‘Sharknado’ is the first great movie of twitter
From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.
Sharknado by Anthony C. Ferrante, 2013
Starring: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, John Heard, Cassie Scerbo, Jaason Simons, Aubrey Peeples, and Chuck Hittinger
Budget: $1,000,000 USD
Box office: Well it’s a tv movie, but was projected to increase revenue for its production company The Asylum from $5,000,000 to $19,000,000 and has the record for most watched original film encore in Syfy history.
Number of times previously watched: 2
Full disclosure: I did not watch this movie when it first aired on Syfy. Mostly because I don’t have cable, but also because I knew I would hate it. I hate a cheap, obvious sharksploitation movie, and sharks flying around in a tornado is pretty much the definition of it. So I didn’t watch it.
Then the excitement rolled in and I was like “ya, whatever.” Then the critical praise rolled in and I was like “this is fucking horse shit.” So I watched it, multiple times, and I’m here to tell you a movie about sharks, all kinds of sharks, getting sucked up in a tornado and dropped throughout LA starring Ian Ziering and Tara Reid is most definitely not good.
Let’s put Sharknado through the Jaws Sharkometer.
Divine Intervention: Twitter’s ability to connect us all
If you’re just joining us, this is the series wherein we explore shark movies according to an impressive matrix deconstructing Jaws’ greatness that yours truly constructed. *dusts shoulders off* This shark series is really making me think a lot about how horror movies reflect societal issues at large and about why we like the things that we like.
I went to a horror movies lecture (re: I am cool) where the speaker stated the now obvious fact that horror movies reflect the culture we live in. I mean, theoretically, all movies do, but horror movies (a) reflect the cultural fears of the time and (b) do not get credit for being amazing (except maybe now, as we enter the Horror Renaissance).
For example, in the 1970s: birth control! feminism! women! manifested as Rosemary’s Baby and Carrie. In the 1980s: sex! drugs! teenagers! manifested as Freddie Kruger and Sleepaway Camp.
Creature features, and shark movies specifically, can fit into this narrative — and more importantly when they don’t, I think it’s reflective of a movie cashing in rather than a movie doing its job. But perhaps that too is a sign of the times. More on those movies later (The Meg, I’m looking at you).
Sharknado is a great example of this theory because, strikingly, the most famous scene of a shark being chainsawed in half and a fallen hero being rescued and revived represents society’s dire need to seize the means of production and face the destructive realities of capitalism and this imploding world while also reconnecting with community that we had previously disposed and forgotten.
I kid, it’s about twitter.
But, in all seriousness, that made-up metaphor and the use of twitter are not so disconnected! This fantastic interview with Jamie Lee Curtis (Queen!) makes the fantastic (re: horrifying point) that we are looking for comfort within horror movies, particularly those of the Horror Renaissance —e.g., Get Out, Halloween, Hereditary. While these movies’ deep narratives about social issues speak to us, and Sharknado maybe has a passing nod to Global Warming and perhaps something to do with family (???), what instead endears us to Sharknado is our ability to connect outside the movie and to speak to each other. And that is all twitter.
There is absolute value in the dumpster fire medium and its ability to link us, for better or worse. We live in a culture now were young people (in America) must create gofund me pages to pay for medical care and crowdsource their labour in the sharing economy — why wouldn’t we also watch a movie together and chat about it? Twitter is where our community is — it’s where our people are. It’s where we go to find support and comfort when we are alienated from the outside world.
When the hellfire of, well really the last few years, but especially last month during the Kavanaugh job interview, was inescapable and so so terrible, women took to twitter to not only dissect and present the news from their perspectives, but to offer care, compassion, and relief to their community.
And that is why twitter can be so powerful. It can bring us together in a world fracturing apart. And it’s ultimately why something as terrible as Sharknado (guys. it is a terrible movie.) could make such a huge, substantial impact. Those who didn’t get it, didn’t tweet while watching and were thus confused (me). Those who got it, were tweeting about it and created a fun event that night that went down in history (a lot of people). And that’s pretty incredible. The first of its kind, making Sharknado the first, real movie of twitter.
Oh and for those who didn’t tweet it, and liked it anyway (my dad)…the rest of this piece is for you.
Divine Intervention rating: 1/1 waterfalls
The undeniable greatness of ‘Deep Blue Sea’
Who is Jesus in this movie? There’s about five different options.
A sloppy mess of Hitchcockian Flare
Within this shark matrix, “Hitchcockian Flare” has come to mean “underlying theme.” If we dust off our horror movie metaphors from above, we can see that that’s not actually a leap. I mean, was Hitchcock’s Psycho really about “a psycho,” or was it about the culture of the 1960s and its fear of dissolving gender norms and “gender bending.” I rest my case.
Our previous entry, Deep Blue Sea, attempted to make some BIG POINTS about religion and science by way of an abundant Jesus metaphor with a limping Frankenstein twist. Though flawed, it did actually capture the (panicked) discussion of the time of “how far should science go?!?” when the news was always talking about cloning, stem cell research, and warehouses of organs. It was a strange time. Remember that movie The Island with Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson? Same deal. Just fewer sharks.
So when we cut to deeper meaning for Sharknado here’s what we’re left with:
- References to shark fin soup and overfishing/waste and the line “we shouldn’t be afraid of sharks, they should be the ones afraid of us” that may signify corporate and cultural greed.
- A lot of lines that directly reference global warming and climate change, e.g., “global warming is to blame for this unprecedented event,” “looks like we’re all [climate?] refugees now,” and “for an environmentalist you sure hate sharks.”
If Sharknado has a deeper meaning, it’s pretty friggin’ opaque. It’s kind of, mostly about global warming, but then it also shows no sympathy or recourse for the thousands of sharks destroyed. And given that it spawned five sequels, one mockumentary, one documentary, and one spinoff, it can’t make any salient points about greed.
The Odyssey makes a valiant effort to argue Sharknado was really about family, leading to this gem “no matter what storms (shark or otherwise) life brings, the power of love and the unity of family will always persevere.” But I don’t buy it. Zering seems to only recently realize he has kids, let alone like or love them. And him and Tara Reid have z.e.r.o. chemistry and are given no real catalyst, outside of sharks literally falling from the sky, to realize their love again. And I’d argue, sharks falling from the sky would solidify my previous choice of leaving either person.
So, maybe it’s not really about anything. Maybe it’s not that deep. Maybe, as Ferrante said, it’s just “something fun and unapologetic. It’s not dark. It’s not foreboding. [It’s] not trying to save the world.”
Sharknado is just about sharks in a tornado.
John Wick is just fun, man.
And Jaws is just about a shark.
Hitchcockian Flare rating: 0/10 gold medals
‘Shark Night 3D’ and the joy of fear
Is it cliche to study fear in the times of Corona? *Shrugs* What is fear anyway.
Filmin’: Including a chainsaw doesn’t make you Sam Raimi
Other than a few obligatory Jaws homages — a Spielberg handprint and “we’re going to need a bigger ‘copter” — Ferrante says he tried to be original, and also looked to early Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi films for inspiration. And honestly? A+ for those choices.
Those are fantastic sources of inspiration — the Evil Dead trilogy is a favourite of mine — and they influence the best parts of the movie. Or best part. Which is after Zering saves his oft-neglected daughter and is seemingly eaten by a shark, we hear the rip of the chainsaw, the running motor, and see Zering saw his way out, birthed from the bloody vaginal-like canal of the shark, screaming, then reach back and pull out a bloodied Nova.
I mean, ya, it could have been more tension-filled with better pacing and less repetitive cut shots, but it is still pretty peak Evil Dead. It is his boom stick. Not to mention the cardboard shark fin POV cam and the Family Mart as a potential nod to S-mart are wonderful moments.
Sidebar: I think George’s stool was intended to function the same way as the chainsaw, but the character is so terrible (re: misogynistic, pathetic) and the moments so awkward and prescribed that it doesn’t register and is best forgotten.
And while I truly, truly appreciate both the restraint in flimsy Jaws references and the attempt at an Army of Darkness-esque style, the filming techniques reinforce that Sharknado was conceptualized as a horror movie, or really a disaster movie, not a shark movie. Like with Hitchcockian Flare, it misses the value of a shark movie and treats the sharks as just an object. Nothing more. Like we said in Divine Intervention, horror movies represent more than and Sharknado didn’t get that either and instead lucked into representing the times. Sharknado is a mishmash of influences, footage, and techniques strung together to create a piecemeal mess.
Filmin’ rating: 1/4 video cameras
The silent panic of ‘The Shallows’
Silence, silence, ATTACK! Is Blake Lively your new Final Girl? Or is she shark food for a beast with a grudge.
Again we ask: Did they edit?
No. This movie is 85 minutes and feels too long, has thousands of plot holes, and reuses the same real shark footage 900 times.
Mother Cutter rating: 0/2 scissors
‘Red Water’ and the trappings of shark movies
If you put a shark in a movie does it instantly become a shark movie?
The limits of misogyny and camp
There are two types of humour in Sharknado: (1) cheap, early 1990s dad joke misogyny and (2) camp.
I’m not going to go into the first, other than to say do better, but I would like to go on a journey through the second, if you’ll let me.
Sharknado is often described as “a campy movie” because of its ridiculous storyline, bad writing and acting, and low production value. But what is “camp” and does being “in” on the joke really make Sharknado successfully campy?
Susan Sontag, in her essay “Notes on Camp,” distinguishes between kitsch, the work itself, and camp, the performance or consumption placed “in quotation marks,” and puts camp in two different categories: (1) “naive camp,” which takes itself seriously and is “unaware that it is tasteless” and “always pure camp” and (2) “deliberate camp,” which can be “subversive” and “deliberately exploits whole notions of what it is to be kitsch.”
That’s a pretty simplified version of Sontag’s prolific essay on camp and its evolution, which has a rich and fascinating history (including rebuttals by smart ladies to Sontag’s thesis. Read Michelle Dean’s Sharp for more!); however, it clarifies that naive camp = viewers hold power, not content and we laugh at it and deliberate camp = content is aware and we laugh with it, and that camp is about performance and consumption (e.g., Drag shows and John Waters) and kitsch is about content (e.g., Sontag’s tacky snake lamp).
With Sharknado, Ferrante said that “summer movies out there take themselves way too seriously — some of them are really good — but there’s that sense of fun that I think audiences want every once in a while,” so he tried to delivered. According to Sontag, that puts Sharknado firmly in the “deliberate camp” category as it is aware of its tastelessness or kitsch value.
However, Sontag also argued that “camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying” and inferred that it is because in some situations the art is trying too hard to be camp. Sontag asserts that when deliberate camp “lacks ebullience” and “reveals a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials” the work loses its purpose.
Enter Tara Reid. People harp on Reid a lot (for everything), so much so that viewers voted whether she would be killed off or not for the fourth movie. Interestingly, they saved her. For Sharknado though, I get it. Her performance is truly terrible and brings the movie down. She is wooden and awkward, and her character is really unlikeable and boring and ultimately has nothing to do.
Most damning though is that Reid doesn’t lack awareness of or overcommitment to what she is participating in and instead she simply doesn’t care or is incapable of preforming otherwise. In Sontag’s words, she has contempt and lacks ebullience. She is there, mostly I assume, for the paycheque, not the purpose.
Reid has had a tumultuous career, so a long jump to a “fallen starlet” trying to make a quick buck rhetoric could probably be made, but that’s unfair and deeply problematic, and ignores the fact that Reid has never been a good actress except when cast in roles resembling what audiences think they already know about her and the fact that acting for money is literally her job.
It’s not to say that Zering’s performance is much better. He seems committed, but based on interviews, he seemed completely unaware of Sharknado’s initial campiness. He’s just excited to repel off a bridge and use a chainsaw (no shade). He is naive, and possibly a bit dense (shade), so we don’t mind him, even if his character does kind of seem like an asshole [voice gets really high]…
Nova, though, is stellar. She is aware of the nonsense and decidedly “playing it straight.” She gets it, we get it. She skewers a shark forcefully with a pool cue and blows one to bits with precise shotgun work somehow. She embodies what Sharknado wants to be and conforms to the idea of deliberate camp.
I’ve argued before that intention and earnestness are a big factor in how an audience views and responds to something. For example, it is why Deep Blue Sea is so beloved, despite its obvious absurdity. Deep Blue Sea, according to Sontag’s reasoning, is pure camp and is thus more enjoyable (though people falsely attribute it to the deliberate camp… camp, which it is not).
It is Reid’s contempt for the film, regardless of origin, that exposes Sharknado as less than verifiable camp — it makes it lack sincerity because there’s a participant unwilling to go along with the absurdity, forcing the movie and audience to realize and make up for that.
However, even beyond that dissonance, Sharknado as deliberate camp is still lacking because, as Ferrante said (perhaps obliviously?), it doesn’t have a reference point to base its critique off of. Or as Sontag would rather harshly assert “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.” I mean, right?
Sharknado’s plot of sharks in a tornado is outlandish but doesn’t go far enough. Good deliberate camp makes a broader assertion of the whole e.g., Drag shows critique gender norms by subverting expectations. Sharknado doesn’t aim to do anything other than have fun, which falls flat when one of the leads isn’t having fun and the jokes you intend don’t land. It doesn’t haven’t any Hitchcockian Flare, as we Jaws matrix-ers would say.
Yet! Sharknado was still widely enjoyed by a lot of people. Why? Because the deliberate camp performance and particularly the consumption comes from twitter’s reaction to the movie. Twitter knew Sharknado was a fun, ridiculous movie, viewed it as such, and performed it as such. It didn’t matter if elements were amiss — that only added to the fun. They weren’t judging content, they were responding to and creating performance. And that is amazing and a far cry from the insinuation that “culture is in decline.”
So, after that journey, did we find out if Sharknado is truly camp? Yes. But not in the way you think it is.
Sharknado, the movie, is not a good example of deliberate camp. It is not subversive or ironic enough, the writing is bad (it’s really bad), most of the acting is not realized enough, and Ferrante was ultimately charged with the ad hoc position of defending a surprisingly popular movie and its inevitable comparisons to Jaws and the genre when he didn’t set out for any of that, and thus leaned on “it’s campy!”
However, Sharknado, the twitter performance is a great example of deliberate camp, and honestly, where all the fun comes from. Watching Sharknado alone by yourself, like I did, is not enjoyable. In fact, it’s boring and depressing. Watching it and chatting with million of people game to have a good time is a great time and makes this kitschy movie fun.
Good humour rating: Sharknado (movie) 0/3 popsicles; Sharknado (twitter) 3/3 popsicles
‘47 Meters Down’ knows your darkest fears
Come expecting campy fun, leave haunted by your deepest fears and a mind-blowing ending.
Lack of CGI hahahahahahaha
I have two words: epic fail.
Ferrante has more words: “We had one partial practical shark and three fins. The practical shark was a great white. It was a really nice shark, but you really could only use it for the land-based stuff — the beach and the living room set. After that, we really needed the VFX sharks to help tell the story.”
Honestly, I tried to write something more about this, but it’s impossible. Both the sheer amount and the quality of the CGI in this movie is inexcusable and devastating. No reasoning behind it will ever make me believe it was necessary and it hurts my soul that people reference this when they talk about great shark movies.
The best depiction of a shark being scary in this movie is the cardboard fin taped to a flutter board and pulled by a string through water of flailing people. Or the obvious prop shark lurking under the stairs and lunging at people. It is not the thousands of monotonously chomping and inexplicably wiggling blurry blobs raining down from the sky that none of the actors can correctly track. Nor is it the real footage of sharks in the ocean as the streets become damp from rain. They can’t even get the water levels consistent enough to make this believable! They keep jump cutting from an ocean to slightly wet pavement.
I just. It’s bad. It’s so, so bad.
No CGIs allowed rating: 0.5/3 mechanical shark fins
‘Bait 3D’ and the case for mediocrity
We can’t always be special, but we can be sort of great. Dust off those participation badges and discuss Bait 3D.
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Twitter. Full stop.
It wasn’t Sharknado trying to “cash in on the so-bad-it’s-good bandwagon.” It wasn’t its conception as a camp movie. It wasn’t anything! It was twitter. It was alllll twitter. Look at every piece of praise for the movie: it begins and ends with twitter. The cultural cache of it cannot be overstated. The overstating and cashing in came next from the corporations.
The twitter reaction to Sharknado makes sense because this movie is bananas. Again, it is about a tornado full of sharks that’s resolution includes throwing homemade bombs out of a helicopter and two whole people being swallowed by the same shark and surviving. It is perfectly calculated to live tweet! That’s how it became successful.
And then it became really, really successful. And then they decided to monetize its popularity — five times over.
Sharknado generated five sequels, one documentary, one mockumentary, and one spinoff. That’s unheard of for a movie of its origin story.
Some have said Sharknado is a signifier of our cultural downfall and, as discussed in Divine Intervention, I think that’s shortsighted. Greedy opportunism took a thing people liked for one night and reproduced the living daylights out of it until it lacked all value. That’s our downfall.
Am I romanticizing Sharknado a little bit for our purposes here? Maybe. But the titles of the sequels reveal they’re in on the exhaustion not to mention when you google Sharknado, as I have, a lot, there are lots of articles like “The Last Sharknado is the last flopping gasp of a series well past its sell-by date” and “‘Sharknado 4’ is happening, but does anybody still care?” So it seems we all became disillusioned with its successors.
For instance, the initial viewership of Sharknado was 1.37 million. But then, after the twitter storm [pun intended], Syfy aired it three more times to capitalize on the chaos. That makes sense because Syfy is in the business of producing movies and having them watched.
It also makes sense, from a business standpoint, to churn out a sequel the next year, which gained a whopping 3.87 million viewers. And then continue on in this pattern — these movies are low cost, high payoff until inevitably, they’re just not. By the end, no one is watching.
So when does this pattern consider the audience? When do we stop assuming cultural decline and blaming millennials for literally everything and start equating bad business strategy with corporate greed?
JAWS19 was a joke, but Sharknado19 definitely could have happened if they had figured out how to successfully replicate the moment of the first.
But here’s the thing: you can’t manufacture a genuine viral moment. Sharknado generated nearly 5,000 tweets per minute and was considered the first communal moviegoing experience online.
So joke’s on them, the corporate bastards. They sullied the entire franchise by trying to capture the magic of the first movie, instead of just letting it all be.
Or as Zering more nicely said “the audience took the movie for its own and decided to make it an event, and that’s pretty awesome.”
Wildcard rating: 1/1 Spielberg head
The murky ethics of ‘The Reef’
Oooo would we call this a true story? Seems more like it puts the exploitation in sharksploitation. And yes, this movie…
Final Thoughts: A real and earnest takedown
I went into this analysis thinking that I would never understand Sharknado’s popularity or beloved status. I thought people were just kidding themselves, confusing something “real and earnest” with something inauthentic and bad. I was ready to absolutely tear this movie to pieces.
But…that’s not really a good frame of mind when performing an analysis. It’s not thoughtful nor does it try to understand why we love the things we love.
So, I let it go.
And, instead of shoe-horning in an argument that would have been both wrong and misleading, I came upon something even better. No, not the Sharknado is a great shark movie — it is horribly bad at its core — but that it’s perhaps one of the first real twitter movies and that’s what makes it special.
It is uniquely of its time (pause, everything is technically of its time) in that this movie’s popularity is inextricably linked with twitter and 2013’s onslaught of blockbusters that were either boring and overly seriously (Man of Steel, After Earth) or tired franchise sequels (Thor 2, Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3). Frozen notwithstanding, it seems we needed a bit of fun in our lives as we presciently heard the death rattle of 2016 approaching.
Sharknado and twitter created that perfect viral moment that if you were around to experience as it happened, you loved it.
It’s not to dismiss and excuse those cultural bandwagon hoppers who mistakenly equate this movie as real and good. Those people have trash opinions (daaaaaaaad). Nor is it to rationalize corporate greed applying its tired, hilariously American, formula of reproducing facsimiles of something cool and killing it in the process. That action is what makes this movie truly bad: the misinterpretation of a cultural moment.
Sharknado is not a good movie, and it’s an even worse shark movie. But it brings people together. And just like Keanu Reeves justifies John Wick as “I don’t know man. John Wick is fun.” Ferrante says the same of Sharknado and that’s cool. And fun. Just don’t call it good.
Next up: The blockbuster failure ‘The Meg’
The crushing disappointment of ‘The Meg’
I paid $15 to sit on a weird couch in a movie theatre and all I got was resentment.
For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.
References and Recommended Readings
As always, support and references are linked throughout and below are some related and unrelated reads that helped shape this piece.
We Are What We Fear: Monsters and Horror Films by JR Pepper
‘Sharknado’ Cost: Syfy’s Hit Movie Cost Two Million
The psychology behind why we love bad films so much by Tom Beasley
Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag
Sharp by Michelle Dean
The 50 Best Good Bad Movies by The Ringer Staff
The Meaning of Sharknado by Bob Chipman
An Important Discussion About ‘Sharknado,’ The Greatest Movie Ever About A Shark-Filled Tornado by Brian Grubb