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 ‘Sharknado: The Second One’

Sharknado2cover

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.