Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review Double Feature: Sharknado (2013) and Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

Ah, Syfy original movies. The modern equivalent of '50s drive-in creature features. I'm reviewing two of them today, two films that have gotten a strange amount of attention in the last year or so. Do they deserve it?

Sharknado (2013)

Before I talk about Sharknado, I'd like to talk about The Asylum, the studio that made it. The Asylum is probably one of the most infamous film studios in existence today, and certainly the most shameless. Originally a maker of low-budget, direct-to-video horror films, in 2005 they struck gold when their adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds came out around the same time as Steven Spielberg's version with ten times the budget. They were flocked with orders from video rental stores, which were still relevant in the mid '00s; Blockbuster Video alone bought 100,000 copies, hoping to fool customers into renting what they thought was the Spielberg movie. Since then, The Asylum has specialized in not only making cheap monster/disaster movies, but also in ripping off blockbuster films by making direct-to-video B-movies with similar titles and premises, cut-rate actors and special effects, and budgets of about a million dollars or less. Occasionally, they've been sued over this practice, as when they made The Day the Earth Stopped, Age of the Hobbits, and American Battleship, but they change the title (or wait out the legal challenge) before anything serious can happen. The death of video rental stores has hurt The Asylum not one whit, as they simply migrated to Redbox and to premiering their films on Syfy. Knowing their reputation as a collective modern-day Roger Corman, they've embraced the camp value of their films at every level, exemplified when they cast '80s teen pop star Tiffany in Mega Piranha and teamed her up with fellow pop star Debbie Gibson in Mega Piranha vs. Gatoroid.

The film I'm reviewing today, Sharknado, builds on that trend. It's a film whose entire plot is composed of its outrageous premise -- a waterspout vacuums up a bunch of sharks and throws them around Los Angeles, and people run around screaming. It is a bad movie, and it makes no bones about being bad. If the folks at CinemaSins were to do a video on everything wrong with Sharknado, it would probably last the entire runtime of the movie. Weather and flooding conditions changed between shots, the special effects were terrible outside of a couple of scenes that clearly took up most of the budget, the director can't shoot a film to save his life, all of the cast members (which includes American Pie alum Tara Reid and former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Ian Ziering) either phone in their performances or devour more scenery than the sharks, and there is virtually no plot or characterization. It's a film that lives entirely on its novelty value. If I had to judge it on its own merits, it would be the easiest 1 out of 5 I've handed down since Mary Horror.

But this is not a film to be judged or enjoyed as a legitimate horror movie. Rather, it is a film tailor-made for what has become a burgeoning market in this age of internet comedy and hipster irony: connoisseurs of bad B-movies like Plan 9 From Outer SpaceThe Room, and Birdemic: Shock and Terror. You're not supposed to laugh with Sharknado, but at it. It is a film designed to make you go "I cannot believe this piece of shit exists" while you and four of your buddies are gathered around the big screen laughing your asses off at all the goofs and amateur mistakes made by the filmmakers. For those of you who aren't movie geeks, this is known as "MSTing", after the '90s cult comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000, where three guys watched awful B-movies from the past (often science fiction, as the name suggests) and cracked witty one-liners about all the badness they were watching.

It took time, and a second viewing (Syfy reran it before premiering the sequel), for Sharknado to grow on me. The first time I watched it, I hated it. I thought that it had missed the point entirely, an attempt to make "fetch" happen by creating a bad movie sensation out of whole cloth. Ed Wood didn't set out to make bad movies when he made Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda?, nor did John Travolta with Battlefield Earth -- they genuinely believed that their films would go down as classics. Sharknado, on the other hand, was made with the full intention of making the next Plan 9 or Battlefield Earth, and to be honest it still feels kind of cynical when you say it like that. However, despite that, I came to appreciate it a lot more upon rewatching it. Granted, the midsection of the film still drags, with not enough funny moments (legitimately or... otherwise) and feeling like the wrong kind of bad, the kind that is just boring to watch. But I came to notice and enjoy this film's sense of humor a lot more. Characters like the drunken slob George and the bus driver Robbie were hilarious, and the protagonist Fin was played so painfully straight as the obligatory "hero" that it was even mocked more than once over the course of the film. The makers of this film knew that there was only one way they could play this movie, and that was outrageously. Whenever it gets too slow, BOOM! Shark drops out of the sky and bites through the roof of the truck, which then explodes for no reason. The sharknado is destroyed by throwing bombs into it to blow it up by "equalizing the air temperature". A swimming pool is covered in gas and set on fire to kill some sharks that landed in it, and also explodes. The hero dives into a shark's mouth wielding a chainsaw and cuts his way out of its stomach. Stock footage of sharks and hurricanes is used shamelessly no matter how little it fits the scene. It does what a hell of a lot of bigger movies ought to do, and embraces and runs with its ridiculous premise.

That's not to say it does that great a job of being ridiculous. Like I said, humorous moments like this are at times too few and far between to really keep up this film's campy, self-aware tone running for long stretches. My rewatch on Syfy came preceded by me catching the second half of another zero-budget monster movie from the same studio, Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark, and to be honest, it was at times more exciting and funny/ridiculous than this film was (two words: land shark). I feel that everybody involved at The Asylum could have done a lot more in making this a comedy classic rather than simply resting on its premise to carry it ninety minutes.

Score: 1 out of 5 (on its own merits), 3 out of 5 (as a campy B-movie)

I still don't really understand how this became a bad movie phenomenon, between its origins and the fact that other movies do "so bad it's good" quite a bit better, intentionally or otherwise. Still, for what it was, I had fun in spite of myself.


And now, for the second one. (Seriously, it's actually called The Second One. I'll prove it to you right now.)

Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

Now this film does it right! Sharknado 2: The Second One is everything that the first movie was hyped up to be but only partly delivered: a laugh-out-loud parody of disaster movies, B-movies, and itself that ratchets up the "holy shit" quotient each minute. Whereas the first one had its unfortunate moments where it took itself too seriously for me to have any fun with it, The Second One completely scorns any sense of pretension and lets the crazy fly from the very first minute. Other critics will complain about the awful CGI, or the poor acting, or the characters who drop out of the film for a half-hour at a time. I tell them: shut up, this is Sharknado! Everything is cranked up to impossible degrees, Ian Ziering's hero act is taken to the point of hilarious self-parody, the cameos (from, among others, Kelly Osbourne, Jared the Subway guy, and the hosts of The Today Show and Live! with Kelly and Michael) had me rolling, and just when I thought it couldn't get any more ridiculous, it slapped me upside the head and told me to go fuck myself. Granted, I called one or two of this film's more ridiculous moments (four words: Tara Reid buzzsaw hand), but that still didn't prepare me for half of them.

The biggest surprise of all, though? Sharknado 2: The Second One, underneath all of its campy comedy and deliberately bad special effects, is actually a pretty good movie on its own terms! Yeah! How did that happen? Granted, we're not talking about the second coming of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes here -- this is a sequel to a movie that's most famous for being bad. So bad it's good, yes, but still hard to watch if you're trying to take it seriously. However, someone at The Asylum must have figured that, if they were making a movie that was going to be seen and talked about by millions of people, they should make it work on some level beyond just in-jokes for "fans" of the first one. Everybody in the cast seemed to be trying, for one, even if it was for ridiculousness more than anything, and for the most part, they were all very good. (Yes, even Tara Reid's dull-eyed blankness somehow worked in this, or was at least easy to ignore. Don't ask me how.) I actually gave two shits about the characters this time, thanks to their fun dialogue and the fact that most of them had backstories and motivations that didn't revolve entirely around vortexes of teeth and cartilage.

Granted, the fact that The Asylum actually stepped their game up did create a paradox. What happens when a "bad" movie is actually legitimately good? Does that mean that it's harder to laugh at, ruining what made it so fun in the first place? The answer to that question is a big, loud "hell no!" This time, however, the laughs come not (entirely) from badness, but from how absolutely preposterous everything is. While the first movie knew what it was and embraced it, The Second One went all the way, starting off big and loud and turning it up to eleven and beyond as it progressed. We get a ton of hilarious cameos -- Kelly Osbourne as a flight attendant, Jared the Subway guy getting eaten in a subway, Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan, Al Roker, and Matt Lauer all reporting on the sharknado from their daytime talk shows, the founder of FUBU (and one of the hosts of Shark Tank, fittingly enough) getting crushed by Lady Liberty's head, and that's just the ones I counted. Sharks battle gators in the sewers, they eat half a subway car, and they're somehow made even more dangerous by setting them on fire. Biting satire this ain't, but as the film pressed on, it constantly found new ways to impress me and have me on the edge of my seat, even with the clearly low-budget special effects (and even those seemed to be an improvement over the last film).

Score: 4 out of 5

Has the first film been this awesome, I might have understood the Sharknado phenomenon a bit sooner. Whereas the first film took some time to grow on me, I enjoyed The Second One right out of the gate. It's bigger, nastier, funnier, and better than the first on nearly every level.

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