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The Meaning of Sharknado


Sharknado is trying to cash in on the so-bad-it’s-good bandwagon… but it kind of works.

You’re supposed to be either outraged and amused by the existence of Sharknado, a now two film strong disaster/horror TV movie franchise built around the improbable weather event of the title. Amused because… well, one imagines that’s pretty self-explanatory, outraged because it bears all the tiresome hallmarks of a cult-film wannabe — i.e. movies that try to prefabricate the kind of midnight-movie popularity that usually has to come about organically. (See: Repo: The Genetic Opera, the latest in a long line of films trying way too hard to be “the next Rocky Horror.“)

I’m probably meant to be in the “outraged” camp, or at least the annoyed one. Ever since the late, great Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and its offspring, RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic) worked out how to turn the perennial Sunday-afternoon (or post-hangover, any day) hobby of talking back to bad movies on TV into mass-entertainment, fans (like myself) of actual “so bad they’re good movies” — i.e. films that are entertaining because they tried to be good and failed miserably — have had to endure a deluge of films lazily put together on the pretext of being “bad on purpose.” Why spend money or try hard when you can sell the exact opposite as the next The Room?

Admittedly, it can be difficult to distinguish sometimes: The Evil Dead movies all openly play up their makers’ fondness for old-school rubber-monster schlock horror to make their own low-tech FX part of the gag, but they’re also still clearly aiming for the films to be good in their own right. Birdemic has all the earmarks of a Tim & Eric sketch, but appears to actually be the sincere output of a… unique mind.

In any case, I understand the drive to lump the original Sharknado in with every other “riff-bait” throwaway that thinks pairing subpar effects and failed celebrities will turn them into a frathouse hit. But whatever the intentions in its inception, Sharknado actually had a certain level of authenticity to it. The purposefully ridiculous premise is exactly the sort of thing legitimate “exploitation” filmmakers of the drive-in/VHS ages would’ve seized on (“Y’know how sometimes tornadoes suck up fish and drop them on dry land? What if it was SHARKS!?”), for one thing. For another, the former-celebrity casting (Ian Ziering, Tara Reid) are exactly the sort of folks who tend to wind up in these things i.e. recognizable names without much real claim to memorability. It even has the half-hearted attempt at relevance that was the hallmark of “real” B-movies — the initial Sharknado forms near a fishing boat engage in illegal shark-fin harvesting. Oh, and also nothing interesting really happens for the first forty minutes or so, which is frustrating but familiar if you’ve ever sat through, say, Monstroid waiting for Monstroid to show up.

(Full disclosure: I’ve worked a convention panel with one of the Syfy executives in charge of the Original Movies productions; and they stated that they’re aiming for “fun” but not for irony or parody most of the time.)

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But the most authentic thing about Sharknado was that it earned its infamy the old fashioned way. Despite The Internet briefly making the project’s American Film Market poster a viral gag a year before its release, television viewers largely ignored the film during its inaugural broadcast. The story — the “Sharknado Phenomenon” — was about a combination of regular folks and media personalities not typically part of the “film nerd” discussion circle hearing about the movie via social media and a (pardon the pun) “feeding frenzy” of folks spending the next morning pouring through Twitter and Facebook to see if it was true that a major cable channel had actually aired a movie about a tornado full of sharks. “Sharknado is an actual movie” eventually made the morning news shows, and that’s where the pop-culture omnipresence of the film came from.

And so, even if I don’t happen to think that Sharknado is/was some kind of high-mark for hilarity (it has its moments — just not enough of them), I can’t really get on the “Bah! Pre-fab riff-bait!” hatewagon.

The sequel, on the other hand, I was actually less enthused by. It’s a bit too cute by half, embracing the “nothing but money-shots” self-consciousness that the first film admirably lacked. There are a few too many callbacks, a few too many “celebrity” cameos (Jared the Subway Guy, Perez Hilton and Andy Dick all turn up to remind you they exist, plus NBC morning news fixtures because why not) and the action gets a little too cartoonish — Ziering jumped into a falling Great White’s throat, then extracted himself and another victim using a chainsaw in the original, this time he leaps from the Empire State Building into the sharknado itself to chainsaw multiple sharks, then ride one back to Earth because reasons.

And yet, I do feel like it’s possible that Sharknado 2 might also be a harbinger of a new way television “events” could be structured. The broadcast I saw aired with “live tweets” imposed onto the screen, highlighting the way the audience was being encouraged to turn a passive viewing experience into a secondary interactive one. And it got me to thinking that, while this was just another layered of too much knowing-unseriousness spoiling what might otherwise be a decent joke… it was also sort-of refreshing.

I’ve mentioned a few times here (and elsewhere) that, as much as I like the option of consuming media in an “On Demand” fashion afforded today, the era of DVR and streaming has taken away the communal experience broadcast TV used to provide from everything but televised sporting events. Well, the “pitch” of Sharknado 2 was nothing short of a loudly declared rejection of the Netflix-binge/”Wait for Hulu” viewership culture — not just “Watch this silly thing we made!” but “Watch this silly thing we made… right now, live, with everyone else and make a party of it!” There’s an argument to be had, sure, as to whether or not “Heh. Horrible actress Tara Reid has a buzz-saw hand now.” is a suitable successor to “Whoa! So THAT’S who shot J.R.!” …but I can’t hate it in principle.

It’s a cliché at this point, but the information age really has isolated and divided us where it was supposed to bring us closer together. If pointing and laughing at people who used to be famous running away from a tornado full of sharks is what it takes to get us to actively share cultural experience again? I’ll take it.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.