Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.
A guy in a white hat who’s way too happy during a shark attack.
(The guy in question appears at 2:15 at the bottom of the screen, and at 2:18 on the far left)
Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight
Humans are weird creatures. When faced with catastrophe, disaster, or the wrath of a man-eating shark, you’d expect people to be frozen in fear, frozen in shock, or being one of the few brave souls who charges in to save others.
What you don’t expect is for someone to be having the time of their lives, as one beachgoer does in 1975’s classic, ‘Jaws’.
The fellow in question, a mustached man with a white floppy hat, charges into the water with other adults when the shark attacks poor Alex. But unlike the adults who are trying to get the kids out of the water, Floppy Hat Guy just frolics about with the biggest, dopiest grin, nonplussed at the terrors of the deep turning him into Purina shark chow.
Naturally, one wonders what this man’s story is. Is he high on drugs? Mentally challenged? Secretly in love with the idea of flaunting danger? Getting a thrill out of seeing kids get eaten? Of course, the real answer is that he’s played by an extra who was probably just really happy to be in a movie, but that’s nowhere near as much fun as watching a guy having fun when surrounded by death and sharks.
Throughout Hollywood history, there have been many classic films have been spared from getting unnecessary sequels: ‘Gone with the Wind’; ‘Ben Hur’; ‘Schindler’s List’, and ‘The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.’ But while they were all spared from subpar followups, ‘Jaws’ was not.
The biggest problem with doing a sequel to ‘Jaws’ is that the film’s ending was about as conclusive as you could get: the shark was killed and Amity was safe to collect tourist money once more. The conflict was wrapped up. The story’s reason for existence had been dealt with. There was no logical way to continue Brody’s adventures without feeling contrived and tackled-on. Yet, the lure of more box office cash was too strong, and the world was given ‘Jaws 2’, one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made.
While it can’t stand on the same level of the original film (which, in all fairness, no sequel could) ‘Jaws 2’ is actually not that bad. Compared with most shark films released in the last twenty years, it’s a markedly better than most, with a number of good scares, some good performances, the ever-stellar music of John Williams, and Roy Scheider’s excellent performance as Chief Brody. And while it’s best remembered as a mediocre sequel to the film that invented the modern blockbuster, it’s not without its merits. Let’s take a look at five things it does well.
6. It doesn’t copy the first film
It would have been easy for ‘Jaws 2’ to copy the same plot of the original: have a shark attack Amity, have the people in charge refuse to shut the town down because money is important, and have Brody head out once again to kill the shark and save the day. And while ‘2’ does follow the same basic plot, it makes some substantial changes. Among them are:
*Instead of the shark attacking beaches in full view of the public, it mainly focuses on individuals and groups far out at sea, away from the public eye, making the disaster more ‘undercover’ so to speak.
*There’s greater variety in the film’s attack sequences: Where the shark in ‘Jaws’ attacked swimmers, a dock, and some boats, this film features attacks on a water skier, scuba divers, teenagers on sailing craft, a killer whale, and even a helicopter.
*Most of the story is set around Brody trying to deal with his own paranoia/post traumatic stress disorder and the shark after he loses his job.
*Brody has a bigger personal stake in the story. Previously, one of his sons had a close call with the shark, but was otherwise unharmed. Here, both of them are out at sea and attacked by the shark, giving him a good reason to head out and face it.
5. A strong sense of isolation
The first ‘Jaws’ excelled at its sense of isolation, and ‘Jaws 2’ continues that tradition by having all the victims and attacks take place where help is too far away to come in time, or where it’s impossible to even call for help in the first place, such as the teenagers on their boats, or the driver of the watersking boat. Her demise is particularly awful, as her boat is easily broken up the shark, and she’s too far away from shore to swim to safety. It’s no wonder she’s desperate enough to try burning the shark, because, no matter how dangerous it is, it’s the only chance she’s got to survive.
And while she dies, another teenager is left alone in her sailboat after her boyfriend is munched to death with no idea how to get back to shore, and with only the flimsy walls of her craft standing between her and bloody death. It’s no wonder her pleas to God to make the shark go away feel so genuine: I’d be praying like mad as well.
One twist I particularly like is that the movie plays around with this isolation: even when the teenagers are helped by a helicopter, the shark destroys it and shreds their sails with the ruined blades, leaving the teens worse off than before.
4. A shark that’s suitably different from the previous one
How do you distinguish one Great White shark from the next? Aside from its size and intelligence, it’s a difficult task. ‘Jaws 2’ distinguishes itself from most shark movies by giving its beast an enormous burn mark on its head. It may be a bit cheesy (an evil shark with an evil scar!), but in a crowded field of killer shark movies, it makes the beast stand out.
3. This fantastic jump scare
If there’s one scene that ‘Jaws 2’ is remembered for, it’s the infamous helicopter scene, where the shark takes on a helicopter (albeit, one that’s floating on the water instead of hovering in the air) and manages to destroy it. What makes it work is that the attack is so unexpected. Logically, we know that the kids can’t be rescued at this point in the story, and that something is going to happen, but we imagine that the boats are going to be attacked, not the helicopter. Even better, the film has the shark’s sudden appearance filmed from inside the cockpit instead of a wide shot outside the craft. That gives it a more intimate feel, and helps make it more frightening because we see the shark from the pilot’s perspective.
One other part of this scene is also its effectiveness in not showing what happens to the pilot after the helicopter is turned over. It’s obvious that he’s killed, but not showing how it happens makes his demise more frightening, as we have to imagine the poor guy trapped in that tiny cockpit, drowning and unable to get out while the shark munches him. Interestingly, there was some footage shot of the pilot trying to get out, which was later deleted from the film. Personally, I think leaving it out and letting our imaginations run wild was a wise choice.
2. Vaughn’s Vote
Compared to his substantial role in the original film, Mayor Vaughn’s presence in ‘Jaws 2’ is noticeably smaller and roughly the same as the original (a politician who wants to keep the town open no matter how dangerous an attacking monster may be because money is great), but there’s a new depth to the relationship between him and Brody, best shown in scenes that aren’t even in the movie. Two deleted scenes show the town’s leaders wanting to remove Brody as chief of police, culminating in a vote. Out of all those present, Vaughn is the only one who votes to keep Brody on.
(the scenes begin at 5:32)
It’s a great moment that humanizes Vaughn beyond the cliché of ‘leader of a community forsakes safety over profits’: he’s still Brody’s friend and respects him even when the two don’t agree. Compared to so many other unreasonably mayor figures we’ve gotten in pop culture, that little moment gives him a depth that his contemporaries lack.
1. It focuses on Brody coping with the events of the previous film
In my opinion, the one thing that makes ‘Jaws 2’ work isn’t the shark, the attacks, or its scares. No, what elevates ‘Jaws 2’ above its successors is Brody. In the first film, he was a competent, well-meaning, and rational man who was out of his element when it came to shark hunting, but who nevertheless stepped up to the challenge. But unlike so many sequel heroes, he isn’t a confident person who leaps back into action at the first sing of trouble. He’s a man who’s still competent, but struggling to deal with the stress of what happened to him, and the fears he’s gained of the ocean. That fear manifests itself best in an early scene where he has to get the wreckage of a boating accident.
Without any words, we see just how badly being attacked by a killer shark has affected Brody and made him so reluctant to go into waist-deep water. Watching Brody deal with that paranoia and fear throughout the movie gives him a vulnerable edge that so many other characters lack: He’s still a good man who wants to keep his community safe, but his PTSD drives Brody to do things he normally wouldn’t do, such as his famous beach scene, which is arguably the best moment in the film:
This all comes to a head after Brody is fired from his job. After all he’s gone through, he could just walk away and let someone else deal with the shark, but he still chooses to go out and face the beast to save his sons, and the lives of innocent teenagers, showing that, even when battling his inner demons, Brody is a good man, and will still do what’s right.
In a way, Brody can be seen as a predecessor to Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens’: He fought a monster, survived, and made it back to safety, but suffers psychologically and has to face the monster again to conquer his fears for good. And once he does, he comes out stronger than before, more capable, and worthy of praise. Martin Brody is the heart and soul of ‘Jaws 2’, and he single-handily elevates what could have been a bad sequel into a watchable one that’s nowhere near deserving of the scorn it or its successors have gotten over the years.
‘Jaws 2’ may be an acceptable sequel to the original, but the arrival of the next sequel sent the franchise began down the road to silliness, terrible visual effects, and roaring sharks. Tune in next week when we’ll take a look at the third entry in the Jaws saga, ‘Jaws 3D’
We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.
Why it’s great
Quick: Imagine a favorite scene from a movie. Let’s go with… Darth Vader revealing to Luke that he’s his dad. Got it? Okay… now, visualize Vader and Luke replaced by toy sharks. The audio’s the same, the sets are the same, and Luke still gives the best ‘NO!’ face ever.
Now, with all that in mind, replace Luke and Vader with shark snapper toys. Suddenly, the scene becomes hilarious because of the sight of inanimate toys talking to each other in an otherwise serious scene, and evidence that replacing cast members with inanimate objects, but otherwise not changing the scene, is comedy gold, as the above video proves (even though it’s with a joke instead of a serious moment).
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.
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.
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.
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.
In your own works, having the president of a country get her/his own action sequences is a surefire way to get the viewer’s attention. The president, by virtue of their office, is going to be an important individual, and also has the underdog value of being someone with no fighting/action skills, and having to go up against dangerous opponents with enormous stakes: if they die or get captured, the country is in big trouble. For bonus points, consider having your president be a historical figure, such as George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. Who wouldn’t want to see any of them taking on sharknadoes?
Awesome RV’s are always cool.
They rarely show up in fiction outside of zombie stories, but armored RV’s are always cool. What’s not to love about a vehicle that not only has all the comforts of home, but also has enough weapons and armor to take on the toughest monsters? ‘Oh Hell No!’ gets one that allows Nova and Lucas to pursue the latest sharknado threat in relative safety.
In our own stories, armored RV’s offer a lot of flexibility, ranging from van-sized, to bus-sized, and even dual-bus sized. But no matter how you rig them, they tap into the deep-rooted fantasy we all have of wanting to get into action without giving up the comforts of a bed, a kitchen, and so on.
Have someone’s heroic sacrifice show just how determined they are
How far would you go to sacrifice yourself for a cause? Sacrificing your life for something greater than yourself is heroic, but would you still be willing to do it if it was tremendously painful? Poor Lucas has a pretty unpleasant death in ‘Oh Hell No!,’ which finds him struggling to activate the RV’s self-destruct mechanism, only to have his legs and arms ripped off one by one until he finally activates the mechanism by hitting the button with his chin.
While being cruel, having your characters struggle to sacrifice themselves gives your viewers the chance to see just how determined and brave they can be… though if you’re not careful, it can become unintentionally amusing if they keep losing limbs and body parts. (it’s easy to visualize Lucas still trying to hit the button if his head was bitten off).
If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it
It’s amazing to think that after six movies, ‘Oh Hell No!’ has the only instance of the United States military taking on a sharknado. But as with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, part of the fun of this kind of movie is seeing the military fight the beast and fail to defeat it, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.
Bigger is sometimes better
While previous sharknadoes have affected just a single city (Los Angeles and New York City), ‘Oh Hell No!’ has the fishy menace attack the East Coast of the United States, giving Fin and friends a much tougher task ahead of them: they have to save half a country from being wiped out instead of a single city.
While it’s common for the world to be at stake in disaster movies, ‘Oh Hell No!’ cleverly subverts the trend by only having a large part a country threatened, instead of the entire world. Consider doing the same in your own stories: audiences are so used to having the entire world be threatened that having something smaller and more intimate can feel refreshingly different.
Consider having your monsters run amok in an amusement park of DOOM
What’s more fun than a theme park? Having monsters running amok at a theme park! ‘Oh Hell No!’ features the fun of sharks attacking Universal Studios Orlando, including the last on-screen appearance of the Twister attraction before it was closed down.
The appeal of having monsters attacking a theme park is that they get to run amok among a nearly infinite variety of rides. Who wouldn’t want to see Michael Myers hijacking a bumper car to run people over? Or seeing Jason Vorhees slashing people to bits inside a tunnel of love while riding a swan boat? Or a Predator decapitating drunk partygoers on the steamboat in Disneyland?
Consider having an old timer get to fulfill a dream, but also help others in the process
Much like the baseball player from ‘The Second One,’ ‘Oh Hell No!’ features another older man who finally gets to fulfill a failed dream of heading into space. But what’s interesting in this version is that it’s Fin’s dad, Gil, and that by heading into space, he also is helping to save millions of lives and also be the hero his son always wanted, which allows him to accomplish three things at once.
While it’s satisfying to see someone fulfill a dream, you can make it even better if the character in question gets to help others in in the process.
Consider drafting the boyfriend/girlfriend to fight monsters
A date should be about having fun and enjoying yourself, not taking up arms to fight sharknadoes trying to wipe out humanity, as Claudia’s boyfriend learns when he’s recruited to fight off sharknadoes at NASA to protect the space shuttle.
The advantage of recruiting a boyfriend/girlfriend to fight isn’t that they’re underdogs fighting to survive something they’re not prepared for (unless they happen to have training or experience), but in that their character is revealed in times of extreme stress, which can help their partner decide if they really want to get together with them or not. They might be cowards who run away to save their own skins, or they may be brave, and prove themselves to be a worthy partner.
When you need a memorable finale for your monster movie, and realism isn’t an issue, consider sending your monster into space
When a monster franchise sends its monster into outer space, it’s a sign that the filmmakers have run out of ideas or are no longer taking the franchise seriously, and for good reason: I don’t think you can send an earth-born monster into outer space and not have it be inherently silly, as Jason and the Leprechaun have proved.
Yet, the silliness of outer space carnage can work if your series already thrives on the silly and the absurd, and sending sharks into the cosmos feels like the logical outcome of the ‘Sharknado’ franchise. and gives us the rare sight of man fighting sharks in the final frontier.
While it may be difficult to pull of seriously, sending sending your monsters into space does have the undeniable novelty of seeing said monsters causing havoc in space shuttles, space stations, other planets, etc. If your audience doesn’t groan and give up, they’ll go along just to see what absurdity awaits them.
End with the threat neutralized for good and the hero getting what they want
‘Oh Hell No!’ ends on quite the high note: the storm system that had caused the sharknadoes ihas been neutralized, Earth is safe, and Fin finally has a family of his own. If SyFy had chosen to end the ‘Sharknado’ series with the third film, it would have been a satisfying finale.
In our own stories, consider giving your own protagonist a happy ending and what they’ve wanted all along. It may be a family, a career they’ve dreamed of, or perhaps a new business, or even just the freedom to travel and see the world. It’s a just reward for all their hard work, and a satisfying way to see them begin a new life away from whatever’s been tormenting them.
Avoid ending on a cliffhanger if this is supposed to be the series finale.
With that said, however, ‘Oh Hell No’ does taint its happy ending with having April be squashed by a falling shark from outer space, leaving the viewer to wonder if she survived. While I don’t know if SyFy always intended to continue the series, or if it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to include the cliffhanger, it feels anticlimactic to set everything up as the big finale, only for the film to change its mind at the last second.
While it’s always tempting to leave the door open for more adventures, it’s wiser to wrap your story up instead of leaving a loose thread: it’s always possible to come back to a finished series, but leaving the door open to a sequel that will never happen will always leave viewers wondering what could have happened.
Consider having the president, a boyfriend/girlfriend, and a cool RV help save a country once and for all from a monster with heroic self-sacrifice while the monster/s attack an amusement park and then heads into space before being stopped for good with the help of an older person fulfilling a lifelong dream, thus giving the protagonist what they’ve always wanted, but avoid ending your series finale on a cliffhangar that negates all the emotional investment we’ve had up to this point.
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.
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.
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.
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.