Michael Gross is 73 years old.
Seventy-three years old and still out there running around chasing Graboids in the new Tremors: Shrieker Island, the seventh installment of the cult franchise.
If you’re not a Tremors fan, first, why are you here? Regardless, I’m glad you are. You should watch all these movies. But second, you probably remember Michael Gross. Michael Gross from Family Ties. This Michael Gross.
This man is the reason I’ve now watched all seven Tremors movies with gusto. He’s why some movies, like The Legend Begins, rank so high on my list. He has carried the franchise forward and has, at times, demonstrated a quiet brilliance as an actor.
He also looks like this at the onset of Shrieker Island.
His character, doomsday prepper Burt Gummer, has become the unlikely face of the franchise over 30 years. Gummer should have, by any metric, been a quickly forgotten side character. He’s one-dimensional and his Vonnegutian “glass of water” is munitions no matter what. The writing in the entire franchise, Shrieker Island included, doesn’t ever challenge or expand the character. Some passing attempts are made to make Burt an anti-government tax evader with some tough familial connections, but these are always merely avenues to bring other characters in to fight Graboids and never seriously stick.
This franchise will always be a monster franchise first, prioritizing exploding entrails before exploring emotions. That is a shame considering the commitment Gross has brought to Gummer and the sheer length of opportunity to more fully shade him in.
Despite all this, Shrieker Island does stand as a love letter to the character. And Gross somehow, someway, breathes new life into Burt Gummer, even if he needs to do the same thing he’s always done.
Viewers can love that. Think about Murder, She Wrote or Monk or MacGyver — all successful TV series with formulaic plots where the fun is in the journey and the schtick. After Cold Day, I felt that the Tremors franchise was not only tired, but so was Gross. His delivery had fallen flat at times, and the plot seemed rushed. Gross was going through the motions and didn’t seem to want to be there. In Shrieker Island, though, there’s a sense of finality toward which he’s working. He’s not tired anymore. He’s not pushing himself, either. There’s a sense of peace and equilibrium in his performance.
Unfortunately, one of Gross’s better performances in the franchise is not enough to extract too much value from the latest film. Though better than Cold Day, Shrieker Island avoids all opportunities to go bigger like an Ass Blaster in a dynamite factory.
If you’re already a Tremors fan, you’ll watch this movie no matter what is contained in this review. The only question is how quickly you’ll do it. I’ll say pursue this as fast as you’ve pursued the others. Shrieker Island is just as good to me as Back to Perfection was, but it doesn’t really crack into the tippy top where there’s more semblance of lore or characters. But, if you love Tremors, you’ll love this movie. You just won’t be surprised by any of it. Watch it for the same reason we’ve watched The Office 14 times over. It’s cheaper than therapy, and you know when to laugh.
If you aren’t a fan, your question may be “Why bother?” Bother because monster movies are hella tight and you won’t need to watch six movies to enjoy this one.
Shrieker Island’s plot plays on the concept of The Most Dangerous Game, except that instead of humans hunting humans, a bunch of “slack-jawed hipster hunters from Silicon Valley” spend their extracted riches on hunting genetically modified Graboids, built to be even better apex predators. It’s unbelievably easy to see other inspirations. Lovers of films like Predator, Rambo, Jurassic Park, The Evil Dead or The Descent will see echoes, both laboriously direct or coyly indirect. This includes a series of unfortunate events in a bathroom, which has now dethroned Johan Breyer’s death in Bloodlines as my favorite death in the series.
This plot ultimately pits Gross’s Gummer against Richard Brake’s Bill, the organizer of the hunt. Brake comes in as a successful character actor, having played gruff roles from the Night King in Game of Thrones to the sheriff in the Knights of Cydonia music video by Muse. He may also be the one non-Graboid villain in the entire franchise that’s worth a damn. It’s the best non-Gross performance since Billy Drago’s in The Legend Begins. Bill isn’t villainous for villainy’s sake. In fact, his strength comes from being a foil for Burt — equally stubborn, equally passionate, perhaps even equally skilled although once again, the writing doesn’t allow for Bill to develop in a credible way nor push Burt anywhere meaningful.
Some will lament the loss of practical effects that endeared us to the first Tremors films, but Shrieker Island does benefit from advancements in technology. Previous films that had played with graphics feel too fake and dated now. But since technology has progressed, Shrieker Island may be the most beautifully shot film in the franchise. The establishing shots of its filming locations in Thailand are gorgeous, and though there seems to be a temptation towards Dutch angles, it’s not Battlefield Earth bad. And the monsters. God. The monsters are pretty. Finally. It’s a shame we don’t see more of them.
As with films past, the other qualities of the monsters don’t venture into ridiculous territory. This has always been a strength of the franchise as it tries to provide some tweaks to their behavior and appearance that throw some curveballs to the characters without jumping forward into absurdity. In Shrieker Island, these tweaks are not taken full advantage of, but they do provide at least two good scenes.
Non-fans who have never seen a Tremors film before will be able to follow the plot, even if the backgrounds that do exist for the characters get little play. There’s some good use of old stock footage from Burt’s survivalist TV-show days that brings them up to speed in a natural way and helps introduce Burt again. But there’s plenty that non-fans and fans won’t like.
From a plot perspective, the conflicts are relatively mundane or counterintuitive — despite ample opportunities to actually put challenges in place that would have pushed the characters farther and made the plot riskier. One primary plot driver is that the Graboids are isolated on an island. Ass Blasters are rarely mentioned or used in the film to complicate matters.
Rather than have a flying creature complicate the island setting, the Graboids are made capable of moving to and from the islands. This is delivered as a serious complication but treated without the same grave regard. The series has never fully played with Graboids in water either, and this is a prime chance with characters traveling to and from islands via boats. The idea of a mega, GMO-Queen Graboid is also not explored fully, and one is liable to believe these are victims of budget.
Lastly, coming to a research outpost after playing Cast Away, Burt could have been pushed to use different solutions than what he’s used for six movies. But rather than deal with this sticky situation, a cache miraculously appears for use.
Many other performances are tepid as well. Jon Heder is a serviceable choice, but it’s obvious the role was written for Jamie Kennedy’s Travis of the previous films. Heder deserves better. There’s not a lot of opportunity for Heder to do what he does best, and the emotional gravitas that would have been poignant for Travis is flat for Heder’s Jimmy. Caroline Langrishe’s turn as Dr. Jasmine Welker is labored and soporific. There is no chemistry between her and the rest of the cast, and it’s apparent she’s there only to connect Burt to others.
Jackie Cruz of Orange Is The New Black fame plays Freddie, a firecracker researcher and admirer of Burt. The character seems capable, and Cruz works as best she can to branch out of her most well-known role, but the writing and direction hamstring her. At one point, the dialogue between Burt and Freddie is like the worst of Cold Day. The saying is that acting is reacting, and this scene is merely delivering joint monologues.
There are simply too many characters, which is something rarely said about slasher and monster flicks. When there are too many characters, just kill them off. While the bodies hit the floor with regularity, two of the survivors have close to no lines and Anna, played adeptly enough by Cassie Clare, is largely forgotten after being used as the Voice of Reason™ in Bill’s camp. She’s also oddly attached to her quiver, wearing it even at the most unnecessary point of the film. Don’t look for her skill with arrows to be used at any critical point.
Many of the indigenous people in the opening scene are simply forgotten about and never referenced (sadly symbolic of our collective treatment of indigenous folks, despite their history and importance to the world). In the most egregious case, one named character dies prominently without having said a single line and their death never explained to the group at large. Suddenly, you find yourself wondering how many people are still around, where the others who didn’t die all went, and forgetful that certain people are still alive because they haven’t contributed anything to the movie so far.
As much as one can see the influences of other films, one of the reasons these connections are so readily seen is because the writing is lazy. They do not build on the shoulders of giants. They let the giants tell the same story again.
Non-fans will leave without a sense of excitement and probably annoyed by some forced sentimentality.
But for fans, they’ll enjoy this love letter to Burt. There is a famous criticism for books that overstay their welcome: The covers are too far apart. But I think at the end of this movie, I’m once again sad to close them, especially with the sense that this is indeed the last hurrah.
Now, what do we need to do to get Reba McEntire back for a reboot?
Celebrate Burt Gummer Day on April 14th … and don’t forget to pay your taxes.