What We Can Learn from ‘Sharknado’

Sharknado poster

Every so often, an idea comes to Hollywood: an idea that changes the world of cinema forever, that revolutionizes the artform, that makes people look at life through a new perspective.

Sharknado is one of those movies.

Okay, perhaps it’s not a life-changer. It may not make it onto AFI’s top 100 movies of all times list, but there’s no denying that in a genre as stuffed as the killer shark one, the idea of shark-filled tornadoes stands out, and somehow lasted for six films, featuring mech suits, worldwide devastation, sending the sharks into outer space, and even time travel. It’s impressive that a goofy, made-for-tv movie turned into a series that lasted as long as it did.

With that said, let’s take a look at where it all began, and see what we can learn from one of the goofiest shark films ever made.

No monster, no matter how outrageous, is out of bounds when it comes to storytelling

We’ve had robot sharks, snow sharks, countless giant sharks, and even multi-headed sharks in fiction over the years. In a crowded genre, you need to really work to stand out, and Sharknado manages this with a premise that is as impossible as it is cool.

A good rule of thumb: If your monster/disaster idea makes people stop and do a double take, that’s a good thing, because they’ll want to know how such an outlandish beast could work out.

Consider making your protagonist a well-meaning loser

While he would later become the stoic everyman who’s thrust into increasingly absurd scenarios, protagonist Fin Shepard isn’t all that memorable here, along with most of the characters. While he is divorced and risks everything to save his family from the sharks, Finn feels like so many other protagonists we’ve seen in these types of films over the years, and does little to stand out, being upstaged by Gerald. At first glance, he appears to be a stereotypical middle-aged drunk and womanizer, but we soon learn that he’s a lonely man who’s too old to enjoy surfing anymore, the one joy he had in his life. Furthermore, instead of being a coward who runs at the first sign of trouble, he stays and does what he can to help. These contrasts make him interesting, and one of the people I was hoping would make it to the end. (Sadly, bar stools just aren’t enough to keep hungry sharks at bay.)

The takeaway? Protagonists who care about their family are easy to do, but well-meaning losers can be far more interesting.

Be cautious with padding action sequences

About halfway through the film, Sharknado has a brief police chase, in which Fin and other survivors fight to reach his daughter while outrunning the cops. While it’s understandable that a father would do anything to reach his daughter, it’s an odd sequence for a film about sharks in tornadoes.

While it’s inevitable that you may have to pad your story at some point to kill time, try making it appropriate to the style of the story. In this instance, the chase scene could have started off with the police chasing Fin, only to then run away with him as sharks start chasing both vehicles.

Save the big event for the climax

Sharknado deserves credit for resisting the urge to unleash its title creation early in the film, instead slowly building up to the big event via the hurricane, then flooding, and then finally unleashing the title monster at the end, and then amping it up even more by having not one, not two, but three sharknadoes for our protagonists to deal with. Had the film unleashed the sharknado in the first act, or even the second, then it would have felt like it was climaxing too early.

Like monster movies, it’s a wise idea to start slowly in our disaster movies and slowly build up to the main event with ever-escalating events, whether it’s natural disasters or monsters out to gobble up everyone in your group. If you must have the disaster/monster show up early, consider having it only appear briefly, and then have it inflict the most damage in the third act.

Keep your focus on the climax once it starts.

When the climax of your story kicks into high gear, all other concerns become secondary: When the Titanic hit the iceberg, Rose and Jack focus everything on surviving. When the meteor in Deep Impact is less than an hour from hitting the earth, all efforts go towards survival or tying up one final loose end before death comes, and when the Death Star is about to blow up Yavin in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, everyone puts everything aside to deal with it. In Sharknado’s case, Fin and friends focus their attention on stopping the three sharknadoes from devouring Los Angeles.

However, while Fin and the others construct bombs to drop into the sharknadoes, the film slows down to give Nova time to detail her backstory and why she doesn’t like sharks. While character development is always good, putting her past here was a mistake: We want to see our heroes take on the sharknadoes, and stopping to learn about someone’s backstory puts the brakes on that excitement.

When letting us learn about your characters, their motivations, and what makes them tick, do so in the first two thirds of your story. If you’re about to do the climax of your story, and we still don’t know or care about your characters, your chances of helping us do so are low.

Chainsaws are always awesome

Though they may be impractical as weapons in real life, chainsaws are one of the most awesome weapons a character can wield in fiction: it’s noisy, intimidating, and satisfies the primal bloodlust of have a weapon that can obliterate an opponent and leave you looking like a badass. In other words, chainsaws are cool, and Sharknado doesn’t disappoint in its most famous scene, where Finn, to save his daughter, shoves her to safety and leaps into the mouth of a great White Shark, carving it up and slicing his way free from the inside, saving his girlfriend in the process. It’s ludicrous, awesome, and funny all at once, and arguably wouldn’t have worked with any other weapon.

In your own stories, as long as it isn’t out of place with the tone (such as a story that’s trying to be as realistic as possible), having your characters wield a chainsaw in combat is all but guaranteed to get your audience’s attention and end up with them thinking, ‘hell yeah!’ at seeing the antagonist be dispatched with said weapon.

The takeaway:

When it comes to making monster stories, there’s no limit as to how ridiculous they can be, but take care to make sure we have interesting characters to fight them, while doing a steady buildup to the monster’s big rampage scene (being careful not to pad the story too much, or giving background when it’s not appropriate), and making sure the story focuses on that rampage when we reach that point, preferably with a chainsaw or equally awesome weapon.

Just for Fun: ‘The Ritual’ sequels we’ll never get (that would be awesome)

Imagine for a moment that you’ve published a best-selling book, or have had one of your screenplays adapted into a blockbuster film. You’re now the darling of the literary world/Hollywood’s hottest author. The people are clamoring for your next masterpiece, and you have a choice to make: Do you write a new, original story, or do you write a sequel to the tale that has brought in enough money for you to buy a luxury yacht that would make Jeff Bezos jealous? (Don’t we wish?)

Let’s pretend that after the success of ‘The Ritual’s film adaptation, a franchise is born: Action figures, licensed sleepwear, coloring books, and a child’s cartoon show all are produced to satisfy the public’s need for more tales of Moder and Luke’s adventures, along with more movies! But what would those sequels look like? If history tells us anything about franchises, it’s that, no matter how great they are to begin, they will inevitably decline in quality over time as creators, having gone past the story’s natural ending point, resort to increasingly outlandish plots to attract viewers.

With that in mind, let’s theorize how some of those outlandish sequels to ‘The Ritual’ might be. Here are my guesses:

The Rituals

After barely escaping from Moder with his life, Luke makes a vow never to return to those accursed woods. But when dozens of campers go missing, the United States hires Luke as an adviser to a group of Marines heading in to free the campers, and he must one again face the terror in the woods.

The Third Ritual

Ten years have passed since Luke and the Marines defeated Moder by nuking her forest from orbit, and Luke has finally moved on with his life. But evil refuses to die, and when his wife and children are kidnapped and taken to the forest, Luke, now an obese, middle-aged man, must make one final trip into the forests of the damned to defeat Moder once and for all.

Revenge of the Ritual

Luke’s teenage son and daughter can’t wait for prom night to begin. Problem is, Moder can’t, either. Reborn after being carved in half by Luke’s chainsaw, she’s back for revenge, and aims to teach Luke that revenge is best served alongside fruit punch and refreshments in the gym.

The Ritual In Da Hood

Five years have passed since Luke’s son and daughter barely escaped from the worst prom ever. Now heading out on their own, they take up residence in the low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But evil never dies, and soon they have to deal with bloodthirsty gangsters, drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and an evil god who refuses to die.

The Ritual: Back 2 Da Hood

They thought the terror was gone forever… but they should have known better. Now, to save themselves and Los Angeles, Luke’s son and daughter must unite all the gangs, pimps, hos, and low-income residents of Los Angeles to stand a chance of defeating Moder once and for all.

The Ritual: Tropical Getaway

Finally retired and ready to enjoy his golden years, Luke and his wife head for Hawaii for a week of fun in the sun. Little do they know that someone else has packed their suitcase and swimtrunks: Moder, who’s lust for vengeance knows no bounds.

The Ritual: Moder vs Mecha-Moder

Desperate to end Moder’s relentless attacks against his family, Luke heads to Japan and joins the world’s leading experts on robotics to create the only thing that has a chance of stopping Moder once and for all: a mechanical version of herself. Now, it’s flesh vs steel as two titans clash, with the fate of the earth at stake.

The Space Ritual

Luke and his family blast off as they join mankind’s first colony ship on the way to Alpha Centauri. But humanity’s quest to find a new home among the stars may end before it began, as Moder, having wrecked the earth beyond repair, seeks to conquer the universe. But Luke and his family won’t let humanity die without a fight in the final chapter of the Ritual saga.

The Ritual Babies

In this light-hearted prequel to the original story, a spell accidentally turns Moder into a child and sends her back in time to preschool, where she learns – with an equally young Luke, Dom, Phil, and Hutch – about the power of imagination, make-believe, and friendship. Sadly, the relentless teasing Moder endures from her new ‘friends’ turns into a murderous rage, setting up her quest to kill and enslave them decades later.

And for even more fun, here are some crossovers and comedies I’d love to see.

The Ritual 2 Fast 2 Furious

In this side story to ‘The Ritual in Da Hood’ and ‘The Ritual: Back 2 Da Hood’, Dom and the family find themselves racing their lives as Moder gets behind the wheel and challenges them to a series of increasingly lethal street races. In the wildly-popular finale, Vin Diesel and the Rock punch Moder to death.

The Ritual: First Blood

John Rambo thought he had left the battlefield for good. But when you’re pushed to the limit, killing’s as easy as breathing, as several death-metal teens are about to find out. Kidnapped as a sacrifice to Moder, Rambo now must use every skill he’s learned to put an end to the forest god and her unholy followers.

The Sharknado Ritual

Luke, Dom, Phil, Hutch, and Moder must put aside their differences and work together if they’re going to have any chance of surviving when a continent-sized sharknado heads towards their forest.

The Ritual: Adventures in Babysitting

Moder’s seen it it all throughout her many centuries of life, but she’s never had to tackle babysitting before! In this beloved family comedy, Moder finds herself babysitting several preschoolers when some of her followers head out to recruit more worshipers, and soon learns that not even godlike power is enough to make a rowdy 5 year old take a nap.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Ritual

In this radical adventure, Bill and Ted’s time traveling exploits deposits them in the mysterious forests of Sweden, where they’ll take on some viking death-metal teenagers in a battle of the bands! But even if they win, they’ll still have to fight off the totally wicked forest god out to enslave their minds! Good thing they’ve got Death and a bunch of historical figures backing them up!

Follow that Bird! A Sesame Street Ritual

When Big Bird tries to get back to Sesame Street after running away from his foster family, he takes a wrong turn and ends up lost in a remote Swedish forest. Now Grover, Bert, Ernie, the Count, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, and all of Big Bird’s friends must journey into untold depths of terror to save their best friend. Features four Academy Award-winning songs:

‘In the Forests with My Friend’

‘Flayed Flag Fun!’

‘The Immortality Song’

‘Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!’