What we can learn from ‘The Thing’ (the 2011 prequel)

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How do you create a follow-up to a classic film? Do you remake it? Do a sequel? A prequel? Or do you do the sensible thing and leave it alone, not daring to possibly negate or tarnish its reputation with a dud that fails to take off? If there’s money to be made at the box office, you can bet it’s not going to be the latter.

John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is a horror classic, it’s simple, but effective story of isolation, paranoia, and one of the most terrifying (and disgusting) monsters from beyond the stars ensuring its cinematic immortality. Unfortunately, the 2011 prequel, ‘The Thing’ didn’t have the impact its predecessor did. Like many others, I was looking forward to seeing how almost thirty years of development and advances would affect the mechanical creatures on screen, only to be crushed at seeing all the practical effects be painted over with CGI ‘enhancements’. Eight years on, and the film has slipped into obscurity, seemingly fated to be seen only during series marathons, remembered as a noble but failed effort to live up to its predecessor.

However, while the film does have its share of problems, its clear that the filmmakers were great fans of the Carpenter original, and poured their hearts into creating a worthy side story to the ‘82 film. With that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from this chilly tale of Antarctic horror.

When doing a prequel, avoid making it a remake of a previous film

Writer Eric Heisserer had a daunting task when it came time to write ‘The Thing’: While a prequel was the most logical way to go (so as to avoid spoiling the original film’s ambiguous ending), the 2011 ‘Thing’ feels almost like a remake instead of a standalone story: it follows most of the same beats and ideas as the original movie, complete with figuring out that testing blood will reveal who’s a Thing and who isn’t (though the film cleverly subverts this by having the title creature destroy the testing equipment shortly after the realization is made). While there are substantial differences between the two films – such as heading inside the UFO – I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a modern-day version of the ‘82 film.

When doing our own prequels, consider mixing things up to avoid feeling like we’re watching a disguised copy of what’s come before: If you’re doing a slasher prequel, consider having only a few victims instead of many. Instead of having one villain, consider having two (found one creature in the ice? Perhaps there was a second one nearby that thawed out after the Norwegians recorded themselves excavating the first). The more you mix things up, the easier it is to avoid the feeling of ‘been there, seen that’.

When doing a prequel, ask if it’s a story that really needs to be told

As noted above, a prequel was logically the only way to add to the ‘Thing’ mythos that didn’t touch the previous film, but the cost of making a prequel is that there’s no longer any mystery of wondering what happened at the Norwegian base. As Youtube user LittleJimmy points out in his excellent analysis of the film, when we originally watch the 82 film, our imaginations race into overdrive wondering what happened when MacReady walks through the building’s burnt husk. Mine did when I first saw the film, wondering what on earth caused such carnage, death, and mystery, but the 2011 film removes that mystery, and what we get in return, as noted above, doesn’t feel all that different or substantial.

When writing a prequel to a story, ask yourself if it adds additional depth to the mythology of your series. Is it a story that manages to be standalone from the original? And, more importantly, would knowing what happens in your prequel enhance or take away from what happened in the original story? Would it add to mysteries, or take them away, leaving nothing to keep our curiosity engaged?

Consider revealing some new aspects about a monster (but not everything)

One thing the 2011 Thing does well is add more layers to the title creature by revealing that it cannot duplicate inorganic matter when assimilating someone, which makes for a reliable way to tell if someone is human or not, and even helps settle the ambiguous ending of the original film (if Childs still has an earring, then he’s definitely human… unless he’s a Thing that remembered to put an earring in).

The second reveal is a bit more subtle: in the original film, the Thing preferred stealth and staying out of sight unless it was attacked, while in the prequel, it’s much more aggressive and attacks others frequently. While this may seem like a contradiction, many Thing fans like myself theorize that the creature learns from its experiences in this film and is more quiet and subtle in the original after learning that running around and giving inhuman shrieks is not the best idea.

In our own stories, consider using a prequel to a monster story as a chance to add more depth and history to your monster. However, be cautious not to give away too much about the beast: the prequel smartly doesn’t tell us if the form found in the ice was the Thing’s original form, or just another creature it had assimilated. Nor does it tell us if it’s the pilot of the spacecraft, a passenger, or something else, leaving its origins and motives a mystery.

Consider having your victims be awake, aware, and helpless during a scene of body horror

While the original film is rightfully seen as a masterpiece of body horror, the prequel does surpass it one way: it shows how horrifying and painful being assimilated can be. The first death in the film is nasty because it looks like Henrik is being sucked on like a lollipop while still alive; Adam is worse because he’s being physically fused with a Thing and can’t do anything about it, but it’s Jonas who has the worst death in the series: a tiny but impossibly strong Thing latches onto his mouth and seemingly chews away at his own, eventually causing him to merge with it, culminating with a shot of the poor man silently begging Kate to kill him. Yikes.

In our own stories, there’s arguably no quicker way to make your reader’s blood curdle by giving characters a horrible, slow death where they’re overpowered by something stronger than themselves and physically violated, all while being helpless to stop it, and suffering horribly throughout the process. However, it might be a good idea to limit these deaths, as while they’re powerful, they’re also too emotionally taxing to bear one after another.

Consider having your protagonist discover an antagonist’s last minute disguise and triumph over it

In horror stories, it’s common to have protagonists think they’ve triumphed over the monster or killer, only to realize at the very last second that they’ve actually failed, and that the evil force of the story has won. 2011’s ‘Thing’ comes very close to such an ending, but Kate, proving that she has an unparalleled knack for catching tiny details, realizes that ‘Sam’ is actually a Thing, and kills it, saving herself from being attacked and assimilated by it in the middle of nowhere.

In our own stories, a fourth-act reversal can feel like a tease or a cop-out (or, if your story is long, leave the audience saying, ‘Oh come on! It’s not over yet?!’), but if it’s a reversal where the villain wins, it can leave your audience feeling crushed, and knowing that everything the heroes went through was for nothing. 2011’s ‘Thing’ smartly subverts that trend and lets the audience realize both how close an antagonist was to succeeding at its goals, and that Kate is far more resourceful and observant than we thought before. Best of all, a reversal where the hero triumphs makes for a refreshing and satisfying ending.

Consider leaving your character’s fate up in the air

The original ‘Thing’’s legendary ending leaves the viewer wondering if Childs is a Thing, or human. While the prequel doesn’t have the ambiguity of wondering if the Thing is truly defeated or just badly hurt, it does leave the viewer wondering if Kate is going to survive. Considering that we last see her staring out the window of her snowcat, miles from help in the middle of the Antarctic night, her odds aren’t good as the film fades to black and the credits roll.

In our own stories, there are advantages of leaving a character’s fate open-ended. The biggest is leaving the audience free to decide for themselves what happens next, instead of a clear-cut downer or uplifting ending. I like to imagine that Kate decided to at least try to get to the Russian station, if only to warn them about what was found in the ice (which would explain why there’s no sign of her snowcat when MacReady and Copper find the UFO in the original).

Either way, leaving thing up in the air and letting your audience imagine what happens next is a great way to keep them engaged with the power of mystery and the unknown.

Consider ending your prequel with a direct tie-in to the original

One of the biggest pleasures of any prequel is the opportunity to do an ending that ties in with the opening moments from an original, classic story. ‘The Thing’ ends with Lars and the last surviving Norwegian get into a helicopter to chase the husky-Thing that arrives at outpost 31, seamlessly leading into the opening of the 1982 film, complete with Ennio Morricone’s classic theme playing in the background for the first time in the movie.

In our own stories, the biggest advantage to doing an ending that directly ties in to an original story is that your audience’s nostalgia for the original story will skyrocket to 11: They know what’s coming next, and being able to see the events that lead into those moments are a thrill.

The Takeaway

When doing a prequel to a story, avoid making it a disguised copy of what came before, and consider if it’s a story that will add to your mythology, or take away from the mystery and wonder of the original. If that story is worth telling, add new layers and information to the characters or world of the original, and if its a horror story you’re writing, try grossing and terrifying your readers by having a victim suffer a fate worse than death by having the be awake, aware, and helpless to do anything about it. And when your antagonist tries a last-minute escape or execution of his/her/its plan, have the protagonist realize what’s going on and stop them, and then having that protagonist face an uncertain future while your prequel then ratchets up the nostalgia value by directly tying into the beginning of your original story at the very end.

What we can learn from ‘Deep Blue Sea’

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Outside of ‘Jaws,’ it’s difficult to find good killer shark movies. There are dozens, if not hundreds of B-grade shark films, which makes finding the A-listers a real treat. In my opinion, ‘Deep Blue Sea,’ a 1999 horror/thriller that finds the staff of a research facility fighting for their lives against super-intelligent mako sharks, is one of those treats. While the premise is B-grade material, the high production values, humor, and willingness to embrace its R rating makes this one of Hollywood’s better shark films.

With all that said, let’s take a look and see (haha) what we can learn from this tale of genetic experimentation gone wrong.

1. Consider throwing the standard ‘who’s going to die’ rules out the window

Much like George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ saga, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ throws the conventional rules for who lives and dies out the window and spares those we thought would die, and spares those we thought would live. Some examples:

The horny young adults in the opening all survive:

 

The most famous actor becomes shark food less than halfway through the film:

 

 

 

All three ladies die (though only one in this clip):

 

 

 

 

And even the cute animal gets eaten!

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I saw the film, I was shocked at how everyone I thought was going to live, died, and was on the edge of my seat wondering who was going to get out alive or not.

In our own stories, defying the conventions of who’s going to die is a fantastic way of getting people’s attention. Instead of having the hyper-sexual, booze drinking teen die first in a slasher movie, have him survive all the way through. Have the intelligent, smart, resourceful character be the first to bite the dust. When your audience realizes that there really is no guarantees on who’s going to live and die, they’ll want to keep going to find out who makes it or not.

2. Consider putting your characters inside an isolated environment that’s failing

Like any good horror film, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ puts its characters inside a location that’s constantly unsafe and makes their escape to safety that much harder. In this instance, it’s a partially-submerged research facility that begins to sink once the chaos begins, letting the sharks swim inside to make escape even more difficult.

The advantage of having your main location falling apart in stages is that the characters never have much time to rest. They always need to stay on the move, with any safe place offering only temporary refuge, which helps keep them – and the audience – on their toes.

3. Consider making someone do the worst thing for the most righteous of reasons

While most shark films have a human villain corrupted by greed, a desire for power, or any other human failing, Dr. Susan McAlester is a refreshing chance of pace: she’s not motivated by greed or selfishness, but from wanting to cure Alzheimers. Considering that she finally has that cure within reach, it’s not surprising that she’s willing to bend the rules of what’s ethically and legally acceptable, but unlike so many other villains, she doesn’t set out to hurt anyone, which makes her the most interesting and multi-faced character of the film.

In our own stories, well-intended extremists, if handled well, can be the most interesting characters because they make us wonder what we’d be willing to do to accomplish a noble goal. Would we be willing to harm others? Would we be willing to break the law? And on top of that, would we be willing to sacrifice lives to accomplish that goal? Or would we still try to avoid hurting others as much as possible? Having seen the devastating effects of Alzheimers myself, I can understand why Susan did what she did, and I imagine many other viewers would feel the same way, which makes her ultimate failure in getting that cure to the surface all the more devastating.

4. Consider making the monsters more intelligent than we initially realize

The sharks of ‘Deep Blue Sea’ demonstrate their intelligence early on by using a stretcher as a weapon to break the underwater window of the main lab on the station, but it isn’t until near the end of the film that we learn that they’ve been secretly herding our protagonists where they want to ensure the station keeps flooding and sinking, so they can break out of the facility and into the open ocean.

In our own stories, gradually revealing a monster’s intelligence is a great way to make the audience realize that whatever our protagonists are messing with is more than just another dumb monster. It’s also a great opportunity for the audience to have an ‘oh crap!’ moment when we realize that the monster has had an ulterior motive all along that we weren’t aware of (but will subsequently catch on rewatches/re-reads).

5. Consider having your comedic relief be a competent fighter

It’s distressingly common for comic relief characters to be bumbling fools who are only good at cracking jokes, shrieking, and being burdens to the main characters. ‘Deep Blue Sea’ bucks that trend by having Preacher, the religious cook, be both amusing and a surprisingly good fighter: he manages to take out two of the three sharks in the film, survives being mauled by a shark (by using his crucifix to stab a shark in the eye), and saves the day by blowing up the last shark despite being badly hurt, thus keeping the sharks from breeding in the wild.

In our own stories, comedic relief characters need not be walking joke machines that everyone else would gladly leave behind: By making them competent (or at least willing to fight instead of trying to run away), and even come to rescue other characters, you can help make them the most likeable characters in your story.

6. Consider having the monster recognize its maker

 

 

What would you do if you came face-to-face with God? Would you shake His/Her/Its hand? Slap His/Her/Its face and scream about how unfair your life has been? In ‘Deep Blue Sea’ we get a moment where the last shark comes face to face with Susan and stops, clearly recognizing her… before chomping her into so many bite-sized pieces.

In our own stories, having a monster meet its maker offers an opportunity to get a glimpse of the monster’s inner workings. While killing its maker is the standard response, consider having the monster be awed, confused, puzzled, intrigued, or even worshipful; this gives us, the author, a chance to have the beast dispatched in a unique way (perhaps by having its maker lure it into a hydraulic press), or by persuading it to stop killing.

The Takeaway:

When doing a monster movie, consider having your characters be trapped in a location that’s failing, and killing off people we expect to see live, and vice versa, while having a competent comedic relief who’s not a burden to others, and having the main human antagonist be a genuinely good person who did something awful for the best possible reasons and create a monster that we come to realize is far smarter than we first imagined, and then having that monster encounter their maker and having it do something other than just treating them like any other victim they’ve met.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’

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Last week, we took a look at… You know what, you know the drill by now.

1. Consider making the backstory behind your monster something your audience won’t expect

For the first four films, the Sharknado series has stuck with the idea that the sharknadoes are an entirely natural phenomenon. ‘Global Swarming’ bucks that trend by revealing that sharknadoes are actually a supernatural phenomenon caused by a shark god that humanity has fought in the past, and defeated. In as serious series, this would be pretty far-fetched, but the dopey nature of the Sharknado series makes this a plausible twist that retroactively paints the series as humanity’s latest fight against a supernatural menace trying to wipe us out, giving the series a bigger feel, in that there’s more going on beyond what we see in the films.

2. Give your character/s a good reason to chase after the monster.

One of the hardest hurtles to overcome in monster movie sequels is giving the hero a valid reason to chase after a monster that any sane person would run away from. ‘Global Swarming’ is one of the few monster sequels I’ve seen that gives the leads a legitimate and logical reason to do so: Finn and April’s son have been sucked by a sharknado that can teleport around the globe, forcing them to give chase in order to save him. Thus, they’re not motivated by greed, revenge, or wanting to destroy the menace once and for all, but to save a loved one, a motive that everyone can relate to and understand.

3. Take advantage of exotic locations, but make sure they advance the story

Where the four previous Sharknado films took place entirely within the United States (and outer space), ‘Global Swarming’ finally takes the toothy menace across the globe, including England, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, Japan, and Egypt. Predictably, this allows the film to poke fun at the various attractions at each location, the most enjoyable of which is Finn leading the charge to save the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a brief sojourn in Africa where we have lions vs sharks, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer literally giving Finn and April a hand as they continue to try and save their son.

However, when your characters go to exotic locations, make sure their adventures advance the story: ‘Global Swarming’s sequence in Switzerland, which features a steampunk zeppelin and lots of skiing and dog mushing, feels like padding. While an action sequence may have plenty of cool-looking action, if it doesn’t advance the story or characters, it will ultimately be padding. Cool-looking padding, but padding nonetheless.

3. Consider giving a long-running sidekick a less-than-honorable motivation (and then let them redeem themselves)

Nova’s role in the Sharknado series is to be the action girl unfettered by a family or loved ones beyond Finn, and ‘Global Swarming’ puts her in command of the Sharknado Sisters, a cavort group dedicated to wiping out sharknadoes. But then it’s revealed that what Nova wants is pure revenge: to kill every shark on earth, even if she has to give up on rescuing Finn’s son, Gil. Considering that sharks killed her grandfather and nearly ate her, it’s understandable that Nova would want to kill an entire species, but such a revelation retroactively makes her a darker character.

However, the movie does give her redemption and the chance to balance out her bloodlust: Nova is the reason Gil gets sucked into the sharknado, and she tries to save him in Tokyo, but fails and dies, but not before reconciling with Finn and April, proving that when it comes to redemption quests, the effort of just trying is just as important as if the character succeeds or not.

5. When all else fails, throw in an athlete using his/her skills to help save the day

Is your story sagging by the middle of the second act? Are you trying and failing to find a way to sustain your audience’s interest? Why not try throwing in a random cameo by an athlete using their skills to help save the day? In a film filled with sharks in tornadoes attacking multiple countries, the pope giving out laser-firing chainsaws, and ancient shark gods, the most random moment may be Tony Hawk appearing out of nowhere in Australia and using his skateboarding skills to help fully transform the Sidney Opera House into an anti-sharknado weapons platform. Does it make any sense? Not really. But it is memorable and amusing to see him use skateboarding to help fight a sharknado, similar to how Gymkata features an Olympic gymnast defeating bad guys with gymnastics and conviniently placed horizontal bars and pommel horses in city plazas and alleyways.

6. When introducing an evil organization/villain, give them some motivations and goals

When in Brazil, Finn and April learn more about the ancient artifact that can be used to control sharknadoes. But it isn’t long before a shady man sneaks in and steals it, prompting an inter-continental chase to Rome where Finn takes on the bad guy and gets the artifact back. However, this man’s appearance feels almost like an afterthought: he appears without any foreshadowing, and is dispatched quickly a few minutes later without having any real effect on the story, aside from getting Finn and April to Rome. I got the impression that he’s part of an evil organization that wants to control sharknadoes, but this story idea is never pursed or given any development.

While it’s acceptable to have antagonists appear suddenly in stories to accost and badger our protagonists, it’s important to give the reader some sense of who they are and what they want. Even if they have the coolest looks, the baddest weapons, and the most awesome equipment, it’s still important to give them a motivation, rather than being a random goon who leaves as quickly as he or she appears.

7. Dramatic moments have a heavier impact in comedy

‘Global Swarming’ starts off like all the previous Sharknado films, focusing on jokes, goofy and outlandish attacks, and the like. But when the film gets into its third act, it takes a sudden turn into the dramatic: Nova fails to save Gil from the sharknado and dies; Fin’s entire family is killed by sharknadoes, and then the film kills not only April, but everyone else on Earth, leaving Finn the world’s sole survivor. And there’s no comedy or jokes to any of these scenes: they’re all played straight, resulting in what may be the most emotionally effective moments in any Scyfi/Asylum film to date.

What makes these moments effective is how unexpected they are; we, the audience, watch comedies to laugh and feel good, which makes the sudden introduction of drama and death catches us off guard. It’s one thing to watch characters die in dramas and thrillers; we expect it. Having a dramatic moment in a comedy and not playing it for laughs will get people’s attention because of how unexpected it is.

8. When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

While ‘Global Swarming’s dramatic moments are effective, I couldn’t help but feel that Finn and April don’t grieve enough when they learn that their entire family is dead, especially when Finn hears his older son die on the phone while talking to him. Such an event should drive them to their knees and crush their spirits, and the only reason they could even go on is fueled purely by wanting to get revenge on the sharks, with all thoughts of saving humanity thrown aside.

When your character’s loved ones die, make sure we see them grieve. The struggle of having to go on even when all they want to do is collapse makes us sorry for them, yet we can admire them for continuing on after going through what is arguably the most traumatic thing a human can ever experience.

9. When you have a downer ending, strongly consider having a ray of hope

‘Global Swarming’ ends with everyone on Earth dead except for Finn. Had the film ended there, it would have the most shocking ending in the series to date. However, there is a faint thread of hope as he meets – thanks to time travel shenanigans – his now grown son and heads back in time to save everyone else.

In fiction, downer endings are pretty much guaranteed to stay with people long after the story is over, for both good or ill. While they are memorable because they go against the expectation of having a happy ending, or, at least, a bittersweet one, there’s also no escaping the fact that they’re depressing, making it hard to come back to the story again and again. However, if the characters, and the reader, have the smallest thread of hope that things will get better, that can transform a terrible situation into one where the audience will remember your story even more fondly than if there is no hope.

The Takeaway:

When doing a sequel in your monster series, consider exploring an unexpected background behind the monsters while taking advantage of travelling to exotic locations in pursuit of the monster for a noble goal, while making sure those travels contribute to the plot; along the way, make sure villains get some motivations and goals when they appear, and have your characters react realistically to losing everyone they love, and if your story has a downer ending, leaving a thread of hope that things will get better will go a long way to satisfying your audience.

Note: Due to missing ‘Sharknado 6: It’s About Time’s broadcasts, and that the film is not yet available on DVD or streaming, my critique of the film will have to wait until it is available. Until then, the series-wide analysis is on hold.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado: The 4th Awakens’

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Last week, we took a look at the third entry of the Sharknado series. Let’s keep the ball rolling and take a look at the fourth(!) entry.

1. Consider retconning a previous entry to reveal that a hero who sacrificed themselves actually survived

At the climax of ‘Oh Hell No!’ Finn’s dad, Gilbert, sacrificed himself to save the eastern coast of the United States and ended up landing on the surface of the Moon, far from rescue, but knowing that his son and family would survive, and so would millions. It was a fitting end for his character… which makes for a delightful surprise to find out that he was rescued brought back to Earth, letting him engage in more sharknado adventures.

When characters sacrifice themselves to save the day, it’s almost always a heroic moment, and satisfying to know that while they may be gone, they made a positive difference and helped others, whether it’s just one person or many. However, not many stories have them actually survive their heroic sacrifice; while there is the risk of cheapening that sacrifice by saving them, doing so can be a heartwarming moment that stays with your audience long after the story is over.

2. Consider having the world be improved due to your hero’s efforts

One thing ‘The 4th Awakens’ does very well as a post-trilogy film is show that the world has changed considerably since the ending of ‘Oh Hell No!’ Earth has developed anti-sharknado technology, and has enjoyed five sharknado-free years, to the point that the public can poke fun of sharknadoes by building shark-themed casinos in Las Vegas. And best of all, Finn has enjoyed a quiet, peaceful life of raising his family.

When doing a sequel that takes place after the conclusion of an earlier work, it’s a good idea to show that all the work your hero/s did in previous stories wasn’t for nothing. Your audiences will be satisfied and pleased to see that the hero/s earned a happy life, and that their hard work paid off. This is a better approach than just showing that the same problem (or something very similar) is still going on as before without any resolution or change in circumstances, which suggests that all the struggle and suffering that came before was for nothing.

3. Take advantage of the unique sights at a location for action sequences

If TV shows and movie sequels have shown us anything over the years, it’s that taking long-running characters to exotic locations is a fantastic chance for those characters to have adventures, crack jokes, and otherwise take advantage of unique attractions and locations. ‘The 4th Awakens’ does so in spades: Las Vegas features the expected sights of sharks attacking casinos, but also features Chippendale dancers attacking the sharks in hand-to-fin combat and Finn and friends riding the Treasure Island casino pirate ship down main street. Later, we have sharks rolling around in Cawker City’s ball of twine, and then tearing up Salt Lake City’s Comic-Con, complete with Utah Governor Gary Herbert fending off sharks with a racket.

In your own stories, don’t be afraid to take advantage of unique sights and events in different locations. If your characters travel to Seattle, Washington, for example, your readers might expect them to get involved with the Space Needle. Or if they travel to Washington DC, any of the famous government buildings. Do so, and you’ll satisfy them. Go crazy (if it fits the story’s tone), and you’ll do even better.

4. If you’re doing a long-running monster series, try new variations on the title creature

When doing monster movies, it’s a good idea to occasionally shake things up with different variations of your beasts. ‘The 4th Awakens’ takes this to heart by giving us seven variations of the sharknados, ranging from sand, to fire, and even a radioactive sharknado (leading to a very amusing – if improbable – shot of two helpless aides being turned into skeletons upon being hit by radioactive sharks).

In your own stories, shaking things up with the beasts with different versions every now and then is a good way to keep your audience’s interest. However, be careful that your variations make sense in the theme and style of your story: with ‘Sharknado’s silly tone, radioactive sharknadoes make sense, but having radioactive dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park’ would not.

5. Consider having old and new heroes join forces to save the day

Like many heroes who have saved the day, Finn starts out as someone who’s not interested in fighting sharknadoes anymore, a perfectly logical reaction to having fought them three times. ‘The 4th Awakens’ smartly brings him back into the fight gradually; he has to fight to save his son Matt and his wife out of necessity, but still doesn’t want to go sharknado hunting anymore. In his place, we have newcomer Aston, a wealthy CEO who’s responsible for the technology that’s been combating the sharknadoes, and the two eventually team up to save the day.

When doing a post-series sequel of your own, it’s logical to bring back your most famous hero to take up arms once again. You can do so immediately (and your audience will admire them for being willing to jump right back into the fray), but consider doing so gradually. I liked how Aston was the active protagonist, and gradually convinced Finn to help. And while it might be a cliché, having Aston admire Finn and take inspiration from him was a nice touch.

6. Consider going completely bonkers with your action sequences

If there’s one thing ‘The 4th Awakens’ can’t be criticized for, it’s for playing things safe with its action sequences. Perhaps sensing that there’s no reason to hold back after 4 films, the movie goes nuts and throws everything it can at the screen. We’ve already got the aforementioned variations on the sharknado, and a fight on a pirate ship riding a tidal wave through Las Vegas, but we also have a mech suit with chainsaw arms slicing sharks to ribbons at Niagara Falls, bigger sharks swallowing smaller sharks before all are swallowed by an out-of-nowhere blue whale, and – in what is easily the most bonkers sequence in the series to date – Finn taking out a shark with a sword made from chainsaws inside his house while it flies around inside a tornado.

While it won’t always be appropriate, given the tone of your story, consider having an action sequence so bonkers, so out-there, and so outlandish that there’s no way it could happen in real life. It may not be realistic, but it’s memorable and fun, why not?

6. Remember to have characters mourn their deceased loved ones

One puzzling thing about ‘The 4th Awakens’ is that the main characters don’t mourn their loved ones when they’re killed (or seemingly killed). When Matt’s wife, Gabrielle, is killed, Matt doesn’t even seem to notice that she’s dead. At Niagra falls, when Gilbert, Claudia, and Matt are swallowed up by the sharks, the others are shocked momentarily, but then just keep going on with their tasks. While it can be reasonably argued that they need to focus on stopping the sharkando, it feels wrong for them to get over seeing a loved one be eaten alive so quickly.

In your own stories, it’s important to show characters mourning when their loved ones are killed. While fictional characters can get over deceased loved ones faster than in real life, they will come across as real people if they break down, cry, and grieve. If there’s no time for that, then they can do so after the crisis is passed, but losing a loved one is always a big moment in someone’s life, and shouldn’t be treated lightly… unless that person hated their guts, in which case it’s acceptable for them to move on quickly and easily.

8. Consider having a little kid save the day

One of the most amusing sequences of ‘The 4th Awakens’ occurs at the end, when little Gil slices into the Russian nesting doll stack of sharks who have eaten each other to save his family, complete with a miniature chainsaw. While it’s a staple of stories written for youngsters to have kids save the adults and the day at the end, there’s something so charming about seeing pre-adolescents doing so in movies meant for adults, especially when they take to the task with boundless enthusiasm.

The Takeaway

When doing a post-trilogy story, consider having the world be better off than it was before, only to be attacked by several variations of the returning monster in outlandish action sequences in unique locations while both experienced and new heroes join forces to save the day, before they are saved by a little kid, all while mourning those who’ve they’ve lost.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!’

 

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Last week, we took a look at the second film in the Sharknado franchise. Now let’s see what happens when sharks head into outer space!

Teaming up with the president is always cool

In real life, presidents almost never get to do anything other than giving speeches and sign paperwork. But in fiction, they have the chance to hop in fighter jets and take on aliens, take on terrorists who have taken over Air Force One, and fight vampires/zombies. In ‘Oh Hell No!’ Fin joins forces with the President of the United States to defend the White House from an attacking sharknado, both of them getting to fire guns and take out sharks before fleeing as the White House is destroyed by the Washington Monument.

In your own works, having the president of a country get her/his own action sequences is a surefire way to get the viewer’s attention. The president, by virtue of their office, is going to be an important individual, and also has the underdog value of being someone with no fighting/action skills, and having to go up against dangerous opponents with enormous stakes: if they die or get captured, the country is in big trouble. For bonus points, consider having your president be a historical figure, such as George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. Who wouldn’t want to see any of them taking on sharknadoes?

Awesome RV’s are always cool.

They rarely show up in fiction outside of zombie stories, but armored RV’s are always cool. What’s not to love about a vehicle that not only has all the comforts of home, but also has enough weapons and armor to take on the toughest monsters? ‘Oh Hell No!’ gets one that allows Nova and Lucas to pursue the latest sharknado threat in relative safety.

In our own stories, armored RV’s offer a lot of flexibility, ranging from van-sized, to bus-sized, and even dual-bus sized. But no matter how you rig them, they tap into the deep-rooted fantasy we all have of wanting to get into action without giving up the comforts of a bed, a kitchen, and so on.

Have someone’s heroic sacrifice show just how determined they are

How far would you go to sacrifice yourself for a cause? Sacrificing your life for something greater than yourself is heroic, but would you still be willing to do it if it was tremendously painful? Poor Lucas has a pretty unpleasant death in ‘Oh Hell No!,’ which finds him struggling to activate the RV’s self-destruct mechanism, only to have his legs and arms ripped off one by one until he finally activates the mechanism by hitting the button with his chin.

While being cruel, having your characters struggle to sacrifice themselves gives your viewers the chance to see just how determined and brave they can be… though if you’re not careful, it can become unintentionally amusing if they keep losing limbs and body parts. (it’s easy to visualize Lucas still trying to hit the button if his head was bitten off).

If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it

It’s amazing to think that after six movies, ‘Oh Hell No!’ has the only instance of the United States military taking on a sharknado. But as with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, part of the fun of this kind of movie is seeing the military fight the beast and fail to defeat it, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.

Bigger is sometimes better

While previous sharknadoes have affected just a single city (Los Angeles and New York City), ‘Oh Hell No!’ has the fishy menace attack the East Coast of the United States, giving Fin and friends a much tougher task ahead of them: they have to save half a country from being wiped out instead of a single city.

While it’s common for the world to be at stake in disaster movies, ‘Oh Hell No!’ cleverly subverts the trend by only having a large part a country threatened, instead of the entire world. Consider doing the same in your own stories: audiences are so used to having the entire world be threatened that having something smaller and more intimate can feel refreshingly different.

Consider having your monsters run amok in an amusement park of DOOM

What’s more fun than a theme park? Having monsters running amok at a theme park! ‘Oh Hell No!’ features the fun of sharks attacking Universal Studios Orlando, including the last on-screen appearance of the Twister attraction before it was closed down.

The appeal of having monsters attacking a theme park is that they get to run amok among a nearly infinite variety of rides. Who wouldn’t want to see Michael Myers hijacking a bumper car to run people over? Or seeing Jason Vorhees slashing people to bits inside a tunnel of love while riding a swan boat? Or a Predator decapitating drunk partygoers on the steamboat in Disneyland?

Consider having an old timer get to fulfill a dream, but also help others in the process

Much like the baseball player from ‘The Second One,’ ‘Oh Hell No!’ features another older man who finally gets to fulfill a failed dream of heading into space. But what’s interesting in this version is that it’s Fin’s dad, Gil, and that by heading into space, he also is helping to save millions of lives and also be the hero his son always wanted, which allows him to accomplish three things at once.

While it’s satisfying to see someone fulfill a dream, you can make it even better if the character in question gets to help others in in the process.

Consider drafting the boyfriend/girlfriend to fight monsters

A date should be about having fun and enjoying yourself, not taking up arms to fight sharknadoes trying to wipe out humanity, as Claudia’s boyfriend learns when he’s recruited to fight off sharknadoes at NASA to protect the space shuttle.

The advantage of recruiting a boyfriend/girlfriend to fight isn’t that they’re underdogs fighting to survive something they’re not prepared for (unless they happen to have training or experience), but in that their character is revealed in times of extreme stress, which can help their partner decide if they really want to get together with them or not. They might be cowards who run away to save their own skins, or they may be brave, and prove themselves to be a worthy partner.

When you need a memorable finale for your monster movie, and realism isn’t an issue, consider sending your monster into space

When a monster franchise sends its monster into outer space, it’s a sign that the filmmakers have run out of ideas or are no longer taking the franchise seriously, and for good reason: I don’t think you can send an earth-born monster into outer space and not have it be inherently silly, as Jason and the Leprechaun have proved.

Yet, the silliness of outer space carnage can work if your series already thrives on the silly and the absurd, and sending sharks into the cosmos feels like the logical outcome of the ‘Sharknado’ franchise. and gives us the rare sight of man fighting sharks in the final frontier.

While it may be difficult to pull of seriously, sending sending your monsters into space does have the undeniable novelty of seeing said monsters causing havoc in space shuttles, space stations, other planets, etc. If your audience doesn’t groan and give up, they’ll go along just to see what absurdity awaits them.

End with the threat neutralized for good and the hero getting what they want

‘Oh Hell No!’ ends on quite the high note: the storm system that had caused the sharknadoes ihas been neutralized, Earth is safe, and Fin finally has a family of his own. If SyFy had chosen to end the ‘Sharknado’ series with the third film, it would have been a satisfying finale.

In our own stories, consider giving your own protagonist a happy ending and what they’ve wanted all along. It may be a family, a career they’ve dreamed of, or perhaps a new business, or even just the freedom to travel and see the world. It’s a just reward for all their hard work, and a satisfying way to see them begin a new life away from whatever’s been tormenting them.

Avoid ending on a cliffhanger if this is supposed to be the series finale.

With that said, however, ‘Oh Hell No’ does taint its happy ending with having April be squashed by a falling shark from outer space, leaving the viewer to wonder if she survived. While I don’t know if SyFy always intended to continue the series, or if it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to include the cliffhanger, it feels anticlimactic to set everything up as the big finale, only for the film to change its mind at the last second.

While it’s always tempting to leave the door open for more adventures, it’s wiser to wrap your story up instead of leaving a loose thread: it’s always possible to come back to a finished series, but leaving the door open to a sequel that will never happen will always leave viewers wondering what could have happened.

The Takeaway

Consider having the president, a boyfriend/girlfriend, and a cool RV help save a country once and for all from a monster with heroic self-sacrifice while the monster/s attack an amusement park and then heads into space before being stopped for good with the help of an older person fulfilling a lifelong dream, thus giving the protagonist what they’ve always wanted, but avoid ending your series finale on a cliffhangar that negates all the emotional investment we’ve had up to this point.

Favorite Moments: The Ringtone of Doom

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Jurassic Park 3’

The Scene

Alan Grant and Erik have a heartwarming, conflict-free reunion with Erik’s parents and Alan’s protege, Billy.

Why it’s great

While ‘Jurassic Park 3’ is considered an okay movie by most Jurassic Park fans, it does feature one brilliant scene: The spinosaurus sneaking up on Alan Grant and the other reunited survivors, and announcing its presence via the ringtone of Mr. Kirby’s cell phone inside its stomach.

To me, this scene is great because it has several layers to it:

1. The reunion between Erik and his parents, who have been seperated for over two months.

2. The realization that Mr. Kirby doesn’t have his cell phone, leading us, the viewer, to try and remember where it is, as the last time we saw it was far earlier in the film, giving us enough time to gradually forget about it.

3. The sinking, ‘Uh oh’ feeling when we realize exactly where it is.

4. The revelation of the spinosaurus, and then realizing that it’s been watching the group in silence.

5. The idea that the spinosaurus was purposefully waiting to attack after everyone noticed it, which implies an intelligence dinosaurs don’t normally have, and even a dark sense of humor.

Is it a cheat to have the spinosaurus, the Kirbys, and Grant/Erik to be wandering all in the exact same area at a specific time when the phone jingles? Yes, but this is a time where such a far-fetched coincidence works, because it leads to a great scene that combines a heartwarming moment, humor, and then dread/terror all in a little over a minute, and manages to make a silly cell-phone jingle one of the most terrifying sounds in the world.

So, what can we take from this scene? It’s okay to occasionally have an impossible coincidence if it leads to a great scene, and making a corny sound effect herald the arrival of death and doom is a great way to have both terror and comedy coexist at once.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado: The Second One’

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Last week, we took a look at Sci-Fi’s surprise hit, ‘Sharknado,’ This week, let’s take a look at… well, The Second One.

Consider having your hero rush in to help, even when he has no idea what he’s doing.

In the film’s opening scene, Fin and April are en route to New York City, only for their plane to be attacked by sharks. Even though Fin’s a surfer with no flying experience, he still tries to fly the plane to safety instead of waiting for someone else to do so.

Not only does rushing in to help make our characters active protagonists, but it also gives them an underdog quality, in that they have to accomplish a task they’re not qualified to do.

Have your characters save someone they don’t like

While it’s easy for our characters to rush in and save people they care about, or even just bystanders they don’t know, it takes more courage to rush into danger to save someone they don’t like, as Fin has to do with Martin, an old childhood friend of his. While we may enjoy seeing mean people get their comeuppance (though not Martin, in this case), having our heroes take the high ground and save their lives says a lot about their character.

For bonus points, consider having the two characters take advantage of their situation to heal any emotional rifts they have and become friends again, as Fin and Martin do. Or, if not that, at least no longer hate each other.

Consider having an old-timer finally get to fulfill a failed dream decades later

His role isn’t necessary to the story, but it’s satisfying to see Harland McGuinnes – an old, retired baseball player – finally get the home run he never got to get in his last game by whacking a shark into the billboard at Citi Field. Who among us doesn’t have a dream that never came true, whether from circumstances beyond our control, or because of our own failings? That’s why it’s so satisfying to see characters get a second chance to make that dream come true and pulling it off, especially if they’re older and past their physical prime.

Consider doing crazy chase scenes

Car chases, foot chases, motorcycle chases, boat chases, helicopter chases; all of them have been done thousands of times in films. But how about a chase where the monsters are pursing an out-of-the-ordinary vehicle? One of ‘The Second One’s most creative scenes has Fin and friends riding a subway car that’s not only trying to outrun a tidal wave, but the sharks it’s carrying as well.

When it comes to chase scenes, the sky’s the limit, so why not try including two different antagonists at once in your own?

Consider trapping your characters be trapped between two bad choices

As the old saying goes, sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils in life. A similar situation has characters being forced to choose between two very unpleasant outcomes. In ‘The Second One,’ Fin and friends are trapped in a stairwell trying to get a door open. If they fail, they have to make a choice:

1. Do they choose to be killed by sharks who are rising towards them via flooding?

2. Do they choose to be killed by sharks descending towards them who are on fire?

Thankfully, they get the door open, but such no-win scenarios not only helps reveal more about a character’s true fortitude (are they brave? Panicky? Do they sacrifice others to save themselves?), but makes the viewer wonder what they’d do in the same situation, which keeps them engaged and wanting to find out what happens next.

Have the commoners rise up to save the day

If there’s one trope all but guaranteed to warm the heart, it’s seeing everyday people take up arms to fight the monster/menace of your story, and win. When this trope comes in to play, the authorities have failed to save the day, and the only people everyone else can rely on is themselves, which adds further drama to the scene. Here, the citizens of New York grab all manner of weapons and take on the sharks. Considering that these weapons include pitchforks, guns, chainsaws, and flamethrowers fashioned from super soakers, it’s as goofy as you’d expect, but still great fun.

Consider having a mid-air fight

(Play the clip to jump right to Fin’s mid-air fight)

They’re rare. They’re impractical, They’re all-but impossible to pull off in real life, but there’s no denying that a free-fall fight between two characters is awesome. In the climax of ‘The Second One,’ Fin flies through the sharknado towards the Empire State Building with his chainsaw, carving up sharks left and right, and eventually riding one onto the tower’s antenna.

The advantages of such a fight are numerous: Both participants are in a hazardous environment, the fight has to be decided quickly, which increases the ferocity on both participants, and unless they can figure out a way to land safely or get away, both fighters are going to die a very unpleasant death on impact. When you need a hazardous environment to stage a fight, it’s hard to top one in the sky.

Reconsider killing off likeable side characters

It’s distressingly common for disaster films to kill off side characters who are often more interesting than the protagonists, and ‘The Second One’ follows that trend, killing off Fin’s old love interest, Skye, and a helpful cab driver, Ben, played by the great Judd Hirsch. I liked both of these characters, and how they were competent, resourceful, and did their part to help Fin and the others survive; I especially liked how Skye, while still in love with Fin, doesn’t try to stop him from healing his relationship with April, which makes her death feel cruel and unnecessary (and Fin doesn’t even mention her afterwords!).

In our own stories, think carefully before killing off these side characters. While audiences expect a certain amount of casualties in a disaster film, having these side characters survive, even if longer than expected, can be a welcome surprise because we’re conditioned to believe they’ll die. If your viewer likes these characters, they’ll be grateful to you for saving them, and walk away happier than they would have otherwise been.

The Takeaway

We like seeing our protagonists rushing in to help, even when they don’t know what they’re doing, especially if it’s to save someone they don’t like and would otherwise leave to die, while watching older people fulfill a dream that never came true before escaping in a crazy chase sequence and then end up being trapped between two terrible ways to die, before rallying the common folk to save the day before charging into battle that includes a mid-air fight, and hopefully doesn’t involve the death of a likeable side character.