The Summer of the Sharknado

The Summer of the Sharknado

Remember when summer blockbusters used to be fun? When Arnold Schwarzenegger absurdly
swaggered through explosions in his shades and leather jacket? When Michael J.
Fox implausibly spun through time in his souped-up Delorean? When Michael
Keaton’s Batman actually spoke like he came out of a comic book rather than a
Dostoevsky novel? Whatever happened to such irreverent, charismatic figures and
the movies that brought them to momentary, flickering life? This year we were subjected to one bloated
action film after another, all of which treated their subject matter, however
ridiculous—whether zombie apocalypse, giant robots defending the earth against
inter-dimensional monsters, or a post-apocalyptic world exploited and abandoned
by the super-rich—with the kind of ponderous gravitas usually accorded to
European art films. Who can save our
popcorn fare from this inflated sense of self-importance?  Forget Wolverine, Iron Man, and Thor: this is
a job for Sharknado!

In early July, when the heat wave was hitting its peak in
many parts of the country, and even the air-conditioned Cineplex failed to
provide an escape from the enervating fug of 2013, the Syfy network broke a
years-long record of consistently bad entertainment with a deliciously absurd
ninety-minute escapade with the most irresistible title in recent memory. While
the network has tried several times to present campy, so-bad-they’re-good B-movies
for a contemporary mass audience (Dinocroc,
Sharktopus, Frankenfish), none of them has managed to find that essential
balance between naïve earnestness and shameless exploitation that made those
grindhouse classics of the 70s so bloody wonderful. As Nigel Tuffnel said, there’s such a fine
line between stupid and clever.  But
somehow Sharknado happened to find
this line and balance on it, precariously and hilariously. After airing to luke-warm ratings on July 11,
the movie sparked off a flurry of Twitter activity, generating smirking but
admiring tweets from such surprising celebrities as Mia Farrow, Wil Wheaton,
and Corey Monteith (some of the last he posted before passing away). Syfy aired it twice more in July, nearly
doubling the number of viewers of its original airing each time, and produced a
limited theatrical release, which sold out seats in the select cities where it
showed. Other than a great title, what
could make such an inauspicious production into such a phenomenon?

First of all, it’s actually really funny, but not only in
the ways one might expect. Sharknado offers horror-comedy lovers a
grand guignol of gore as herds of sharks are summarily blown up, gunned down,
stabbed with pool cues, hit with bar stools, and chain-sawed from the inside
out. This should come as no surprise, even if it is fun to see how they’re
going to top themselves in violent absurdity. What did surprise me is that I actually started to care about these
ridiculous stock characters, just a tiny bit. Not enough that I’d give up my
place in the check out line to one of them if they had only a few groceries and
I had a full cart, but, if I found myself stuck next to one of them on an
airplane, I might actually listen to that person with more than mere
politeness. This is how the story gets
us to let our guard down long enough to get taken in by the punch-lines. In an absurd
reprise of Quint’s speech in Jaws, as
he recounts the disaster of the S.S. Indianapolis, waitress Nova tells young
pilot Matt Shepherd about how she got the scar on her leg, a mystery apparently
too painful to reveal to the other characters who’d asked about it. During a childhood fishing expedition that
ended in disaster, she says, “Six people went into the water, and one little
girl came out. They took my
grandfather. That’s why I hate sharks.”
Though this last line has been often quoted and Tweeted, my favorite comes
after, when Matt eagerly says: “Now I really hate sharks too!”

Beyond these obviously appealing qualities, however, Sharknado has somehow managed to capture
the mood of the moment by presenting us with a disaster we don’t really have to
care about. In a summer of unprecedented
heat, and the by-now-anticipated escalating number of wildfires, droughts, and floods,
as we anticipate what is expected to be a horrendous hurricane season, the new
normal has become just that, and talking about the climatic apocalypse has
become about as boring as, well, talking about the weather.  In his big speech on climate change,
President Obama made the rather banal observation that “all weather events are
affected by it—more extreme droughts, floods, wildfires and hurricanes,” adding
that “the question is not whether we need to act. The question is whether we
will have the courage to act before it’s too late.” The president in The Day After Tomorrow said the same thing about a decade ago. And even such an inauspicious B-movie as Soylent Green offered a more urgent
warning about climate change, and that was forty years ago! I’m not saying it’s
too late to act, but it’s certainly too late to raise the question of whether
we will have the courage to act. Thankfully, Sharknado dispenses
with such platitudes by presenting us with a world surprisingly like our own,
one in which absurdly bad things happen, a lot of guns are fired, and beautiful
people find true love and hug. 

This isn’t to say that Sharknado
is cynical, certainly not as cynical as, say, Elysium, a film that presents a stark vision of a ruined world
abandoned to the 99% only to conclude by suggesting we could right the world’s
wrongs with better health care for everyone. Sharknado doesn’t pretend to
offer solutions, but it does manage to capture, or at least reflect, the
weirdness and stupidity of the new millennium better than anything else I’ve
seen this summer. Some of the most effective scenes are those set in Beverly
Hills, where we see torrents of water flooding into wealthy homes and
inundating the manicured landscapes of the affluent. Adding shark fins to such familiar disaster
scenarios seems less gratuitousness than commentary. And while it’s glorious, gory fun watching
the heroes and heroines of the film blow away these sharks with their arsenals,
Sharknado never demeans its viewers
by implying that natural disasters can be overcome with “courage.” The news commentators reporting on the
hurricane and waterspouts threatening California don’t hesitate to state
clearly that this extreme weather is a direct result of global warming, showing
a responsibility in reporting that may be the film’s most implausible element.

And for the record, Sharknado
does take the time to address an issue that has otherwise been given little
attention in the mainstream media. The
opening scene depicts an unscrupulous dealer in shark fins selling his wares to
an Asian buyer to use in shark fin soup. As the camera surveys heaps of dead sharks on the deck of the ship where
the deal is taking place, the foreman barks out “toss ‘em and bag ‘em!,” an
honest reflection of how this horrific practice is carried out. It’s hard to imagine an industry more
wasteful or cruel than the shark fin trade, in which these amazing animals are
caught for only one small part of their anatomy. After the fin is cut off, the shark is tossed
out of the boat to slowly bleed to death as it sinks to the bottom of the
ocean. Despite protests, the trade is so
widespread that last year over one hundred million sharks were killed in this
way (that’s over eleven thousand an hour). Number of humans killed by sharks? 12. The shark dealer in Sharknado enunciates
what might well count as the film’s hidden moral: “You don’t have to be afraid
of the sharks. They are the ones who
should be afraid of us.” You won’t hear
this on Shark Week. 

Sometimes the only reliable measure of the absurdity of our
times comes from absurd films. This is a
quality that the earliest spin-offs of Jaws
had in abundance. Piranha (1978) is about a
military-testing operation gone horribly wrong, when a super-breed of killer
fish designed for use against the North Vietnamese is set loose in domestic
waters. Barracuda (1978) and Prophecy
(1979) are about animals made into monsters by toxic chemical being dumped
in the water. Tentacles (1978) is about a giant octopus driven to a killer
rampage by intrusive underwater experiments carried out by a local developer;
one of the characters describes the eight-armed antagonist in terms applicable
to all these silly but socially-conscious B-movies: “It’s an animal, disturbed
by man’s stupidity.” Not a bad tag-line
for the Sharknado sequel.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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