The Sharknado Series: An Analysis

The year is 2013. While browsing the internet, you come across a poster of an upcoming movie called ‘Sharknado’, showing… Well, sharks in a tornado. Try to remember your first reaction to seeing the poster. Shock? Confusion? A desire to drink copious amounts of alcohol and wonder if God weapt at seeing what His most beautiful creation had created? Or that the Sharknado series would last five years and cover six movies? The fact that the Sharknado franchise managed to keep most of the cast throughout, and end with a planned finale, could be seen as nothing short of a minor miracle.

But what about the quality?

Looking back, a case can be made that the Sharknado movies can be divided into two periods. The first, covering movies one through three, could be considered the serious half, in that there was an attempt at having a somewhat grounded story, while the second half (films four through six), embraces the goofiness, bringing in mech suits, evil shark gods, the Sydney Opera House being turned into a missile platform by Tony Hawk, and time travel. In my opinion, it’s the later three films that are the most memorable precisely because they embrace the silliness. However, craziness will only go so far. While I felt the Sharknado became more entertaining when it abandoned insanity, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movies went just a little too long.

Let’s try another mental exercise. Take a look at this photoshopped movie poster. What immediately comes to mind? Probably ridiculous scenes of, say, Samuel L. Jackson getting into a fistfight with a bear inside a flooding chamber inside a sinking nuclear submarine (Having typed that out, I now desperately want to watch it). Whatever you come up with is probably amusing, and would be great to see on the big screen.

Now imagine having to write six movies based on that concept. Could you? One movie, maybe. But six movies? Around a single joke? Not likely.

If there’s one common mistake with the Sharknado series, it’s that it goes on too long, spread out – in the words of Bilbo Baggins – like butter scraped over too much bread. In a single, concentrated dose, the joke is delicious and enjoyable, but when spread out, becomes thin and flavorless. If we take this idea and apply it to the six Sharknado movies, a pattern emerges: The latter three embrace cramming in as many ridiculous scenarios as possible, while the first three try to have scenes of character building and their lives away from the sharknado. While having these things is necessary, a balance must be found, one that favors the sharks and the mayhem they cause. If we were to go through the films and cut out all the fluff and non-sharknado related material, we could end up with something like this:

Movie One: The sharknado appears, destroys Los Angeles, then rampages across the country to destroy New York, with Fin and friends finally destroying it by heading into outer space.

Movie Two: The United States recovers from the devastation of the Sharknado. But then it suddenly comes back in new and twisted forms, and spreads across the globe. Finn and Friends embark on a globe-trotting quest to save humanity.

Movie Three: The sharknadoes return one last time, and kill everyone but Fin, who then embarks on a time traveling adventure to save humanity and everyone he loves.

Don’t those three movies sound compelling? Each one has high stakes, a high concept, and it’s easy to imagine them spending most of their time on the concept that we want to see.

This, I believe, is the ultimate lesson the Sharknado series can teach us: When doing a story based around a single joke or idea, the less time you spend away from that gag, the better. Avoid trying to make things realistic. Avoid trying to be grounded. Embrace the crazy and milk it for everything its worth, because you don’t know if you’re going to get a second go at it.

But while Sharknado may have overstayed its welcome just a little bit, it still provided plenty of laughs, jokes, chainsaws, and a cast of characters that stays and grows throughout the saga, complete with a surprisingly touching theme about the importance of family, and proved that any concept, no matter how silly, can entertain millions.

What we can learn from ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

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45 weeks ago, we took a look at ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’, and now, at long last, it’s time to take a look at the final film in the venerable series: ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

After five long years of sharknados taking out cites, going into space, becoming radioactive, and destroying the world, the series finally comes to an end with ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’ which, having exhausted all other possibilities, sends the title monster back through time (the only other sensible option would have it going to the afterlife), with surfer-rurned-barternder-turned-sharknado killer Fin Shepard on a journey to stop the sharknados for good. Let’s journey along to see what valuable story lessons we can learn by watching sharks terrorize people throughout history.

Avoid abandoning a greater-scope villain after establishing them

In the previous film, ‘Global Swarming,’ we learned that the sharknados were not just a freak of nature, but were created by a malevolent shark god that Fin and friends (I never get tired of writing that) set out to stop. While they did stop the sharknados at the end of the fifth film (at the cost of every other human alive), it’s odd that the shark god isn’t mentioned in ‘It’s About Time’.

When we introduce a supernatural threat – or any threat so big that it effectively becomes the main antagonist for a franchise – it’s imperative not to have that threat dropped so quickly, especially when it’s a supernatural one. It’s logical to think that Fin would have to take out the shark god to prevent any further sharknados from being made, but its nowhere to be found. If our own greater-scope villains need to be dropped, a good reason needs to be established instead of never mentioning them again, hoping that audiences won’t notice. They will.

Establish solid rules for time travel, lest audiences get hopelessly confused

While traveling through time offers nearly endless possibilities for exciting storytelling, it can quickly become a mess of intersecting timelines, cause and effect, and how actions in the past affect the future (and that’s without getting into the grandfather paradox). ‘It’s About Time’ tries to make things simple by stating that everyone can only travel back in time once, but then it has Gil continuously going through different eras. When it comes to time travel, it’s best to make things as simple as possible. Better to have our audiences focus on the fun shenanigans going on, then wondering how such things are possible.

When doing time travel, consider bringing back minor characters for big roles

One of the things that ‘It’s About Time’ does best is bringing back minor characters for bigger roles in the story, like Bryan and Skye. While they may have served as cannon fodder in their original appearances, or had a small role that didn’t affect the story all that much, we don’t expect much from them. They’re background characters, ones who don’t take the spotlight. Thus, when they come back as main characters, they become underdogs who have a chance to shine and help save the day. Even better is if they’re in a completely new time and location (like the prehistoric era), as not only do they have to contend with being in the spotlight, but now they also have to try and survive in an environment they’re not familiar with.

Consider having monsters and antagonists from the future battle people from the past

One of the most enjoyable aspects of time travel stories is seeing people and technologies from different eras interact with one another. How, for example, would a modern-day person fare in the Revolutionary War era? Or in Ancient Egypt? How do technologically disadvantaged people fight off opponents from a different era? ‘It’s About Time’ has medieval knights, Revolutionary War soldiers, and Cowboys fight off sharks, and those battles are easily the highlights of the movie.

The reason these fights are so interesting is that the people of the past are automatically the underdog and have to fight harder to win. Cowboys have the advantage of guns when fighting sharks, but revolutionary war soldiers only have muskets, while knights are stuck with swords and bows, which makes audiences wonder how on earth they’re going to win. An even cleverer version of this trope is to have the people of the past take advantage of futuristic tech: When sharknados attack Revolutionary America, the British use a sharknado to gain an advantage in their war, almost changing the course of history in their favor.

When writing historical characters in time travel stories, the more authentic they are, the funnier they are

Another draw of time travel stories is being able to use famous people throughout history and put them in exciting fights and teamups with monsters and people from other times in history. Part of this draw is seeing how someone from one era coping with another, and how they would react to, say, modern weapons and technology. However, for this trope to be most useful, it’s important to make historical characters as accurate as possible; much of the humor/awesome factor in their appearances is that they take things seriously. While comedic or light-hearted time travel stories can make famous people goofballs (Think ‘Bill and Ted’), it is possible to go too far: When Finn and his friends go to the Revolutionary War era, I was excited at the thought of seeing George Washington fighting a sharknado. Instead, we get a man who’s more interested in taking a nap and cracking jokes instead of fighting or taking the situation seriously.

Consider having someone alter history in a time travel story, even when they know it’ll hurt them

While ‘It’s About Time’ engages in all the standard time-travel tropes (meeting famous figures, having historical characters and groups fight monsters from other eras, etc.) and get into debates about changing the future to avert a personal catastrophe (Nova trying to save his grandfather), the film smartly changes things up by giving Finn an impossible choice: He has a chance to stop sharknados forever by traveling through time, but at the cost of losing his son, who will never be born, and even be erased from Finn’s memory.

So often, time travel stories are about changing the future for the better, or preserving it, but rarely do we see stories where travelers doing the right thing know they will suffer greatly, even if its for the greater good. By having our characters lose something important to them, whether it’s a loved one, a job, or a dream, and being willing to let them go to save so many others, we give them an unparalleled chance to shine and show how brave and heroic they can be.

If it fits the theme of a series, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending

It’s a classic trope: The characters of a story manage to succeed in their fight. They achieve their goals, get what they want, and live happily ever after. It’s so overused that it’s a scenario that could easily turn into a parody, and many stories try to subvert it by using a darker, or more bittersweet ending where not everything is right or well. But there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, especially if it’s well-earned, and the end of the Sharknado series has a very well-earned one indeed: Fin manages to restart history and create a timeline where sharknados don’t exist, saving all his friends and acquaintances, and even Gil, with the very last shot of the series has Al Roker declaring that it’s going to be a beautiful day with nothing unusual going on. It’s a satisfying conclusion that ties everything up, and gives everyone a happy ending without any tease or hint of further adventures, giving the characters – and us – closure.

And so, after a year, we finally finish our marathon of all the Sharknado films. Turn in next week, when we’ll do an analysis of the series as a whole.

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.