generic straight-to-video horror flick with lame characters. This series used to be something special. If Universal can learn from this film’s mistake and give the creative reigns back to Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, I’d love to see the series have another actually good entry to wash away the mediocrity of this one. But if that isn’t going to happen, they need to let the graboids burrow off into the sunset with some of their dignity still intact.
- Christopher S. Jordan
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