Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016)

Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016)
Dir.: Anthony C. Ferrante
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: great white shark, hammerheads, goblin shark, leopard sharks, many unidentified species, and a surprise species that I refuse to give away until a much later date.

While The Shark Film Office was started way back in 2006, I really let it lay fallow for many years while I first concentrated on other sites, and then got sucked into a personal vortex of depression and dark thoughts of suicide (which are far more insidious than light, happy thoughts of suicide). Since I didn't finally get The Shark Film Office going full force until earlier this year, it was purely coincidence that I skipped over a particular phenomenon that is largely responsible for the absurd amount of low-budget, goofball shark films that are thrown at us today: the Sharknado series.

Premiering in 2013, and with a sequel released in each of the past three years, the first Sharknado film made directly for the Syfy Channel not only received surprisingly good ratings but erupted into a self-sustaining social media sharknado of its own. With each succeeding film in the series, the ratings and exposure of the brand in the public's eye have only gotten bigger and bigger, to the point that Syfy has seen fit over the past two years to devote an entire week of programming around stupid shark films. Dubbed Sharknado Week, this form of flick-watching maelstrom is only for those who either have no further IQ points to drop on their way through roughly thirty poorly made monster movies of mostly recent vintage or for the hardcore shark film fanatic who doesn't mind if a film is missing any combination of things like quality, style, or consistency in story or acting or pacing or logic or special effects or tone or common sense or cinematography or... or... or... You could name nearly any form of cinematic category for which awards of excellence are given, but Sharknado Week is not the place for it.

But since I am the sort who laments the loss of movie matinee or late night monster movie-style shows built around a particular theme, I am always eager to jump on opportunities like this. (Unless it is something dopey like Hallmark Channel and their "Christmas in July" bullshit. Sure, you and your grandma might love it; it's not my ball o' yarn waiting to be knitted by a cozy fire and a cup o' tea...) Monster movies are not even a guilty pleasure with me. I don't believe in guilty pleasures. I wear, listen to, watch, read, write, eat, and say what I love proudly. Sure, I wish there were smarter shark movies out there. There are only a couple of them, and even they are not immune. Even the most vaunted of movies can be crushed by pure logic if one puts even the slightest effort to it. But let's get to the point at hand: I love sharks. I love shark movies. And in the void of having few smart shark movies to love, I have no real choice but to learn to love big, stupid shark movies like the big, stupid shark movies shown during Sharknado Week. Hey, women have had to deal with brutish, Neanderthal-like, testosterone-poisoned men for ages; I could learn to love big, stupid shark movies. And I did.

I had thought briefly, when I watched the second and third installments in the Sharknado series over the past couple of years, that maybe the time was right to jump back into reviewing shark movies. This is regardless of how I felt about the films (and believe me, I don't think they are masterpieces of any stripe but one, though it is a significant one). I was recognizing slowly, with so many shark films being released in recent years, that perhaps there was merit in the idea that the website I had started in jest in 2006 could actually be sustained now with enough updates and reviews over a prolonged period. But again – and then once again the following summer – I let the mood slip, and I descended back inside my cruel self and that crushing depression.

Let's cut to now... The Shark Film Office is fully charged and an ongoing presence in my daily life. I have plans to make the site even more robust as a destination for both shark and film enthusiasts, but that is still down the road a piece. For now, we have the reason why you have may decided to stop to check out this review, the final premiere film of Sharknado Week 2016... Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens!

Sure, this film has what is arguably the most opportunistically brilliant title in made-for-television film history. I don't know at which point in co-creators Anthony C. Ferrante and Thunder Levin's journey they decided upon adding a lifeline to the most recent Star Wars title, but since the Sharknado series was already rife with references to that other astronomically bigger film series, going with The 4th Awakens was a truly appropriate (and silly) choice. It does sometimes seem that this series is almost as much Star Wars parody as it is Jaws (especially the further it goes along), so why not? It should be pointed out though, that the Sharknado films actually come closer in their continuing characterizations of Fin, April, and Nova to carrying on with the Star Wars-slash-Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" myth-making ethos than in any true connection to the original Jaws, apart from spouting character names and hanging around Universal Studios in Florida in the third Sharknado entry (among a raft of superficial bits that touch on Jaws in that film).

Star Wars, though, seems to be the solid focus this time, and sure enough, The 4th Awakens opens with a text crawl over a field of stars that to today's audiences can only be recognized in conjunction with Death Stars, lightsabers, and Greedos that may or may not have shot first. (He did...) This Sharknado episode starts out five years in the future (though it has only been a single year since the last film came out), and thus, it has also been five years since the last sharknado ravaged the earth. This is thanks to the Sharknado-verse's version of Elon Musk, Aston Reynolds (Tommy Davidson), whose company Astro-X has made the Sharknado-verse's squishy science concepts work in such a way that he was able to create cheap and clean reactors that allowed him to stabilize the atmosphere and prevent the formation of all tornadoes in the world. This ushered in a new golden age of peace, at least according to Astro-X's weird, promotional advertising, which includes footage of hero Fin Shepard's astronaut father, Col. Gilbert Shepard (David Hasselhoff) defeating sharks (which look rather rubbery) on the moon (where he was stranded mysteriously to most likely die at the end of the third film, you may recall). 

Aston Reynolds announces a new theme hotel, Shark World, in Las Vegas, where Fin Shepard has been, naturally, invited to the grand opening. Fin has retired from the rush of public fame to a small farm in Kansas, named April's Acres after his late wife (Tara Reid), seemingly crushed by falling debris from a space shuttle after both she and Fin not only survived falls from orbit inside the bodies of separate great white sharks, but after she also gave birth to their son Gil. (Note: she cut her way out of the shark's body with the chainsaw apparatus in her mechanical left hand after giving birth inside the shark.) Leaving his mother (Cheryl Tiegs) and little Gil behind, Fin heada to Vegas with his younger cousin Gemini, who is intent on making sure Fin has a good time for the first time since April died. (Damn it, I am winded after just two paragraphs of exposition.)

Fin and Gemini arrive in Vegas and find out almost immediately that their Uber driver is none other than Carrot Top, playing himself in exactly as annoying a fashion as you would expect. It is the first of about four thousand celebrity cameos in the film, though it becomes awfully tough at times to tell the cameo roles from the actual supporting ones. It seems that everyone likes to appear in these films (hey, if I was a celebrity, why not?), and it also seems that a lot of people do it just to get killed by a shark onscreen. There are also a certain proportion of the celebs that seem to get a kick out of defeating the sharks, and if there is anything of an idealogical break within the shark film universe, I guess it would be this "kill or be killed" divergence. (Apart from real world ecological and biological concerns, that is...)

The cameos are so fast and so furious that you almost expect cast members from The Fast and the Furious franchise to show up in the film. But no... we get Wayne Newton instead, singing the Sharknado theme song in a lounge act. We see Motley Crue's Vince Neil hitting on girls and playing craps. I did a double take to make sure if that was really Susan Anton still gettin' it done while playing the slot machines, and I was given a solid reminder while Adrian Zmed's acting career went to shit so fast when he mugs it up horribly. Dr. Drew Pinsky calls a wedding ceremony for Fin's son in an airplane, while MMA fighter Frank Mir, Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus, and Slipknot singer Corey Taylor work various jobs at the casino. Oh, yeah... and there are Chippendale's dancers as well. This is just one scene, mind you, before the title for the film has even shown up. There are many, many others, and I don't even know who half the people are, and had to spend a lot of time looking up a lot of the more current people.

Then the sharknado hits, and already we get signs that Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens is going to be, at least on paper, decidedly different than the three films that came before it. How do you keep the series fresh from film to film, once the simple novelty of a tornado wears off? The series started off relatively small: in the first film, which seems quaint in its simplicity now, a tornado starts in the Pacific Ocean, grabs a bunch of sharks (and seemingly no other ocean life whatsoever... just sharks, who, you know, all hang out right at the surface), and then drops them first at a Southern California beach and then slowly sprinkles them on a deadly path throughout the Los Angeles area. The film is rather generic up until the finale, when Fin cuts his way out of a great white and emerges a full-blown, chainsaw-wielding hero. Sharknado 2 switched coasts easily enough, bringing the shark-hating game to New York and The Today Show, and opening up the series to the instant cameo game. With Fin already released and April on her way to getting a bionic hand, the action began to get a little wilder, the comedy much broader than before, and the freedom of the overarching concept a bit more imaginative. 

Sharknado 3: Oh, Hell No! started out with an insane scenario in Washington, D.C., where it was proposed that icky living skeleton Ann Coulter had become Vice President. Enough said. Shut down the government. America was done. Seriously though, it was another massive leap away from reality that upped the ante closer to true Tex Avery-style cartoon physics beyond what had been approached in the series to that point, and set the stage for the rest of the film, where twin sharknadoes ravaged New York (again, and seen mostly in television footage) and in Florida, which is mostly so that NASA and space shuttles could be worked into the mix, so that sharks could eventually end up in outer space and somehow not be affected by the forces that would kill almost any living thing within a minute or so. And have you believe in every minute of it whether your working, logical mind resisted the notion or not. When Frankie Muniz lost all four limbs in Sharknado 3, by one flying shark attacking him after another, while trying to climb to the top of an RV to push a self-destruct button (a feat he finally had to achieve with his chin since he had been left with naught but a head and a torso), I thought the Syfy Channel had reached the true limits of its cartoonishness. For anyone, including myself, who had denigrated the output of the channel's hired studios for never trying hard or aiming high enough, here at least was some proof that someone at the Asylum had some Pythonesque awareness for just how silly everything was in their endeavors, and it smacked of measurable pride in that silliness. And then the rest of the film: raining sharks on the shuttle launchpad, the space fight against sharks, getting purposefully swallowed by a great white thinking one's wife is inside the shark already, punching one's way out of a reentry-burning shark to ripcord a parachute through the punched-out hole, and then the giving birth of a baby inside a shark... man, did Dali come back from the grave?

And now with sharknadoes supposedly vanquished from the earth, where can Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens go with the concept? Well, when in Vegas, use the local resources. In this case, sand. A sandstorm whips up, and it would be just an ordinary one, I guess, but as providence would have it, some dumbass entrepreneur decided to build a theme casino based around sharks in the area. AND THE GRAND OPENING IS THAT VERY NIGHT. And it just happens to have a massive tank containing millions of gallons of water and a butt-ton of sharks built right into the front of the hotel. In no time at all, the sandstorm hits the hotel, and the sharks are sucked up into the storm. The world is suddenly, and for mysterious reasons that will never really get sorted out in this film, beset by the first sharknado in five years. (No one really considers how the sharks survive in the sandnado, or why the sandnado doesn't turn into a "mudnado" when any of the water from the tank that gets sucked up with the sharks hits it. Frankly, you think it would be the end of it. Mud Puddle doesn't sound like the greatest concept for a monster film.) 

The sharknado will attack the casino and make short work of most of the celebrities, though some, like one of the Chippendale's dancers, is able to repel a shark with his boner. The film does make use of certain Vegas landmarks, like the fake Empire State Building, and a truly goofy sequence where Fin and Gemini commandeer the pirate ship outside of Treasure Island when the sharknado creates a flood from the water from the giant shark tank. There is great joy when not only Zmed gets it (goblin shark to the chest) but also Todd Chrisley (eaten by a large shark after accusing his wife of stuffing herself at the buffet). I also enjoyed the fact that when David Faustino shows up, Fin calls him "Bud" automatically, even though he is just playing some guy, and not necessarily Bud Bundy.

After the opening Vegas sequence, we finally get to the the title twenty minutes into the film, and shortly after we find out April is still alive, saved by her mad scientist father (Gary Busey) and turned into a full cyborg, capable of not just superhuman speed and strength, but also flight. Her mechanical weapons from the third film have been replaced with laser ones, like a chainsaw and a lightsaber. The story ambles on, now that a sandstorm full of sharks has been established as possible, into a ceaseless progression through a fleet of storms, each one with an added elemental change to it, as it makes its way across the country. We next get a "bouldernado," because the sandstorm hits some mountains and the rocks make the structure of the storm change. Later, when it hits an oilfield in Texas, it turns into an "oilnado"; when the oil catches flame, it becomes a "firenado". When the storm hits electrical wires, it becomes an "electronado". Other storms will hit other cities like San Francisco and Seattle, and get names like a "hailnado" and a "lightningnado," though each time, the tornadoes come complete with their own sharks, because, well, why not? In the midwest, the main sharknado eventually hits Tornado Alley and a cattle farm, and turns into a "cownado," which is reported on by a chopper reporter played by Gilbert Gottfried. I am disappointed that the cownado doesn't happen immediately after the firenado, so that we could actually get a "BBQnado." That would have been something to see, and something they could have teamed up with a big name fast food sponsor for some wily advertising.

There are more storm changes and more pinpoints on the map ahead, but I am going to stop here, because I really just wanted to set the film up and didn't want to give a full plot synopsis. Rest assured, this is just the tip of the sharknado, and I the biggest, most wacky stuff is still to come. While I normally don't care about giving away that stupid "S" word (you know, sp-- sp-- Voldem-- spoilers...), there are a couple of insane scenes late in the film that I would rather you see for yourself, unencumbered by my comments. I want you to have the experience of dealing with this film on your own. 

I might even suggest making this your first Sharknado film, even, and especially, if you haven't watched any of the other films in the series. More so than in the other films, there are a zillion little goofy touches to this film. Most of them, if you think about them for even two seconds, makes your head want to explode but also kind of makes you smile at the same time. It's a far different sensation from most other Syfy product, where maybe you will tune in because the concept sounds kind of cool but it might be lame in how they ultimately do it. Or you hope it might be kind of good but the monster looks stupid when you get there. But the one thing you don't do with most Syfy films is think about them at all when they are over. You can't do that with the Sharknado films. Especially these last two films. They have embraced the gonzo. They might still be aiming for the lowest common denominator, and the bulk of their fans might be voting for Trump on purpose, but the Asylum has handled their audience brilliantly from a marketing angle, and yet has continued to actually make the films more entertaining as they go along. This is something you do not normally see in movie series, which tend to get progressively worse or at least grow stagnant as time passes. (I can't speak the Fast and the Furious franchise, for I have only ever seen Fast Five.)

As performances go, you don't really come to these things for the acting. I will say that signing up for this series is going to turn out to be the smartest move that both Ian Ziering and Tara Reid have ever made career-wise, especially Reid. And I love that they stole the old Gigantor theme and had her do her cyborg workout to an updated Sharknado theme based on it. With acting out of the way, I can return to those cameos, because there are a zillion of them. My personal favorite is Caroline Williams showing up as Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Sure, she brings the vile Dog the Bounty Hunter with her (playing her brother, Chop Top, another Saw 2 reference), but no matter. When she yells, "It wouldn't be Texas without a Chainsaw Massacre!" I had to agree. I also liked that they had another brother sitting in a chair who went by the name Gunnar (and if you don't get that reference, you need to look it up).

There is a brief appearance by Fin's pal Colton (Steve "The Gute" Gutenberg from the Lavalantula series, in which Fin has also guested), who brings in my other favorite cameo of the film, that of Christine. That's right... the murderous car from the John Carpenter film based on the Stephen King novel. I don't know why Fin doesn't just drive Christine straight into the sharknado in whatever form it was in at that point (I think it was still cownado), because if anything can handle a storm like that, it's Christine. Regardless, it's a weird little, out of left field cameo – more than a little gratuitous – but I still liked it.

My least favorite cameo, besides Zmed, is by the atrocious Stacey Dash, who overacts so wildly that you can't imagine she was given any direction at all in her performance. True, she is playing someone who is, for no real given reason whatsoever since her character has not existed before this point, completely mistrusting of Fin and is on a personal crusade to stop him (she plays the mayor of Chicago). Her character, from her first appearance forward is so obviously supposed to be based on the Wicked Witch of the East from The Wizard of Oz that you know instantly where her story arc is taking her, and if you don't know where that is at first, all you have to do is then notice the striped leggings she wears throughout the film and have any sense of pop culture history at all to be in the know. I actually quite love her story arc within the film, and it is quite apropos that her character behave this way (it may even be based somewhat on her recent public persona on the right wing news media, but I can't confirm that), it's just that her performance in the role is bad. Period.

I mentioned the opening up of cartoon physics within the world of Sharknado earlier on, and I wanted to expand on that briefly. With the development of the Fin character from mere luckless guy who just wants to save his family in the first film to burgeoning folk hero in the second film to savior of the world by the end of the third film, Fin has (barring the body changing cybernetics that April has undergone) blossomed into an immensely powerful athlete for a guy with a fairly slight, wiry frame. True, his character is a former professional surfer, and as such, we have to trust that he is, especially as a guy who is slightly older than me in real life (at 52), still in pretty decent shape physically, the evidence in the films suggest that in the heat of battle, he is the match of superheroes in many other film series.

In this film alone, in the train sequence in the desert as they are leaving Las Vegas after the sandstorm transforms into a bouldernado, he and his son Matt are attempting to save the passengers by herding them to the front of the old train while pulling the pins out of all the cars at the back of the train. (Why they don't just pull one pin and detach the bulk of the train all at once, I don't know; not sure what the reasoning behind any of this was.) Regardless, Fin climbs to the top of the train at one point and has what is easily at least a 2,500 to 3,000 pound great white shark fall towards him from the sky. This much weight, plus the shark has somehow survived numerous small boulders getting embedded in its tough hide, so it probably weighs even more. Fin catches the shark with no problem, and then wrestles with it for close to thirty seconds, avoiding the snap of its jaws, until the shark's head is easily sliced off by a lowering crossing bar. 

In a scene later in a Kansas park, a lady being menaced on a bench is aided when Fin grabs a twelve-foot shark, which probably weighs at least eight hundred pounds or so, and swings it easily against a light pole, rendering it to dust in seconds. A little bit later, in Cawker City, Kansas, Fin uses the resources at hand – the biggest ball of twine in the world (or one of them, anyway) – to handily wrap up about a dozen sharks completely in no time at all, a feat which would take a good long while for even many people to do. It seems that as the series progresses, Fin is taking on Herculean strength and stamina when the moment calls for it, and I have to wonder if we will get an entry in the series where we do find out that he really is the son of an ancient god like Zeus or, given his surfing background, Poseidon/Neptune.

And then there is a big spoiler scene near the end of the film. One that I can't talk about. One with a thing and a thing and a thing that does a thing and then there is this thing that does this thing. See? Can't talk about it, but that's not really the point. The point is, in watching the scene, I was reminded of those cartoon physics I mentioned and how I was marveling that it took so long for this series to truly embrace them. Here in the fourth film, in this particular sequence near the end of the film, if you drew the entire scene on sequentially arranged paper and filmed them one after the other frame by frame, and then showed me that film, it would be likely that I would have thought the scene came from a late '40s Tex Avery cartoon, a la King-Size Canary or The Cat That Hated People. It's a wonderful gag that has a funny set-up, gets funnier, takes it to its logical endpoint, and then comes up with a whamm-o, unexpected punchline that I did not see coming at all. By the big finale of Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, I can no longer tell the difference between a sharknado and an animated cartoon, and in many respects, I have to tip my hat to Anthony C. Ferrante and his team for getting me to that point. In at least that one sequence in this film, they have achieved a bravura modern cartoon moment.

I just wish it were all that great. For everything that I appreciate in these films (and I appreciate more each time, the sillier they get), they are still aiming for low-hanging fruit most of the time. Yes, these films seem to be too blatantly ridiculous to take seriously for even a second, but that doesn't mean there isn't a subtext that can crawl out of the absurdity and leave a sour taste in one's mouth when all the laughter has died down. For everything loony in these films, there are a couple of messages that come through clear from the Sharknado films. One is: sharks suck. It is said by Fin's son late in this film, and Fin himself says in earlier films how much he hates sharks, because after all, he keeps ended up in scenarios where he has to personally kills scores of them on mostly dry land, and some of them kill or try to kill his friends and family members. I understand that from the point of view of a character's motivation, but let's look at it from an audience's, especially the mostly younger audience that is seeing these films and likely has little other context for how to approach sharks in their lives.

Yes, this is a website about shark films, and yes, the vast majority, in fact, about the high-ninety-something percent of these films feature sharks as villainous figures, so it may be unfair to look at a film series as outright goofy as the Sharknado series and blame it for demonizing sharks when the sharks are so cartoonish in most cases that they can't even be identified by species in most scenes. But there is another factor at play here: the 'nado part of the title. A big chunk of these films is based around the notion that the increase in the sharknadoes in the world is due to global warming, and I am fine with the concept of global warming as a villain. Because it is. But we are, ultimately, the primary creator of that villain. The problem in the series is sharks are, to this point at least (though it looks like it might be building to someone behind the scenes), the big villains in this series, and despite all of their mayhem and killing, they take a beating. Actually, because of all their mayhem and killing, they take an even worse beating, because if they weren't invading our cities and eating people, then we wouldn't notice them so much. So their public image, even in an extremely exaggerated, totally unrealistic setting, gets even worse. In the real world where we have to fight for the very notion in many places that sharks even deserve to live or even swim alongside us, it's an image that even the most cartoonish hijinks makes hard to erase.

And then there are the idiots out there, the ones who don't – or can't – connect the dots properly between things. It's bad enough that there is already wacky pseudoscience floating around these films, but it's even worse when we have a world filled of actual science deniers who don't see the link between man's activities and the destruction of natural environments on this planet, be they ocean, forest, jungle, or beach. Or ice caps and glaciers. I am not saying that the Sharknado films blame global warming on sharks, but I can see the jump in logic someone can make watching the films, that would leave them to believe that "sharks are behind this global warmin' conspiracy."

Man, I don't think Ferrante and Levin mean anything by their films. I think they had a silly idea that they thought could make some green, they pitched it to the network, and then ran with it. It is clear from the first film that they had no idea it was going to blow up the way it did, and that first film plays so straight as to be almost unrecognizable from the rest of the films in the series. In fact, it looks like the type of film the other sequels in the series are spoofing. It is also clear from the way that they have crammed their films full of Jaws references, and even in the way that Ferrante and former Brady Bunch actor Robbie Rist have named their band Quint (who play most of the songs of the soundtrack including the theme song), that the creators are big shark fans themselves. So, I know that the lip service given to shark hatred in the films is really only coming from the characters, but I really wish they would balance it out at some point.

Which is why it is time for the Sharknado series to embrace a Jaws reference that they have sorely neglected through four films. It is a standard stock character in almost any shark film worth its saltwater, and it is amazing to me that they haven't had one yet in the series. A perfect character to come in, be a spokesperson for the sharks, tell everybody why they are wrong – SO WRONG – about them, show everyone the best way to deal with them, make everybody think that "hey, this guy/girl might be on to something"... and then he/she gets killed late in the second act. A marine biologist.

Anthony C. Ferrante and Thunder Levin, the ball is in your court...


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