One of the most quintessential elements of the Sharknado series, Syfy’s Ian Ziering-led franchise centered on the titular storms that send sharks flying every which way to smash or eat away the American population, is it’s use of celebrities that range from the B to the F list. The latest iteration of the series, Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, includes Donald Trump supporter Gary Busey as the mad-scientist father of series mainstay Sarah (Tara Reid), Gilbert Gottfried as a storm chaser, and Stacey Dash as a local politician, but that’s not even the half of it. The most unbearable appearance had to be in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, in which the President is played by Mark Cuban and the Vice President is played by (deep breath) Anne Coulter, both of whom survive a sudden sharknado in Washington D.C. There’s a distinct desperation and grotesque ambivalence to these appearances that carries over to the films on the whole, but this is also where the sole genius stroke of all four of these movies comes from.
The only film franchise that I can compare to this quartet of D-movie nonsense is The Expendables, in which Sylvester Stallone‘s fearless leader joins ranks with, and pits himself against, a series of familiar action-genre icons in a celebration of the often dismissed power of their chosen genre and their particular acting style. In the first fiilm, there’s a sense of melancholy to their missions, the feeling of both not having reached one’s potential and being derided for doing work that has saved lives and kept countries free. Replace “saved lives and kept countries free” with “saved careers and kept movie studios afloat” and you’ll get what I’m getting at here.
There’s a potent reflexivity in the bedrock of the Expendables movies, a moment to touch on some personal experiences and ideas that esteemed, celebrated actors and artists can’t speak to with any real authority, and the Sharknado films, underneath all the bewilderingly bad visual effects, have the same opportunity. Neither franchise, however, has taken the chance to actually work with the material in this way, with Mickey Rourke‘s scenes in the first Expendables being the onlys arguable exception. Instead, both franchises lazily indulge in a bacchanal of CGI blood, silly deaths, bad jokes, and gleefully nonsensical storylines that openly throw logic and anything resembling storytelling acumen to the wind. Mind you, these aren’t the faults in Sharknado 1 through 4; they’re the primary features.
If we learned anything from watching Snakes on a Plane, it’s that attempting to engineer a movie that’s so bad it’s good is not the most sound of business models, and please don’t tell me that the producers of that film had anything but business on their minds. There’s no way to engineer The Room, Troll 2, or The Boondock Saints 2: All Saint’s Day because those movies were made with actual belief and passion; the performers and creative minds behind them put their all into the projects and failed anyway. Ziering isn’t Brando, or even Tom Cruise, but he’s competent enough to know that he’s acting in brainless trash and he measures his emotional investment and consideration in his character – of course, his name is Fin Shepard – accordingly. Say what you want about Tommy Wisseau but the infamous filmmaker and actor puts everything he has into The Room and comes up severely wanting. The spectacle of such movies is in the unique timbre of the failure, the evident gap between what the artists thought they were creating and what is on the screen.
For however ridiculous the premise of Sharknado is, and, yes, it’s pretty silly, the films feels extensively planned out in each scene, even more so in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No and Sharknado: The 4th Awakens. Though written to purposefully, actively avoid making sense, the fourth Sharknado film is clearly calibrated to tell a simple, somewhat predictable story in under 90 minutes, and it’s not a particularly original or even batshit story once you get beyond the whole sharknado thing. Initially set in Las Vegas, the fourth Sharknado film opens with Fin saving his son and daughter-in-law from the titular storm following their sky-diving nuptials.
The rest of the film is essentially Fin’s fight to save his family and the world from the storms, as well as tossing barbs back and forth with Tommy Davidson‘s Aston Reynolds, the gifted, wealthy lead inventor and CEO who created the Astro-X machines that have effectively ended sharknados, until they don’t anymore. The underlying thematic idea – technology will fail, but white, male heroes never let you down – is traditionalist in the worst sense of the word, and for whatever the small lunacies from scene to scene, the trajectory of the film’s pro-family narrative is openly predictable. And since the movie so flamboyantly advertises the severe shortage of fucks it gives about narrative coherence, it makes you wonder why Sharknado 4 has so many flat melodramatic touches, such as April’s relationship with her father or the family squabbling that takes up a remarkable amount of time between the titular storms. If the film was truly interested in being as crazy as its title suggests, the film wouldn’t be so interested in servicing rote dramatic tropes, such as making sure a fractured family remains together ultimately, even if it’s all presented in a kind of absurdist, sarcastic drag.
What remains is the dullest and most loathsome kind of movie out there, the kind that uses its overtly sarcastic tone to shield from any criticism; it’s harder to make fun of something that markets itself as not being all that serious. Unlike something like, say, Piranha 3D, there’s no sense of build up artifice to Sharknado, and its few stylistic touches – the blocky, undetailed shark graphics, the open-house school of production design, etc. – is only meant to convey cheapness, not an idea, a perspective, or even a preference really. The first film, which is the cheapest of the bunch, was made for about a million dollars, and I assume the budget steadily increased from there, though I’ve been having trouble securing confirmed budgets for the second, third, and fourth films. It’s not San Andreas money clearly, but where directors like Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard would be able to pack plenty of invention into a million-dollar 90-minute feature, the Sharknado movies spend just as much money actively refusing to do anything even remotely creative beyond the most basic tenants of filmmaking. That, if anything, is what Sharknado 4 celebrates most potently in its 87 minutes.
The most familiar response to these kinds of criticisms is that the critic in question just doesn’t know how to have fun, as if there’s exactly one type of fun to be had. But stupid action is not something I’m adverse to in the slightest. If anything, I think most action films work too hard to prove their worth in political, societal, or, at their absolute worst, moralistic terms. A decently composed fight scene is all I’m really looking for here, folks, and the action in Sharknado is most akin to watching a weather man violently swat at a fly on live TV. Even that would have the spectacle of the man’s obsession with getting the bug on display, where Sharknado can’t even muster something as bare-minimum essential as enthusiasm for the work. That’s where a film’s proverbial personality tends to come from, and the most famous of bad movies, those that are truly so bad that they’re good, are overflowing with personal choices that don’t just stick to a familiar formula. Each decision might be more wrongheaded than the last, but at least the creators have the bravery to try something different.
Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens premieres on Syfy on July 31st.