I still remember the feeling that stirred in me, the first time I saw a poster for the original Sharknado. That poster created a mild stir, at least among bad movie fans, when it was released well in advance of the first film in 2013. Featuring a maelstrom brimming with sharks, as the title would imply, it simply hit a sweet spot of B-movie absurdity, triggering the same kind of goofy Pavlovian smile you’d also see on my face during a particularly zany segment of professional wrestling. For better or worse, Sharknado represented a certain zenith of willfully suspended disbelief and the embrace of a concept so dumb, it became almost awesome. It was like an entire film conceived by a 6-year-old, and I couldn’t help but give it a positive review for Paste. I even interviewed director Anthony C. Ferrante, after the fact.
The sequel, Sharknado 2: The Second One, effectively upped the ante of the premise while seeming a little more pointless in its execution, and I correspondingly dropped the score just a bit from the series’ first installment.
The third film, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! represented a more fundamental departure from formula for the series; an added cynicism and growing disdain for its audience that, thankfully, was tempered by enough increased absurdity to be mildly entertaining at the same time. I didn’t savage that movie in my review … although I probably should have, in retrospect.
But don’t worry, the savaging has finally arrived. Because Sharknado 4: The Fourth Awakens, airing Sunday evening on SyFy, is well and truly a platter of hot, fishy garbage. Whatever absurd delights this series once could boast have long since been stripped of their tiny joys and ground into dust by the weight of encroaching, ceaseless, incredibly cynical commercialism. You won’t quite be able to tell if you’re watching Sharknado or a bunch of SyFy executives puppeteering the decaying corpse of a shark that should have long since been committed to the briny depths.
I’m not even entirely sure that Sharknado 4 can reasonably be referred to as “a movie.” Movies, by definition, need to feature performances outside of cameos. Movies can’t be entirely assembled via quotes and blindly transparent references to other movies. Extended bits of product placement do not “a movie” make. I couldn’t help but repeatedly flash back to Red Letter Media’s sublime examination of Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill and its own whorish fixation on over-the-top product placement. Sharknado aspires to suckle at the same teat, while surround its ads with D-list celebrities and right-wing political pundits.
The story, as it ostensibly exists in the film, picks up some five years after Sharknado 3, in a world that has been safeguarded from the threat of future sharknados by the multinational Astro-X corporation and its weather-regulating technology. Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering), hero of the proletariat, has been laying low, and believes his wife April (Tara Reid) to be dead after being crushed by a shark in the final moments of Sharknado 3. Of course, April isn’t actually dead—instead she’s been rebuilt into some sort of invincible cyborg superhero by her brilliant scientist father, who is naturally played by Gary Busey, because who else are you going to get to play a robotics specialist?
“For lo, I, Tara Reid, the star of Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark have been reborn.”
Long story short, the sharknados return for reasons never remotely explained, except they’re now more powerful, resourceful and seemingly sentient than ever. Fueled by alternate materials, we’re now faced with sand ‘nados, fire ‘nados, “boulder ‘nados,” lightning ‘nados and even an atomic ‘nado. They’re all lovingly rendered in the best CGI that money can buy, provided that amount of money is very small and the person doing the animation is being held at gunpoint. Naturally, it’s up to Fin and his family to save the day, per usual. And that’s going to be difficult, given that so much Botox has been pumped into Tara Reid’s face that she literally can’t speak a single line without slurring like a late-career Orson Welles.
And then there’s the cameos. Like other films in the series, Sharknado 4 is completely filled with pointless, substanceless cameos, but this time around they’re really elevating the empty cameo to an art form. There’s literally not a single one that has an impact on the plot, or even the scene—they’re just people who briefly wander onto the screen, all the way from Gilbert Gottfried and Todd Chrisley to “Dog” the Bounty Hunter and former WWE Champion Seth Rollins, who brutally trolls the audience in true heel fashion by promising to “superkick that storm back to the dark ages” before doing no such thing.
To illustrate the blasé way this film treats both cameos and product placement in tandem, let me give one example. We are given a cameo by former UFC World Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir, one of the better grapplers of this generation of mixed martial arts. Does he appear perhaps as a bodyguard or street tough, something where he might use his physicality? Nope. He appears as a man in a hotel who shills for Comcast. This is his only line:
Frank Mir: “Show me CNN.” (TV changes channels)
Nameless man: “How did you do that?”
Frank Mir: “Voice remote! We just had the XFINITY X1 installed!”
And that’s it. Now can you even begin to tell me why you needed the former world champion of a freaking combat sports organization to relay that information?
What makes it all the weirder is that Sharknado 4 is incredibly obsessed with other movies—referencing them, directly mentioning them and regurgitating them ad nauseum. It’s as if someone simply took the “Fourth Awakens” tagline as an invitation to run with the worst possible referential excesses, spitting out minor Star Wars lines such as “stay on target!” as if speaking the words would magically transplant some of the goodwill from another franchise. That’s not even the best example, as it implies a level of subtlety far beyond what’s going on in this film. Most of the references are more in the vein of “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” followed by the mental equivalent of the characters rushing at the screen and screaming “IT’S FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ” at the top of their lungs. If these references are a blunt object, then the movie is an arm swinging it and caving in your brain pan.
Such an obscure reference, are you sure the audience will really grasp it?
This Sharknado is a sad thing to watch now that we’re four entries into this cycle, and each installment is still trying to out-crazy the last and fly directly in the face of diminishing returns. It’s as classic a case of Hollywood cynicism as you’re likely to find, boiled down into the assumption that anything that mildly worked once needs to be done again, except twice as loudly.
I’ll leave you with a metaphor.
Sharknado 4 is one of the saddest kids to witness in any jr. high school classroom: The unsuccessful, would-be class clown. It’s that kid who once was lucky enough to fall ass-backward into a funny turn of phrase that got a laugh out of the class, and now, three weeks later, he’s still trying to replicate that fleeting, golden moment of relevancy. As his desperation grows, his disturbances to the class grow exponentially, until everyone simply becomes uncomfortable. “Why does he keep interrupting?” wonder the people unlucky enough to sit next to him. “Can’t he see that he’s just digging himself in deeper?”
Like that poor kid, Sharknado fancies itself something it is not. Entertainment—even stupid entertainment—has long since fled this series.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s staff writer, and he really hopes he won’t be sitting through Sharknado V at this time next year. You can follow him on Twitter.