When you’re in the mood for cheesy science fiction, made-for-Sci-Fi-Channel movies never disappoint. This Saturday night’s premiere, Pterodactyl, certainly fit the bill. My review contains spoilers. What’s the point of trying to keep “plot” details secret from my Loyal Readers with a movie like this?
The first thing to understand about the movie is that it contains a vanity for science fiction geeks. Since I caught this, I suppose that qualifies me as a science fiction geek, too. See, all the characters are named for famous science fiction writers. The list of names I caught included H.P. Lovecraft, Rod Serling, Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Roger Zelazny, David Kemper, and Connie Willis, and last but certainly not least, Robert A. Heinlein.
Cameron Daddo (yes, I had to look him up, too; he’s mainly done a lot of TV in Australia and later here in the States) plays a paleontology professor, desparate to publish, who journeys to the dangerous Turkish-Armenian border (which looks suspiciously like Northern California), along with graduate student and love interest Amy Sloan (yes, I had to look her up, too, and it turns out she had small roles in The Day After Tomorrow and The Aviator) and four loser undergraduates to go dig up bones. They are attacked by — of course — pterodactyls, whose eggs have been released by recent earthquake and volcanic activity and are now flying through the skies searching for food, preying on the local inhabitants.
Already down by one undergraduate who had “early victim” practically tattooed on his forehead, the college group crosses paths with an under-strength Delta Force unit led by a bald and therefore difficult-to recognize Coolio. (Yes, that Coolio.) They capture a “rebel” leader and then run across the civilians, who have already been attacked by the movie’s eponymous monsters. Another student, and several soldiers, become dino-food, and we’re off to the races. Eventually, the three lead actors are the only survivors and they concoct a daring plan to rescue one of their number from the clutches of the terrible pterodactyls.
A word about monsters. In a monster movie, the monsters should be scary. In a movie where the monsters are dinosaurs, again, the dinosaurs ought to be scary. These CGI dinosaurs are, um, not scary. They elicit chuckles and guffaws. Perhaps the reason for this is their inconsistent size. The papier-mache talons that grab at one of the characters are laughably fake-looking and obviously not in scale to the CGI image on screen. In fact, they are strangely mute — these monsters make no noise at all. Nor do they use the tools at their disposal — despite having long beaks, they do not jab or stab at their intended prey. On the plus side, they do have an ability to swoop down on their human victims and slice them cleanly in half while having automatic military weapons fired directly at them with astonishingly poor accuracy. This makes for very amusing television.
Also amusing are the obviously poor tactical decisions made by the Delta Force. Okay, you’re being hunted by a swarm of hungry pterodactyls, and moving towards their aerie. And, the bad guys have snipers in the woods that have already tried to kill you. So naturally, you’re going to walk, straight upright, through the middle of an open field. I know people in the military, and most of them are pretty smart. I’d like to think that in a similar situation, my friends would have the good sense to stay in the forest.
While I’m griping, let me be clear that I understand the convention of using English so that the audience can understand what’s going on. Still, I somehow doubted that the Turkish rebels had so fluent a command of the English language that they communicated to each other and their captive sex-slave women in a language other than their native tongue. Every time the “rebels” were on screen, I was thinking, “What, the producers had enough money for CGI dinosaurs but not enough for subtitles?“
Especially worthy of note is never-quite-right acting. Overacting is a hallmark of the “B” monster movie, and Coolio and three other actors are pleasingly way over the top. This turns out to be preferable to the rest of the characters, including the leads, who appear to be robotically incapable of reacting to their circumstances. Seriously, a microwave oven has more emotional range than these actors. “Oh, look. It’s a flock of pterodactyls. How interesting! Hmm, and the bad guys are shooting at us even while these dinosaurs are trying to eat us. Wow, it sucks to be me right now. Where’s craft services? Oh, yeah, let’s take cover!”
Also worthy of note is the behind-the-cameras crew. The director of this fine piece of film is Mark L. Lester, the director of other masterpieces like Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Armed and Dangerous with John Candy, and Stephen King‘s Firestarter, with Drew Barrymore. The writer is named Mark Sevi and has credits like Dead Men Can’t Dance (tagline: “The Cold War just got hot — time to rock and roll!”), Excessive Force II: Force on Force (starring the amazingly-named Mandingo Warrior, who also worked crew on the star-studded Captain Nuke and the Bomber Boys), and of course the unforgettable Ghoulies IV. In other words, the creative team was working well within their depth here. (I didn’t make up a single one of those links or credits. I wish I had, although I would have shrunk from suggesting in public that there actually could be a man who apparently has chosen to go by the name “Mandingo Warrior.”)
Look, Sci-Fi Saturday movies do not take themselves seriously. Pterodactyl is some seriously bad cinema. If you’re in the mood for it, this is a campy, frivolous, mindless, and quite humorous “B” movie. But you do need to have a taste for some very stinky cheese.