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.

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 and 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.