As far as portmanteaus go, Sharknado is certainly one of the more entertaining ones. It’s also surprisingly been the cause of one of the more thoughtful reviews I’ve written for Front Row. I just couldn’t work out what the film-makers wanted from me. The film is the latest from Asylum Films, the production company responsible for the likes of Nazis At The Center of the Earth and the unforgettable Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus; as such, we know what to expect from it. As Time critic James Poniewozik wrote in his review “Sharknado…should not be judged on how well it fulfills the standards of Band of Brothers. It should be judged on how well it fulfills the standards of a movie with the title Sharknado.”
However, despite the fact that (at the time of writing) the film has a 100% rating from top critics at Rotten Tomatoes, something didn’t sit right. It all comes down to the fact that Sharknado doesn’t entirely commit to its b-movie pretensions.
The plot is certainly not at fault. When a freak storm hits Los Angeles, bringing hundreds Sharks out of the water and into the mainland, one man must fight to protect his family. Along with barmaid Novo and friends Baz and George, Fin (Ian Ziering) sets off on a journey across L.A. to find his mean-spirited ex-wife April (Tara Reid) and his daughter, encountering many a shark on his way. A big fat tick here for ensuing entertainment.
With this genre, I like to take the superfluous (and hugely under-exposed) Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as the benchmark. With its knowing winks towards the audience and excellently observed aesthetic of incompetence, Darkplace is most certainly in on the joke. And, at points, Sharknado reaches those heights.
The films prologue, for example, is a brilliantly slow-burning joke. It’s not until the end credits begin rolling that you’ll realise how truly irrelevant it was and over the top it was. And throughout the film, continuity provide a great deal of laughs: shots from within a car (white light blinding the view out of the windows) are combined with stock footage of what looks like New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Between edits, the water levels are enormously inconsistent; rising and falling, disappearing and re-appearing with neither reason nor logic. This comes to a head in a fantastic wacky scene in which a house is flooded with shark-infested water. The gang escape from said house to an inexplicably dry exterior, and then proceed to narrowly escape a tirade of water bursting back out of the house.
For the most part the script is hilarious. Comedic moments ranges from the obvious (absurd references to Jaws and hammed up dialogue) to the subtle (a throw-away moment in which a father is angered that his son has gone to flight school rather than being out partying as he thought). There are a great many little details, like the tagline “Enough Said”, which are perfectly judged.
But other moments feel un-knowing. Seeming attempts at genuinely heartfelt moments (in which an anticipated punch-line never comes) just come across as unwittingly badly written sentimentality. And some of the jokes fall totally flat. After saving Nova, a bar-stool wielding George declares “That’s the last time you make fun of my stool!”. Is that a deliberate pun? If so it is bizarrely placed. Another character offers the line “My mom always said Hollywood would kill me” just before he is crushed by a flying piece of the Hollywood sign. Moments like this bring into question the genre of comedy within which Sharknado is trying to place itself.
One scene features a shop assistant who rambles inanely about the government being the source of the sharks, a staple often deployed in disaster movies as comic relief. Not only is this a particularly unfunny moment, it’s also in total opposition to the irreverent spirit of Sharknado. The comedy of the film comes from poking fun at blockbuster movies – why does the film occasionally feel the need to become among their number?
Clearly the film is not intended to be taken seriously, but I occasionally felt that the film-makers lost track of their intentions and began producing conventional cinema. And a shark can’t have its cake and eat it. In this case I’m not asking that Sharknado make more sense, or win any Oscars, or even make me care about the characters. But it does need to place its tongue more firmly into its cheek and cut all the scenes that briefly place it in the realm of a normal movie.
It seems that most critics praised the film for its unabashed silliness and it’s true that Sharknado revels in being brainless. But a serious level of intellect is required to write a good ‘bad’ script and some of the choices that the filmmakers made would suggest that this is something they don’t have.
So, back to my benchmark. To compare the film to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace would be to give it too much credit – that short-lived gem of a show was crafted with a level of care that can be seen in every frame. Sharknado, on the other hand is what you might call a clusterfuck. An enjoyable clusterfuck, but a clusterfuck nonetheless.