Have you ever laughed at a toddler falling down? Whoa, easy! I mean after it was clear that they weren’t hurt? Have you ever noticed what happens when the toddler first makes the connection between their falling and your laughter? The kid stands up and falls again, right? This time on purpose. And you laugh a second time to placate the child’s first commitment to comedy. Then the third time, and the fourth, and the fifth, and on and on. Such a sight gag is only actually funny the first time, when the physical failing was real. The second time might be mildly bemusing as a milestone of observable cognitive development, but from there each mock-fall gets progressively less funny and exponentially more annoying. We can all agree on this. Standardized failure isn’t really funny. So why the hell are we still acting like there’s anything fun about the Sharknado films?
For those who don’t know what Sharknado is, first of all: I envy you. Second, here’s an explanation: The cable network Syfy’s most recent schtick is built on a partnership with The Asylum, a film production company that specializes in Mock-busters and intentionally bad movies. Every couple of months, the network goes all-in on a film from The Asylum that builds upon an absurd creature feature concept (see Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus or Mega Python vs. Gatoroid). The most successful of all these has to be the Sharknado series, the third of which, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, will air this Wednesday, July 22nd. The films are celebrated for their fake badness. Boasting casts of rightfully fallen stars, reality TV show contestants, and former celebrities, the Sharknado films exhibit deliberately hokey dialogue and distinctively terrible special effects. These are the sort of things that heighten the viewing experience of actually bad films. In a more earnest context of failure, these elements add charm and humor, a testament to the filmmaker’s misunderstanding of film principle and construct, or evidence of failed creativity negotiating with a restrictive budget. But if that first part (earnestness) is missing, then the rest doesn’t stand up. Fans of these films might cite their lack of pretension, the makeshift community established by our collective agreement in these films being bad, except, the thing is, they’re not bad. They can’t actually be bad if bad is the goal.
That’s the problem with this sort of ironic arrangement. Irony, at its best, is a comedic tool best aimed at overwrought sentimentality, or overreaching and presumptuous standardized norms. But frequently, irony fires a scattershot and collaterally damages sincerity. In this sense, the Sharknado films in their bare demonstration of what bad films look like (a thing which we already know and don’t need demonstrated because bad films actually still exist) are absolutely pretentious and condescending. The Sharknado oeuvre is hollow and manipulative, more void of value even than the Wayans Brother’s brand of Scary Movie-type satire that adds a thin layer of editorial comedy atop horror movie emulation. Even the much-maligned Seltzer and Friedberg’s effortless satire (remember Date Movie or Epic Movie) still attempts to package its genre observations within a somewhat creative package, pushing built-in viewer knowledge and anticipation towards a punchline, albeit most often weakly, pointlessly, and offensively. The Asylum films, however, only ever directly rip-off big blockbuster titles on a cheap budget or copycat the observable elements of better bad movies (a figurative cup held low to collect the falling cash of better exercises in genre parody).
This sort of non-creativity might be more forgivable were it not packaged by the Syfy network having co-opted the internet’s readiness to make anything and everything viral. This model of viral-for-the-sake-of-viral cheapens an already cheap product by confessing that neither the artists, the distributor, nor the network really care about the audience’s engagement with or enjoyment of the film and or product. The only thing that matters is that the film be watched and discussed as a product of bad taste and prurient disinterest via ironic detachment. The whole phenomena is structured as a self-sustaining commercial, a brand-building ouroboros. The movie itself, the TV spots, the news coverage, the millions of tweets, the once-shining but now only vaguely familiar stars appearing on interview promotions, and even this article all achieve a similarly shallow goal: It all builds brand familiarity with the product being sold.
Tragically, all of this comes from a network which once served as a principled and sincere solace for fans of real science-fiction. The same network that once upon a time provided a line-up of original and syndicated fan favorites of classic sci-fi programing is observably deteriorating into cheap trend-riding, (Syfy is the official name and brand now, and that says enough in and of itself). At its peak, the then-labelled Sci-Fi Network was home to Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the most enjoyable programs in the history of television and one that introduced its audience to sincerely bad movies in the most brilliant way imaginable. I implore anyone who reads this: Wednesday evening, instead of watching Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, watch or re-watch an episode of MST3k for a much more dignified and substantial (not to mention funnier) viewing experience. Or, discover your own bad films: Miami Connection, Howard the Duck, Troll 2, Highlander 2, Battlefield Earth, or Reefer Madness, many of which are available on YouTube or Netflix, and each bearing more to offer viewers beyond participation in a mega-commercial for a generic re-brand of a once great network.
Featured Image: Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, SyFy