You’ve seen Jaws, right? We’ve all seen Jaws. Jaws is a brilliant movie. It is a classic of cinematic art. Jaws has built lasting artifacts in our psyches: the theme song (duh-dun . . . duh-dun . . . Unfortunately impossible to render phonetically and keep the air of menace. Just picture a shark circling around your ankles. And not that nice Bruce from Finding Nemo.), the idea that great white sharks are a terrible danger to humans (There were 106 great white shark attacks between 1916 and 2011, only 13 of them ending in fatality. In 1996, 11,000 people were injured by buckets.), the movie’s most famous lines — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “Smile, you son of a bitch!” and “This was no boating accident.” Jaws has done what art should do: it has made an impact. Thrown into the pond of our collective consciousness, there have been ripples that have spread across the entire surface, and they are still echoing.
You know what else Jaws created? Sharknado.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of bad movies. I enjoy them: I used to have video tapes of Chopping Mall and Return to Horror High; Summer School with Mark Harmon and The Principal with Jim Belushi. I’ve seen eight action movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and all of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comedies, including Red Sonja. I’ve sat through six Police Academy movies, four Hellraiser movies, and nine Friday the 13th movies. I’ve seen Superman IV, Highlander II, and Leonard Part 6. Howard the Duck. Showgirls. Battlefield Earth. Thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000, I’ve seen Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Robot Versus The Aztec Mummy and Gorgo. I’ve seen Roadhouse. Several times. Red Dawn, too.
I like to play Six Degrees of Separation not to Kevin Bacon, but to Red Dawn. It’s not hard: the movie starred Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Harry Dean Stanton, and Powers Boothe, and was directed by John Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now. The horror. So Jaws starred Richard Dreyfuss, who was in Stakeout with Emilio Estevez, who is Charlie Sheen’s brother and has been in several movies with him, including Men At Work, Young Guns, and The Outsiders. Charlie Sheen played Matt Eckert in Red Dawn. Three degrees.
So my point is, I didn’t just watch Sharknado. I loved it. I haven’t laughed that much since Big Trouble in Little China.
Sharknado is everything a bad movie should be. The writer, the impossibly named Thunder Levin (Who also wrote Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood, which starred C. Thomas Howell — who was also in Red Dawn.), knew it, and that’s why the tag line of the movie is “Enough said.” He knew he had something brilliant, something timeless. Something that should be cherished.
Because this might be the worst movie ever made.
The premise is: global warming (clearly identified as the villain during the expository TV Newscast scenes explaining the strange events happening in LA) has caused an unprecedented number of sharks to come closer than ever before to the LA coastline, followed immediately by the first hurricane to strike California (Fun fact: this is marginally plausible! The reason no hurricane has struck California full-bore is the cold water along the coast, so if climate change increases the surface temperature of the water . . . watch out for flying sharks.). The storm causes waterspouts, which lift up uncountable sharks and then move over land, flinging airborne sharks all over the place. Whenever the sharks fly by or land on someone, they bite, tearing off limbs, heads, faces, you name it.
Yeah, that’s right. Waterspouts moving over land and not dissipating (until they are blown up by the heroes!). Flying sharks, tumbling through air (and therefore strangling), and they still bite anything human they come into contact with. At one point a shark bites through the roof of a car. How did it open its jaws wide enough to sink its teeth into a flat metal surface in a perfect ellipse of pointy doom? Why did it tear out the section of roof, spit it to the side and then try to eat the humans inside, when it should have been busily dying of oxygen deprivation? BECAUSE SHARKNADO!
The movie has one of the weirdest opening sequences I know. You know in Godzilla, and Jurassic Park, they show the monster wreaking some havoc and some innocent person on a beach or a fishing boat getting stomped and eaten? Right: in this one it’s a fishing boat harvesting shark fins. Just to make us wonder if maybe we deserve what’s about to happen. The seedy criminal captain is bargaining with an Asian man who wants to buy the cargo of shark fins — but he doesn’t want to pay full price! There is a bizarre confrontation involving guns on both sides and a storm the ship sails into; it ends when flying sharks tear off the captain’s face, one piece at a time.
This is Sharknado.
We move ashore, where we meet our hero, Fin Shepard, a divorced father of two (Forgive that — errr — spoiler, but I didn’t want anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet to be as blindsided by Fin’s status as a middle-aged divorced father as was his shotgun-toting, worst-fake-scar-outside-of-a-six-year-old’s-Frankenstein-Halloween-costume-having, exploitative-bikini-wearing barmaid Nova Clarke. Her reaction to the news that her boss and vague awkward crush has an ex-wife and two kids, “WHAT?!?! You have a SON, TOO?!?” was more extreme than her reaction to the flying people-biting sharks, the which she tends to just kill without any reaction, emotion, or facial expression, finishing with her own patented quip: “I REALLY hate sharks!”). Fin surfs, and so is in the water when the still ocean-bound sharks attack innocent civilians at the beginning of the movie; he rescues his Aussie buddy Baz by using his surfboard to vigorously poke the shark that nearly bit Baz’s leg off, an injury that disappears almost as soon as it happens (Because, y’know, he got it bandaged. Hey, if Rambo can seal a gunshot wound through his kidney with gunpowder and a burning twig [Rambo III? Yeah, I’ve seen that. Oh: and Sylvester Stallone was in Demolition Man with Wesley Snipes, who was in Major League with Charlie Sheen.] and then slaughter an entire camp full of Commies, then Baz can handle the Sharknado even with a game leg.), even though everyone else who gets even sideswiped by a shark loses whole limbs in mere instants. Fin also owns a crappy bar right at the end of a pier, the which is first invaded by sharks (Not to worry — Nova doesn’t even blink before she kills the first shark to crash through the window and land on the floor snapping at passersby. She stabs it with a pool cue.) and then washed away by the hurricane. He then drives his friends up into the hills to rescue his ex-wife and children (BAZ: “They’re like a thousand miles inland!” FIN: “They’re 6.6 miles inland, and it’s not far enough. Not for this storm.”), stopping along the way to rescue drivers standing zombie-like on an on-ramp, a school bus full of children, and then finally all of the students at his son’s flight school, before helping to end the Sharknado. What a dad. What a hero.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ian Ziering. From Beverly Hills, 90210 straight to Sharknado, with a brief stop at Melrose Place in between (And not a whole lot else.). The funny thing is, he was the best actor in the movie, and I’m including John Heard, a genuinely good actor who made me very sad by playing George, the lovable lush with the barstool, whose alcoholism and creeping on the ingenue are redeemed when he dies to save a trapped dog from the tidal wave of sharks, by smashing the car’s window with his padded barstool (He killed a shark with the barstool earlier.). Dog’s a golden retriever, of course, because Hollywood’s racist — pit bulls only get to play servants and villains. Though I need to know how the dog’s owner, one of the people who senselessly park and get out of their cars on an LA freeway on-ramp during a hurricane, managed to lock both her dog and her keys in her car, necessitating George’s barstool-rescue.
I can’t tell you how bad the acting is. And the script. And the continuity. The sharks are either really bad CGI or stock footage, as is the weather; the best part is that since the film was made in LA, there is no bad weather when the camera is on the heroes; then we look behind them, and the world-ending global-warming-produced hurricane is chucking sharks at them in between thunderclaps. Then back to Ian/Fin, who is dry and standing in sunlight. Remarkable. The weather pauses whenever they have need of a pensive moment — to mourn the loss of George, for instance, or to wonder, as the characters do on several occasions, about the absurdity of their own situation (“Man. Unbelievable!” Ian/Fin mutters as he drives away from the shark-infested on-ramp. All you can do is nod.) — and then returns when it’s time to get sharky again. Floods dry up instantly; when Ian/Fin rappels from a bridge down to the roof of the school bus to save all those kids — even though all he does is hand them the rope, whereupon Baz, the unsung hero with the nearly-severed leg, hauls them all the way up to the bridge with the help of a single block-and-tackle attached to the bumper of Ian/Fin’s SUV — the bus is nearly inundated by water, with sharks swimming all around it; except the water recedes as soon as Ian hits the bus, falls off the roof and swings around like a doofus for a moment before he opens the emergency door on the back.
When we visit the palatial home of Fin/Ian’s ex-wife — played by the hard-plastic-shelled Tara Reid, and I refer both to her post-operative body composition and to her acting — the sharks invade on a wave of water through the windows, flooding the house to a depth of three or four feet, enabling both the shark-ingestion of Tara’s shmuck of a boyfriend (Clearing the way for our heroes’ reconciliation — I can’t wait to see if they’ll get back together!) and a knock-down drag-out brawl with a shark whom Fin/Ian and Baz fight off with a bookcase. But then they escape through the front door — and the front yard is dry. I don’t mean mostly dry, it’s dry. “How can the house be flooded?” we ask; and then the house bursts in an explosion of water and sharks, giving us the answer — clearly it was built atop a shark geyser (Covering a massive lake of burning hot death-juice, known at Old Faithful as magma, and in Sharknado as the script.). This must explain the completely absurd observation by Nova, who looks out at the flooded LA cityscape and says, “It’s like Old Faithful!” Which, though I have never been there in person, I cannot think in any way resembles a hurricane-flooded major metropolis, with or without flying sharks. My assumption is that she is clairvoyant, and while she may be staring at LA in that moment, in her all-seeing mind’s eye, she is gazing on the collapsing house that flooded in a dry field. Like Old Faithful. With sharks.
There are several shooting scenes — including when Baz puts a scuba tank into a shark’s mouth and Fin shoots it, blowing the shark into smithereens (But he never says “Smile, you son of a bitch,” so clearly, this wasn’t stolen from Jaws. Yeah. And Vanilla Ice wrote the tune for “Ice, Ice, Baby.”). Nova — played by a woman who clearly has never even handled a shotgun, let alone done any actual acting — blasts a shark five times in the head, opening funnel-like holes in its skin, kind of like when the super-terminator in Terminator 2, played by Robert Patrick (Who was also in Striptease with Demi Moore, who was in Ghost with Patrick Swayze — who played Jed Eckert in Red Dawn) gets shot by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator (Also in the first Terminator? Michael Biehn. He was in Navy Seals with Charlie Sheen. Three degrees.) and yet keeps running; this shark dies, flooding the entire pool-sized living room with enough blood to turn the water a murky deep red color (Baz makes a menstruation joke! “Looks like it’s that time of the month!” Pure hilarity!). When the shark bites through the roof of the SUV, Nova shoots that one in the face, and one shot is enough to launch the shark off the car’s roof, flipping it in the air before it crashes to the ground with half of its face torn off. She must have used the big shells that time. My favorite, though, was when Ian/Fin is protecting his son, Matt, while Matt and Nova fly a helicopter into the storm so they can blow up the sharknado; there are half a dozen sharks flying at the helicopter, and Ian/Fin draws his pistol, closes one steely eye, and fires off exactly one shot per shark, each of them falling out of the sky instantly with each pull of the trigger. If a cartoon dog popped up with the sharks in his paws, it would have been Duck Hunt.
All right, let’s get to the climax. So the sharknados (Sharknadoes? What’s the plural here?) — are swirling around downtown LA. Ian/Fin has rescued his ventriloquist dummy of a wife, and the pouty angsty ball of helplessness that is his daughter, and they have arrived at the flight school where his son Matt is a student. They decide they can’t just run and leave LA to the mercy of the flying sharks (And the devastating tornados and the hurricane, I guess — but really, the scary part is the sharks, am I right?); they have to do something. So they have an idea: there’s a helicopter there, and since the instructor was sucked up when the sharknado passed over the flight school, the only one who can possibly fly it is Matt. So they go to a nearby warehouse filled with various tools and hardware implements (I had A-Team flashbacks at this point) and get strapped up: Fin/Ian gets himself a chainsaw — and hands to his wife a hedge trimmer. An electric hedge trimmer. Baz, Matt, and Nova make bombs out of propane canisters. The plan is for Matt and Nova — who have a moment of just sublimely bad acting while they are building bombs and Matt asks about Nova’s weird fake scar, which is on the side of her thigh and looks kind of like she was clawed by a tiger with the shakes, four or five parallel ridges that could not ever have been made by a shark’s teeth; Nova explains how her grandfather took her fishing and they went overboard and everyone but her got eaten by sharks (She actually echoes Quinn’s WWII shark story from Jaws, saying, “Six men went into the water that day. I was the only one who came out.” I really wanted her to break into “Farewell and adieu, ye sweet Spanish ladies.” And maybe grow a scraggly beard.), and then she ends with a heartfelt, “That’s why I hate sharks.” Matt responds, “I think I hate sharks now, too!” — Matt and Nova will fly over the sharknados and drop their propane bombs into them. Because a tornado is the result of warm air crashing against cold air, Matt tells us (with all the sophistication of someone who saw it on Weather Wiz Kids one Saturday morning), and if an explosion could change the balance, the tornado might dissipate!
I don’t mean to lose my willing suspension of disbelief here, but — a flight student. Is going to fly a helicopter. Into a hurricane. Above a tornado. And drop a bomb made of a can of propane, a smoke alarm, and a roadside flare all duct-taped together, which can’t weigh more than five pounds, total. And this thing is going to explode, and — blow up the tornado, essentially.
They do it, and they kill two of the sharknados. But there are three sharknados, and they run out of bombs. And then the sharks from the third sharknado hit them, and one grabs onto the skid. And in trying to dislodge it, Nova falls out of the helicopter, and is grabbed, in midair — not by that shark, but by another one flying by at just the opportune moment. How sad! There was a romance brewing there! (A word about that: the woman starts off as the love interest for Ian/Fin, but she gets scraped off on his son before the ending, once the ex-wife has finished her bitchy sniping at the younger, hotter woman, so that Fin/Ian can reconcile with his ex-wife, proving that absence and flying sharks both make the heart grow fonder. And that Stephenie Meyer is not the only writer to use “Well you can date my child instead of me!” as the deus ex machina to end a love triangle. People are so frigging creepy.) Sharks crash into the helicopter, which comes down to a crash landing nearby where Fin/Ian and wife and daughter are hiding in a retirement community (Because he already saved kids and dogs; now he just needs to rescue old people. Which he does. From a shark that lands in their swimming pool. Why were they swimming during a sharknado-producing hurricane, you ask? Because the weather is just fine where they are. Apparently the stock footage of the storm hadn’t caught up to them yet.). They lost Baz to sharks at the flight school/warehouse, so now it is up to Fin to drive the oversized Hummer they picked up after their SUV was eaten, and which Baz has filled with explosives, in a re-creation of the climactic scene of Twister: he drives the Hummer straight at the last remaining Sharknado, lights the fuse on the bomb, and then leaps out of the truck (which appears to be going about 80 mph, so he has to roll an extra time in order to come to a stop unharmed) and lets it jump off of a ramp (At the end of a highway switchback that appears to lead absolutely nowhere. In downtown LA. Or maybe we’re in the hills outside of LA. It’s not really clear.) into the Sharknado, where it explodes and saves the day.
But that’s not the end.
Because the sharks that were airborne, are now falling from the sky. It’s raining sharks. Ian/Fin jumps up from the concrete, and — without even an attempt at continuity — he is suddenly running down an alley towards his family, his daughter yelling “Daddy!” as she runs toward him while he’s waving her away, yelling, “Get outta there!” Because she doesn’t see the shark falling behind her: coming right at her. And in a series of jump-cuts worthy of Army of Darkness, Ian/Fin shoves his daughter out of the way of the flying shark, starts up his chainsaw, runs forward with the Gritted Teeth of Fury, and leaps up into the shark’s mouth.
The shark falls. Our hero is dead, giving his life to save his daughter.
But wait — the shark’s belly moves. A sound is heard. And then — a miracle! The end of the chainsaw bursts out of the shark! The blade comes down, a large slit is made, and from out of that beast’s belly (Sliced-open shark belly really looks a lot like foam rubber. Who knew?) is born our hero, blood soaked and screaming incoherently.
Then he reaches back into the shark, and pulls out Nova.
That’s right. Matt performs CPR, she spits out water — water? I guess she was drowning inside the shark’s stomach. Or maybe she got a mouthful from the storm when she was screaming, “WHY WON’T YOU DIE?!?” at the shark on the helicopter skid. Anyhoo — and they embrace. And, in one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of an actress who cannot bear to do what the sript calls for, Tara Reid wipes the blood off of Ian/Fin’s mouth and they have a kiss, after which her look of disgust is impossible to miss.
And appropriate, considering the movie that preceded it.
Why have I told you all of this? Why dedicate this much time and this many words to a movie that was all the ironic rage two years ago (and which has spawned two sequels, the upcoming installment entitled Sharknado Oh Hell No) but is now just something really awful that the Scify Channel made once?
Because this is what movies are supposed to be. It was fun to watch. I was entertained. Sure, I wasn’t entertained in the way they wanted me to be; the filmmakers weren’t clever enough to make this thing truly ironic in the tradition of the Evil Dead franchise; they wanted me to relate to the characters and sympathize with them, and to imagine how terrible it would be if there were sharks raining down on my family, and all I had was a chainsaw and gritted teeth. And I couldn’t do that, because I was too busy laughing. So it didn’t do what the filmmakers intended it to — but it did live up to its purpose. At a workshop I attended last week, on teaching AP Literature, there was a moment when the instructor declared unequivocally that “No novel has a message. The purpose of literature is to entertain. Great novels give insight into the human condition — but the author’s goal is entertainment.”
Jaws is a great movie. It gives insight into the human condition; I can relate both to Sheriff Brody, who is swamped in bureaucracy and ignored by his superiors despite being right, and to Hooper, the scientist with a passion that everyone else thinks is crazy. And who is invited in as the expert, and then they don’t listen to him either, and his angry sarcastic rants at the idiots who won’t listen could just as easily have come out of my mouth. The movie asks about the dangers we face when the natural world, which we don’t understand, is ignored in favor of capitalism and profits and maintaining appearances; I consider that a very real issue, one that we should spend more time thinking about. And at the same time, Jaws is entirely entertaining: from the first swimmer getting pulled down, to that eminently satisfying concluding explosion, Jaws is fun to watch.
So is Sharknado.
And only one of those movies has a scene with a chainsaw.
Oh: and John Heard, who plays George of the Barstool? He was in My Fellow Americans. With Richard Dreyfuss. Jaws to Sharknado in just two degrees. The circle of life is complete.
Here. Have a chainsaw.