If movies are to be judged not based purely on what they are, but rather on how well they achieve what they set out to do, then Tremors, from 1990, may need to be rated as “absolutely perfect.”
Now, I don’t actually agree that this should be the final criteria for movie reviewing, but in the case of Tremors, it’s pretty appropriate. This film shoots to be a scary, action-comedy Western-themed monster-movie, and amazingly nails that target right in the head.
But it does more than just hit an unusual genre-target, it’s also a genuinely good movie. It’s got good acting, a great script, and effective direction that does as good a job as anything I’ve seen at balancing the thrills with the laughs with the heart. Really, it’s biggest weakness is that it is in fact a “scary, action-comedy Western-themed monster-movie.” If you can accept that, than it’s hard to find anything to fault about it.
Spoilers ahead, if you care.
For the uninitiated, the Tremors is about Valentine and Earl, two buddies who work as handymen in the near-deserted mining town of Perfection, who wind up in the center of a situation where ragingly carnivorous underground sandworms are attacking and eating the local townsfolk. The creatures at first appear to be a bunch of medium-sized snakes, but are eventually revealed to be much larger than that. The story focuses on the characters coming to realize that they are essentially besieged by these creatures, and figuring how to escape them, and eventually, how to kill them.
What I like about it is the way the characters are funny and quirky, but still feel like real people. The movie has a level of respect for them. We know that some of these townsfolk are going to die, because of the type of film we’re in, but it rarely feels like we’re invited to “mock” them just before they are killed, like we get in a lot of similar movies. The movie smartly keeps up the tension by means other than just killing off all the supporting characters that it can. In fact, the last human death occurs before we even get into the third act. I think particularly of Miguel, a fairly minor character the film had several opportunities to “knock off”, but wisely chooses not to, helping to keep things tense but lively.
Of course, the most memorable of all the supporting players are Bert and Heather, two die-hard survivalists whose house is full of enough gear to outfit a battalion of soldiers. The revelation of the armory that is their rec room is one of the film’s crowning moments of both funny and awesome. The fact that they are played by Reba McEntyre and Michael Gross (best known before this as the mild-mannered father from Family Ties) just makes them all the more awesome. And Burt has the movie’s best line: when asked about what he puts in his home-made explosives, he answers, “Just a few household chemicals in the right proportions.”
The dialogue and quirky characterization are just part of the fun, however. What really sells the movie is the way it pushes the sense of adventure through to the end. We aren’t just watching hapless humans suffering under the overwhelming power of nature (I’m looking at you, Jurassic Park franchise!) but rather at people overcoming horrific circumstances through their smarts and courage. It’s immensely satisfying to watch lead character Valentine figure out a way to beat that last monster (using his last explosive to trick it into digging full speed off a cliff!)…a real Oh yeah!! sort of moment. We get to see him not just winning by the skin of his teeth, but rising up heroically to prove that he’s smart enough. Smart enough to survive, smart enough to defeat the last monster, smart enough to warrant the affections of PhD student Rhonda.
Tremors has got a fun cast. Valentine is played by Kevin Bacon, who apparently thought he was in a career low at the time, but in hindsight we know that Murder in the First was still a few years off so really he had nothing to complain about. His co-star is Fred Ward, who of course is best known for his starring turn in the classic Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swan…Ok, just kidding. Fred Ward is actually an accomplished character actor whose probably been in a bunch of stuff that you’ve seen even if you don’t remember him: The Right Stuff, The Player, Short Cuts, Sweet Home Alabama, and more. The supporting cast includes (in addition to Michael Gross and Reba McEntyre, already mentioned) Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle from Little House on the Prairie), Bibi Besch (Carol Marcus from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), and Ariana Richards (the young girl from Jurassic Park).
Anyway, Tremors is over 25 years old, so the special effects are a bit dated. But if we’re going to let that bother us, then we’re going to have to start discounting any movie from before 2005. As I’ve said, if you can accept the fact that you are watching a film about people fighting giant worms in the desert, than you’ll find an extremely well-constructed and fun adventure-thriller.