Big Ass Spider (2013) **
Director: Mike Mendez
Runtime: 1h 25m
Categories: Giant Bugs
One of the perils of a critical, systematic approach to a genre is that irredeemable dreck starts to become interesting to the reviewer if only because it raises interesting observations in relation to other films within the genre. This is most certainly the case for my rather generous scoring of this movie, which is for the most part, cinematic detritus. However, when viewed in rapid succession with a selection of 1950s giant bug movies it begins to become almost interesting, if only by way of comparison. The fact that Big-Ass Spiders is for the most part using contemporary tropes without any consideration for what they mean or how they fit into the narrative structure only enhances the niche appeal. It’s almost as if the confused, unconscious of the modern era is laid bare across the screen. Those of you who are not scholars of the giant bug genre will want to take my recommendation with a grain of salt.
Our hero, standing in sharp contrast to all the 1950s giant bug movies, is not a soldier, scientist, policeman, or a reporter; instead Alex is a down on his luck exterminator. Alex fits comfortably into the role of lovable loser that is popular in contemporary comedies, if Big-Ass Spiders had been an A-list comedy instead of a fly-by-night horror film, he would probably be played by someone like Seth Rogan. Alex has been called in on his day off to dispose of a rat trapped in an old lady’s apartment, he only obliged the old bat because he obviously needs the money. Unfortunately she’s in worse financial states than him and can only afford to pay with a singularly unappetizing fruitcake. Alex accepts the cake without complaint, even though this old lady in particular has been paying him exclusively in inedible baked goods for some time now, as evidenced by the small pile of them growing in the passenger seat of his truck. He’s all set to leave when he sees a brown recluse spider, scurrying over his upper arm. Alex keeps his cool, but the old bat who hired him won’t stop yelling and swatting at the creature. It’s only a matter of time before the spider bites him and Alex winds up in the hospital.
At the same time he’s being treated for the spider bite, a mysterious corpse arrives at the hospital by mistake. The alcoholic mortician who runs the hospital’s morgue doesn’t notice the tarantula-sized spider scurry out of the body bag, but he does notice when the creature when it sneaks up behind him and gives him a bite on the side of his neck. The sharp pain nasty looking bite is enough to convince the mortician he’s not dealing with Delirium Tremens, so he pulls the fire alarm and books it for help. Alex overhears the mortician being lectured by his boss for pulling the fir alarm at the first sign of trouble, after all he works in a hospital. There’s no better place to suffer an on-the-job injury. Alex, unable to pay off his hefty hospital bill, offers to deal with the giant spider. He enlists the help of Jose, the hospital’s security guard, and heads down to the morgue to track the spider.
The spider isn’t wasting anytime though, it’s already loose in the hospital’s ventilation shafts catching rats and feasting on some of the hospital’s immobile patients. Incidentally, this is not a hospital that I would recommend anyone going to for a serious injury or sickness. Nobody comes rushing to help one patient as he flat-lines from spider-related injuries. The number of rats that the spider manages to pick off in the ventilation shaft also suggests that the hospital is operating a level of hygiene that would be unacceptable for your local McDonald’s. Needless to say the spider proves smarter, stronger, bigger and more dangerous than anything that Alex has even heard of before. Alex isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, especially when spiders, his professional specialization, are concerned. He climbs into the air duct and starts tracking the creature, in what comes across as a half-baked rip-off of the ventilation shaft scene from Alien (1979).
Alex isn’t the only one tracking the spider though, as he’s heading into the vents to look for the giant arachnid a detachment of Special Forces arrives and cordons off the hospital. The soldiers, under the leadership of Major Paxton and his adjutant Lt. Carly Brant, presents an interesting study in the filmmaker’s ambivalence. When they arrive and gear up heroic, swelling music plays that suggests some highly patriotic ass kicking is about to be unleashed. However, as is revealed by subsequent conversations the spider has been unleashed on LA primarily as a result of military negligence. Their secretive agenda and arrogant treatment of civilians makes them seem for a time to be the film’s ancillary villains. They consistently underrate the threat posed by the giant spider and walk into massacres, endangering the people of LA in the process. Yet in the end the soldiers are treated as unabashedly heroic. The movie even includes a scene where the support staff in the command center stands up and applauds the men in the field, a cliché that is nearly ubiquitous among jingoistic action movies. Only the scientist attached to Paxton’s unit, who is responsible for creating the spider in the first place and dresses like a college professor trying to hard to bond with his students, is treated dismissively. The filmmakers, evidently, never decided if they were going to depict the military as oppressive buffoons or selfless heroes. Given that these two versions of the military are the two most common interpretations in 21st American pop-culture, I’m led to believe that no thought whatsoever was put into this by the filmmakers; rather they just applied tropes as needed and called it a day.
The spider slips through Alex’s fingers and bypasses military defensive perimeter by using the sewer system. In-between his annoying attempts at flirting with Lt. Carly, the military tells Alex that they have the situation in hand and they don’t need his help anymore. Alex is all set to give up and let the government handle the situation until he gets a pep talk from Jose, his “Hispanic Robin” (actual line from the movie) telling him to think of the free advertisement he’d get for bringing down the world’s largest spider. The only issue is that Alex, despite his constant boasts of being able to think like a spider, is a pretty lousy exterminator. In retrospect this should come as no surprise, the first act of the movie showed that Alex was down-on-his-luck despite already owning everything he needed for a freelance exterminator business. Either the film’s Los Angles is a lot cleaner than the real-life city or Alex is just not a very good at his job. I’m banking on the latter. Eventually, he manages to track down the spider but only by taking credit for Jose’ advice and ideas. Not since Big Trouble in Little China (1986) have I seen a hero so completely upstaged by his nominal sidekick.
The spider has already grown to the size of van, and is picking off victims left and right in the nearby park (cue gratuitous footage of gorgeous woman fleeing their volleyball game in terror from the oncoming spider – one of the film’s highlights). Alex and the military arrive there at about the same time, and the ensuing firefight destroys Alex’s truck and sends the spider fleeing into the underbrush. As the military is gearing up to press the attack on the spider, Alex gets it into his head that he’s now some kind of expert on the spider threat and begins to lecture Paxton and Brant about the danger of following the creature into the brush. You have to admire his chutzpah! Despite having no idea how to track or kill the spider Alex still pretends to know what the hell he’s doing. The soldiers ignore him, which though generally a good idea, turns out to be a bad one in this case. The detachment sent after the spider is hopelessly routed, and the monster carries off Lt. Brant.
Here we learn the ultimate goal of the spider: reproduction. It’s heading into the middle of downtown Los Angeles to find a nice cushy tower to perch on and lay it’s eggs. Brant, along with other captives are going to provide food for its offspring once they hatch. Maybe I’m overthinking this but how is the giant spider capable of reproduction when it is the only one of it’s kind. Was it born pre-fertilized like Godzilla in the god-awful American remake? Did it use the sperm of an un-mutated male black widow spider? Are the mutant spiders all genetic copies of the original spider? Seeing how frustrated Alex and Jose were with the mad scientist while he was explaining the scanty back story, I assume that this isn’t something we’re suppose to worry too much about. Anyway, the military has already called in bombers to end the spider once and for all. If Alex and Jose want to save Carly and the other hostages they’ll have to get to the spider’s nest before the airstrike reaches them.
My chief interest in Big-Ass Spider is comparing it to its mid-century forerunners. The most obvious differences are in the way the film’s choice of heroes and the way it depicts the military. As I mentioned above, Alex is very much cast in the slob/looser mold common to American comedies at least since Animal House. Physically there is a vast gap between him and the heroes or older films. Whereas the heroes in Beginning of the End (1957) or Them! (1954) were tall, athletic, and conventionally handsome, Alex is chubby and plain looking (though he’s still tall). More importantly for our purposes there is a divide in terms of skills between Alex and the older heroes. Alex is an incompetent exterminator, barely managing to eek out a living with his struggling business. The heroes of the 1950s giant bug movies were either experts in their field, like Dr. Jackson in The Deadly Mantis (1957) or at least well-regarded members of their profession such as Agent Robert Graham in Them! (1954). Alex is incompetent to the point that when he does become effective in the movie’s final act it seems contrived more for the sake of plot than any personal growth. Presumably all this is suppose to make Alex a more appealing every-man to the viewers. In practice he comes off as delusionally arrogant.
The scientific military complex, as I mentioned above is alternatingly heroic and bumbling; serving in turns as out beloved guardian and clandestine oppressor. Big Ass Spiders isn’t sure whether it wants to go with a banal “Support the Troops” theme or an equally banal “Don’t trust the man, man” message. This very ambivalence to the protective role of the nation’s military and scientific elite would be completely foreign to the films of the 1950s. Invariably the threat posed by the giant bugs is neutralized by some cooperation between the two groups in their race to safeguard the American citizens. The Deadly Mantis (1957) is only the least subtle in this respect; the subtext of a protective military-scientific alliance is pervasive throughout the bug movies of the time, including even those set in other countries, like the Black Scorpion (1957). Seeing this dynamic ply out on screen demonstrates just how far our cultural norms have shifted in the past 60 years.
This makes Big-Ass Spider sound far more interesting than it really is. In truth, it’s barely a cut above the monster of the week dreck churned out for the Syfy channel. There are a few well-executed scenes, most at the beginning of the film, that manage to deliver genuine chills. Seeing the spider hatchling close in on the immobile patient being the most impressive of them by far. The CGI work is typical for contemporary movies about giant monsters, which is to say the spider looks like a mini-boss from a low-budget video game RPG. Where Big Ass Spider really shoots itself in the foot though is the interminable, and uniformly unfunny, attempts at humor. There is nothing quite so bad as inept comedy, if you set out to make a scary movie or a dramatic film and fail it can still be wildly funny depending on your level of incompetence; when a comedy fails to meet its goals it’s just boring and annoying. The movie is not totally joyless, but it comes damn close.