What we can learn from: ‘Killer Fish’

NOTE: My apologies for posting this two days late: Christmas and all it’s related fiascos has been taking up more of my time than I expected.

Forget Jaws. Forget ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘47 Meters down’ or ‘The Shallows’. If you’re looking for man vs killer aquatic animal action, look no further than the 1979 Italian caper, ‘Killer Fish’, a gripping, heart-pounding tale of criminals vs some of the most ferocious fish ever known to mankind!

Okay, it’s not that exciting. Or quick-paced. Or even on league with the aforementioned films. ‘Killer Fish’ won’t win any awards or be remembered out of bad film circles, but with its beautiful scenery, silly effects, and groovy 70’s soundtrack, it’s good for a laugh or two. Let’s dig in and see what writers can learn from this tale of diamond thieves vs fish.

When doing a killer monster movie, give a tease of your monster at the beginning

It may be a cliché, but giving your audience a tease of the monster at the beginning of the story (without fully revealing it, of course) gives them a delicious tease of the carnage to come after the inevitable first-act setup. In ‘Killer Fish’, however, the piranha are nowhere to be seen for the first half hour, as the film instead focuses on people blowing up a refinery, stealing diamonds, and then sneaking through a jungle and starting to argue with each other at a resort, leaving the audience wondering if they came to the wrong movie by accident; they came to see piranha wreaking havoc, not a criminal heist movie.

As a writer, keep the characters, plot, and action tied to the killer monster, even in the first scene: Imagine ‘Jaws’ without the opening attack; the film would have a much slower, less interesting start, and a bored audience will quickly become an audience that walks away.

Consider having the antagonist’s plan to use the monster backfire

Unlike most monster stories, where the beasts are either discovered or accidentally released to wreak havoc, ‘Killer Fish’ is unique in that the leader of the thieves release the piranha into the lake to guard ‘his’ diamonds, a refreshing change from the usual ‘monsters are accidentally released or are discovered’ storyline we frequently get. What’s great about this subversion (beyond giving the main antagonist an admittingly clever idea for guarding the treasure) is that it also sets up the inevitable moment where the antagonist is done in by their own plan, which is always a crowd pleaser.

Unless you’re going for a jumpscare, foreshadow big events in your story

When the piranha finally claim their first victim, the moment we’ve been waiting a half hour to see, it happens so quickly that – aside from seeing some terrifying bubbles – there’s no foreshadowing of the piranha’s attack. We, the audience, expect that the diver will go down, there’ll be a minute or two before something happens, and… oh, wait. He’s already being attacked. Nevermind.

There’s something to be said about giving audiences what they want in a monster film, but it’s important to remember that building up to the carnage makes the payoff even sweeter. Knowing that they’re finally on the verge of seeing the juicy bits lets creators ratchet up the tension and suspense before a monster attacks. This also applies to non-monster attacks; “Killer Fish’ features a tornado that destroys a dam, unleashing a tidal wave. The problem is, there’s no foreshadowing, or even hints about the tornado’s appearance, making it feel like something the script threw in to keep the plot moving, instead of a well-thought out event that feels logical and not a Diabolus ex Machina.

Consider having your character’s place of refuge slowly fall apart around them

Much like ‘Deep Blue Sea’ 19 years later, ‘Killer Fish’ smartly has the characters trapped in a location that’s slowly sinking, meaning that if they don’t find a way to escape to shore, they’re doomed to a terrible, fishy death. By preventing them from just sitting around and waiting for rescue, the story ensures that they have to stay active and work hard to ensure their survival, which keeps things moving forward. Even better, almost all those on board are thieves who want the diamonds and are willing to betray each other to get them, making their interactions more interesting than ordinary people just trying to stay alive.

Consider having your jerk have one completely selfless moment of compassion for others

Ollie the photographer is a pretty standard camera snob who’s only interested in getting his shots throughout the film (but with Brazil’s gorgeous scenery, can you blame him?). But in a smart move, Ollie does get one good moment on the sinking boat where he tries and help an injured crewmember without any ulterior motives. While he’s not the standard, ‘heartless, smug professional who’s not interested in helping others’ type, it is a nice, effective redemption moment for him.

Having a selfless moment for your own jerk characters allows you to make them more interesting: Imagine a snob who is mean to everyone they meet throughout your story. They insult, put down, and offend everyone they can, just because they can. Then, imagine that they’re seen handing out food and supplies to the homeless in subzero weather without any regard to their own comfort. Though it won’t automatically make them a well-rounded, compelling character, such opposites will help in developing them, and maintain the interest of the audience.

Consider having two characters who hate each others guts declare a truce during a bigger disaster

It’s always interesting to see character who hate each other’s guts being forced to work together, which is what happens with Robert and Paul, who have to put aside their desire to kill each other to survive piranha who want to kill them both… at least, until they can both survive long enough to try and kill each other again.

While mutual survival is the most common reason for enemies to work together, writers have a great opportunity to try many different things with such a relationship:

*The two can learn to like each other and become friends.

*The two work to irritate each other as much as possible.

*The two gain a begrudging respect for one another that lasts after the crisis has passed.

*The two still try to kill each other at every available moment.

*The two immediately fall in love and marry each other (not likely)

The possible outcomes for such a relationship are almost endless; few storytelling techniques leave your audience completely in the dark on what can happen, making for compelling drama, comedy, or whatever genre you want to explore.

If you’re doing a monster story, have the monsters be the focus of said story

Perhaps the biggest error ‘Killer Fish’ makes is that it’s not a movie about killer fish: it’s a film about thieves betraying each other and trying to get some diamonds while having to deal with the inconvenience of piranha stopping them from getting away with said diamonds. Most of the film revolves around them betraying each other, with the aquatic menace being regulated to a subplot, instead of the other way around.

No matter your genre, remember to keep the focus on what your audience came to see, whether it’s monsters, a natural disaster, aliens, etc. To use ‘Jaws’ as an example again, imagine if the film revolved around Brody and Co. fighting to save Amity’s only seafood restaurant, with them having to fight the shark to retrieve the sunken deed to the building. Yes, they’d still blow it up, but at the end of the day it would be about saving a restaurant, not saving Amity from a killer shark. Audiences would be disappointed that they didn’t get a shark-focused story, and would be angry at having been tricked into seeing a story about saving a restaurant.

The Takeaway

When doing a monster movie, keep everything focused on the monster, including opening with a tease of its fearsome abilities, foreshadowing its appearance later on (along with any other disasters that might occur). When everything falls apart, consider having your character’s place of safety slowly fall apart, forcing two characters who hate each other to work together for survival, giving a jerk a chance to do one truly selfless, charitable act.

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 conveniently 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 traveling 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.