Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2021-07-20 20:13

Written by: Thunder Levin
Directed by: Anthony C. Ferrante
Starring: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, and Masiela Lusha

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"I'm gonna get you, Fin Shepard, and your little chainsaw, too."

Sharknado started with a shameless but understandable goal: to be a bad movie that its filmmakers explicitly designed for ridicule in real time. As distasteful as I personally found it, I had to give it to everyone involved for exploiting a flashpoint moment where low-budget movies and irony collided for a unique event of sorts. Because cult movies don’t begin life garnering headlines and TV ratings, it wasn’t exactly a cult movie phenomenon, but it had that same sort of energy: here was this disreputable, junky corner of genre movies (lest we forget, the likes of Dinoshark and Sharktopus preceded Sharknado by a few years) garnering something that felt like appreciation. But somewhere along the way, Sharknado went from wanting to be ridiculed to desperately seeking actual approval from a fan base that supposedly only existed to mock it. Sharknado: The 4th Awakens is the moment this wave broke and began to roll back, where a series that insisted in ironic detachment wanted its fan base to think it was one of them, so we’re left with a strange paradox: a movie franchise that’s known for not trying hard enough suddenly becoming a try-hard, eager-to-please love letter to cult movies. As a result, it sucks in both the same old ways and altogether new ones: instead of being a one-note joke, it’s now a two-note joke. Neither of them are funny, and the whole endeavor is illustrative of how odd it is when the cult becomes mainstream.

Set five years after the previous movie—which ended with series hero Fin Shephard (Ian Ziering) defeating sharknados in space with his estranged old man (David Hasselhoff)—this one opens with the revelation that a billionaire (Tommy Davidson) invented a system capable of diffusing weather patterns before they can cause any damage. Fin is living on a farm in Kansas with what’s left of his family since his dear wife April’s (Tara Reid) demise. When he leaves the farm for a family reunion in Vegas, trouble inevitably follows: the weather technology fails to diffuse a sandstorm, leading to a resurgence in sharknados, and Fin finds himself once again thrust into duty as the only man who really knows how to handle these things.

The title here, of course, is a reference to Star Wars. But, just in case you somehow don’t get it, don’t worry: there’s an abundance of references, from an opening crawl to recycled dialogue to prove that the filmmakers behind Sharkando have seen the biggest movie franchise the planet has ever seen. It would maybe make sense if it were in the service of an actual parody of Star Wars but it’s not—this is just the same old Sharknado bullshit, now with random references, some of which don’t even make any sense at all. They’re just there because they’ve seen Star Wars and we’ve seen Star Wars, so that’s funny, right? We’re all having a good time, right, kind of like when someone wears a jokey graphic tee and we have a hearty chuckle and go about our day, I guess. I don’t know—I get that Star Wars is one of the biggest entertainment monoliths, but as someone who can still recall being treated as a nerd for liking this shit in the early 90s, it’s still a little disorienting that it’s become throwaway fodder for junk like Sharknado to exploit for...well, I was going to say laughs, but that would imply any of it is actually funny.

But what’s more disorienting are the more “obscure” references to cult movies, or at least stuff that used to be cult movies. The most telling scene is when our characters somehow wind up in a Texas bar tended by Caroline Williams, who brandishes a chainsaw alongside Dan Yeager (who portrayed Leatherface in TCM 3D). If this weren’t enough, she identifies him as “Gunnar” and proclaims “it wouldn’t be Texas without a chainsaw massacre,” just so we all make sure that we know that the Sharknado crew knows what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. It’s less a wink and more like they’ve taken that chainsaw and jabbed you in the ribs with it. At this point, Sharknado has become your Boomer dad showing off every meme he comes across on Facebook, endlessly delighted at his own capacity to recognize an obvious joke. Williams wearing a “Keep Austin Weird” shirt makes for unwitting irony: just as that town gets less weird by the year thanks to gentrification, so too are cult movies moving out of cult spaces. I don’t think this is Sharknado’s fault—it’s certainly more a symptom rather than the cause, but it is a most telling symptom that a weirdly popular movie franchise casually leans on this kind of stuff for audience approval, almost like an over-eager dweeb trying to kick their way into the cool kid’s club.

This happens throughout Sharknado 4, not only with its signature random cameos (Dog the Bounty Hunter is also in the Texas bar for some fucking reason) but also with more try-hard references. For example, when a cherry red Plymouth Fury rolls into the frame, we know exactly what we’re looking at but the filmmakers feel compelled to spell it out for us by having a character identify it as Christine—and “she’s bad to the bone.” If the original Sharknado was made for people to mock via live-tweet, then The 4th Awakens was made for the obsessives that fill up IMDb trivia sections with the most mundane entries imaginable. Maybe this sounds like gatekeeping (“how dare this popular piece of entertainment reference my favorite movies?!”), but I’m more vexed by the vacuous emptiness of it all. There’s nothing witty about stringing together a bunch of references and pointing out what you think is your own cleverness—it’s just navel-gazing nonsense trying to paper over the fact that your own franchise ran out of steam midway through its first movie. Truly, the best way to diminish the specialness of something is to shove it into the most mundane kind of “exploitation” imaginable and expect the audience to consider it a salve.

All of this probably feels like a wild digression, but what else can you really say about Sharknado 4 that wasn’t destined to be said about any of these things from the moment they were hatched? In the interest of meeting it halfway, I do begrudgingly respect its commitment to its recurring characters and its own dopey “mythology.” It turns out that Reid’s character didn’t die following the last film (thanks to a fan vote), so she’s been resurrected as a cyborg in the bowels of some research facility, where she’s hidden away from a family that thinks she’s dead. If Sharknado 4 has anything that works at all, it’s this glimmer of sincerity when some of these actors share the screen. I can’t pretend it’s on the same level as The Fast & Furious franchise’s investment in family, but the effect is similar: no matter how outrageous and stupid these things get, Ziering and Reid almost tether them just enough that you feel like they’re about something other than their own banality. The way the final shot of this movie teases the return of an otherwise missing character at least speaks to some investment (however small) into its own mythos. I’m going to give Sharknado 4 the benefit of the doubt and assume the fact I had to even look the character up is more of a “me” problem. That’s where the similarities end, though: unlike this series, The Fast & the Furious genuinely tries and has the resources to follow through on its inane bullshit.

Otherwise, this is indeed the same old bullshit that’s somehow grown more stale: the effects are as laughable as ever (there’s a shot of an extra being gnawed on by a shark it looks more like she’s being jostled on a washing machine), and even the third film’s unhinged sense of imagination seems diminished. I suppose that’s why they call it “The Final Frontier”: once a franchise blasts off to space, there’s no place to go but down, so Sharknado 4’s “inventiveness” amounts to “boldernados,” “lavanados,” and “firenados” (as if Into the Storm didn’t already exist!). Maybe we should be grateful that they shoved all of this into one movie instead of trying to spin it off into a bunch of them. We’re all about looking into the positives around here, which is exactly why I’m seeing a silver lining in only having two more of these things to endure.

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