Tuned In

Perfect Storm: The Genius of Sharknado

This exquisitely ridiculous Syfy movie was the most delicious social-media chum, and we are merely creatures of instinct.

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A scene from the original Sharknado

Note: I have been on vacation and was not planning to return to blogging until next week. There are certain times, however, when a journalist cannot ignore the call of duty. Assassinations. Acts of war. And sharknadoes.

One of the greatest legacies left behind by the late film critic Roger Ebert–who celebrated some of the movies’ greatest artistic triumphs and also wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls–was that a work of art needs to be approached critically on its own terms. A movie like Syfy’s Sharknado, say, 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.

So we must ask different questions of this movie. We must ask: Does it entertain? Does it make us squirm while laughing while reconsidering our commitments to a pescatarian diet? Does it, we must ask above all, give us sharks in a tornado?

Yes, yes, and hell yes. Like so many things, The Simpsons expressed this critical principle best: “Barney’s movie had heart, but Football in the Groin had a football in the groin.” And Sharknado, bless its skeleton made of cartilage and brain made of cheese, is maybe the closest thing television has created to 80-odd minutes straight of footballs in the groin.

Really, it’s a deceptively tough feat that the makers of Sharknado pulled off: making a movie that’s shlockily and campily hilarious without seeming to try too hard to make something shlockily and campily hilarious. (While I don’t want to make too many assumptions about the cast and crew’s intent, this delightful io9 interview with screenwriter Thunder Levin suggests they went in with tongue in man-eating cheek.) Oh sure, you’d think it’s as easy as casting Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, hiring a hobo to do the CGI, and letting the magic make itself. But it’s easy to see where a title like this could become self-serious or smirky.

Not Sharknado. From the opening moments–an almost non sequitur high-seas showdown between an evil shark-fin buyer and more-evil shark-fin peddler that ends with both swallowed by balletic sharks–the movie signals its determination to efficiently get you the balls-out-crazy mayhem you want and not let narrative, budget constraints, or the laws of science get in the way.

Sharknado spends about as much time setting up its premise and getting down to action as does a porn movie. Sharks are massing along the Pacific Coast because, um, science and global warming and crap. There’s a newsflash on TV, a storm whips up in front of Ziering’s bar, and soon the Pacific Ocean is selectively flooding L.A. while people are cold-cocking sharks with barstools like that’s just a thing that happens.

And it happens, and it happens, and it’s an awesome, immersive thing. Maybe all you really need to know about Sharknado–and God help me, but I will spoiler-alert this for people who haven’t seen it yet–is that in the climax, Ziering’s character faces a flying shark, gets swallowed whole, then chainsaws his way out of its belly, freeing a character who was just eaten by the same shark while falling from a helicopter. The perfect closing title: “fin.”

Now, you could argue whether Ziering’s character could really go down a shark’s gullet on the fly. You could argue how many minutes said shark was falling through the air before hitting the ground, as if circling L.A. in a holding pattern. You could ask whether the filmmakers have ever seen footage of a hurricane, or even been outside sometime when it was raining. (We’re in a city, after all, that is being inundated by a massive hurricane, and yet at some points the ground is bone-dry, I’m guessing because the production’s hose broke?) You could ask whether, let’s just ignore the sharks for a second here, this group of barflies and their kindred could actually solve tornadoes by determining that you can fly up to one in a helicopter, throw a bomb in, and stop it spinning. You could ask, after watching a few reaction shots, whether any scene for this movie was shot in more than one take.

You could ask all this, indeed you can’t resist it, because you are part of the movie. Sharknado may not know meteorology or biology or physics, but it damn sure knows social media, and it is an experience that practically begs for the second screen of a Twitter or Facebook hangout. By 9:30 last night, my Twitter feed–not just pop-culture junkies but political pundits, average folks, and Mia Farrow–was a Sharknado-nado. This brilliantly executed concept–the title, the casting, the squiggly tornado CGI–was the most delicious chum, and we are creatures of instinct.

We’ll see whether the ratings reflect that engagement, though I’m guessing Sharknado doesn’t need that many viewers to make its money back. But whatever you think of it as a movie–and Great God Almighty was it a fun movie–it really seems to have unlocked the connection between a TV event and a social-media event.

Which means I expect to see more efforts like this, inviting the audience to create their own Mystery Science Theater 3000 and think it was their own idea. And I totally expect to see a Sharknado sequel. Though I’m not sure that this franchise can possibly top last night’s perfect storm simply by making Sharknado 2: 2 Shark 2 Nado. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place very often, nor, I expect, do sharknadoes.