SyFy Sharksploitation

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-07-30 20:46
Upon watching and reviewing the entire Jaws franchise nine years ago, it occurred to me that it’d be fun to make a yearly event coinciding with Shark Week. The premise would be simple enough: each year, I’d knock out a small handful, moving through what was a fairly shallow pool at the time in an effort to eventually review every single shark movie in existence (or at least come pretty close). I figured the whole thing might last for five or six years at the most, and it’d be an interesting niche, if nothing else. (I’m fully aware that this whole site feels like it’s mostly for my own amusement, anyway.) Something awful—but also seemingly innocuous—happened almost immediately, as the likes of Dinoshark and Sharktopus arrived on the back of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, effectively ushering in an era of faux-ironic movies with increasingly ludicrous premises, all of which invite its audience to “delight” in how “bad” these movies are. When paired with the rise in live-tweeting, this movement culminated with Sharknado, a movie –and now series—that basically exists as a target for lame snark.

And I might even be (begrudgingly) okay with that if it didn’t result in an exponential boom of rip-offs. Suddenly everyone—including Syfy itself—started churning out low-budget “disasterpieces” that required no real effort because, you know, they’re “so bad it’s good.” If I haven’t made this explicitly clear for the past five years or so, I wholeheartedly reject this notion…which is not to say I’ll completely ignore it. When a man embarks on a mission, he has to see it through, no matter how much folly it entails. It’s just that I refuse to dedicate that much time to these specific riffs that invite the same, tired criticisms I’ve repeated for years now. Life is only so long, you know? So, in that spirit, here’s a small handful of the junk SyFy has considered acceptable programming during the last couple of years—apologies in advance if it starts to sound repetitive.

Roboshark (2015)

Yet another title that’s exactly what it sounds like, Roboshark features a beast that turns into a cyborg after it swallows an alien probe in the Pacific Ocean. Now free of the constraints of biology and physics, the shark is free to terrorize the city of Seattle via its sewer system, a conceit that allows it to pop anywhere and everywhere, from Starbucks knock-offs to high school swimming pools. The expanded scope and scale allows for a bit of a different vibe, too, as this movie switches out dumbshit beach bums for struggling news reporter Trish (Alex Petermen) who has spent years trying to catch a big break. Naturally, breaking the story about a robotic shark feels like a godsend—only nobody takes her seriously because she’s best known as the station’s wacky weathergirl and, come on, it’s a robotic shark. You know, like something you’d see on Syfy, one of the characters quips.

Yes, Roboshark has pretenses of somehow looking down upon or acknowledging SyFy’s recent shark output. As if these already noxiously self-aware movies couldn’t be even more so, this one has its characters making these sort of jokes—all while featuring in a movie that isn’t that much different from the rest, especially when it comes to overwrought performances and cheap effects. In fact, that bigger scope only further highlights the meager budget, as Roboshark is supposed to be a huge disaster movie in the order of Sharknado, only it doesn’t even have those kinds of resources pumped into it. As such, it’s full of laughably shark attacks, explosions, and earthquakes, the latter of which are quite embarrassing (even Star Trek cast-members thrashing around on the bridge of the Enterprise would chuckle at these folks going into convulsions on perfectly still ground).

But in the interest of trying to be more positive about this shit, I will note that Roboshark isn’t quite as grating as its contemporaries, perhaps because the main characters are endearing enough. Trish is joined by a cameraman and her tech-savvy daughter in her attempt to subvert a military cover-up and reveal the truth about Roboshark’s existence. It leads to a pretty perceptive sequence where the trio uploads some footage directly to Youtube, only to be dismayed by commenters who argue over the veracity of it all. I have to imagine that this is exactly what would happen in the event of an actual Roboshark: most people would spend too much time acting like dickheads on the internet to do anything constructive. Sounds familiar.

Roboshark also has a few other noteworthy wrinkles, like a subplot where the creature becomes sentient and begins communicating via social media. It’s not a malicious beast, you see, but good luck convincing the wild-eyed, cigar-chomping admiral (Nigel Barber) tasked with destroying the thing. One solution for dealing with the shark is batted around by an appearance from a Bill Gates lookalike (playing a character named Bill Glates, in case you’re wondering how unsubtle this is) who reckons he can somehow harvest the shark for technology, to predictably disastrous results. That’s one way to kind of meet the joke celeb quota, though it does reinforce the notion that Roboshark’s a total Z-leaguer compared to most of these things. To be fair, it can at least boast one of this movement’s better climaxes, one that sees the Space Needle pressed into duty in the most literal way possible to help dispose of the shark. If nothing else, it beats watching a CGI shark explode for the umpteenth time.

Zombie Shark (2015)

If there are two thoroughly exhausted pop culture phenomena that don’t need to be mashed up, it’s fucking zombies and sharks. For one thing, Lucio Fulci already did that shit, and just imagine having the type of hubris necessary to follow in those footsteps. Secondly, these two genres have somehow become the dirt worst in recent years, so much so that I’ve come to dread them the most, at least unless there’s some obvious thought or skill put into it. You’ll find little of either in Zombie Shark, which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of idiot twentysomethings take a vacation to a secluded island, where they encounter a bizarre species of undead shark. Some cutaways to a nearby military facility explains that it’s a product of a super-solder experiment gone awry, so the nearby waters are now plagued with a shark that can’t die. “You mean like a zombie shark?” one of the characters quips, in case you haven’t figured out that, you know, this whole thing is a joke.

And a bad one at that, of course, in pretty much the exact same way all of these things are terrible: the effects are Z-level trash, the characters are obnoxious caricatures, and the production is mostly a flimsy sham, willing to toss out all logic and coherence in the interest of staging stupid shark attacks. For example, there’s supposedly a terrible storm descending on the island, yet there are often clear blue skies, and this particular subplot never plays much of a role at all other than to provide an excuse for the main characters’ inability to just flee.

Also quite illogical: the fucking joke of a premise itself. I mean, this shark isn’t much different from a regular shark and doesn’t pose nearly the threat as some of SyFy’s other dumb concoctions since it’s literally just a shark that’s especially hard to kill…kind of like all sharks. Just about the only time the premise even seems to matter is during the beast’s introduction, where it unexpectedly devours a dude after it’s washed up on a beach. Otherwise, it’s just a shark that needs to have its brain destroyed, which happens 99% of the time anyway in these things since they climax in explosions. I suppose the zombie premise does inspire a subplot where shark attack survivors are turned into the undead, but that just means you’re stuck with a terrible shark movie and a terrible zombie movie.

Anyway, I suppose it’s only fair to also mention the few things Zombie Shark does right (or, more accurately, less wrong). For one thing, it has a hell of a mean streak and is unafraid to dispatch characters you might expect to survive, all the way up until the credits (mercifully) roll. Also, its token slumming celeb here is Jason London, who is just engaged enough to hold the screen and your attention; if nothing else, he’s certainly a reprieve from the main cast of twerps, some of whom are overdoing it, while others can barely be said to be doing anything at all. For the most part, the film is at least remarkably focused on the main cast. Where most of these things will introduce a whole bunch of characters just to feed them to the sharks, this one only has a small handful of such scenes. Lastly, I do have to give it up for a pretty killer climactic gag that almost makes the zombie/shark mash-up worthwhile—almost. Let’s just say another image of a zombie shark jumping a zombie adequately captures how exhausted and trite both of these genres are at this point.

Atomic Shark (2016)

A man-eating shark goes radioactive in this one, which is apparently not to be confused by another film bearing the same title from last year. Nothing quite says “you’ve overdone it” quite like two movies titled Atomic Shark arriving at the same time. Dante’s Peak and Volcano don’t have anything on that shit. Anyway, this is the one that aired on SyFy and feels kind of like a very special, especially braindead episode of Baywatch, as it finds a group of lifeguards (one of whom is a marine biologist) doing battle with an irradiated shark. One of the very few of these recent movies that can be considered a nice surprise, Atomic Shark is enjoyable enough since it does its best to actually utilize its premise. Not only does this beast devour everything in its path, but it also leaves scorching carnage in its wake, so every time it attacks a boat, it feels like that awesome, fiery scene in Jaws 2—only the effects are somehow worse than that 39-year-old movie, of course.

But other than the usual effects issues aside (and, to be fair, this one does its best to cut around the shark, at least early on), Atomic Shark manages to be pretty fun. One of its more clever ways of getting around awful-looking shark attacks is a sequence set in a restaurant, where a reality TV foodie is filming an episode and encounters a highly radioactive entrée since all of the fish has been contaminated by the shark. It leads to a pretty funny gag where he rots away before puking his radioactive guts out in explosive fashion (of course, these effects can’t quite keep up either, but it’s better than the usual lame-looking attacks).

The rest of it is decent enough too, as it sometimes feels like a beach comedy that just happens to feature a killer mutant shark. One perpetually horny kid is always devising clever ways to perv on one of the lifeguards, though he’s upstaged by the ultimate horndog when David Faustino rolls in practically reprising the role of Bud Bundy. He’s a local ne'er-do-well who runs a skeevy website that allows users to spy on scantily-clad beachgoers via drone footage, a highly illegal practice that’s leveraged against him when the lifeguards need some of his gear. His appearance is easily one of my favorite cameos, and he’s certainly livelier than Jeff Fahey, who pops up as a small boat captain who ferries the kids off to the sea on some harebrained mission to destroy the shark.

Because an explosion would nuke Southern California, they can’t exactly blow it up, and they don’t trust the military to account for this (is it just me, or is there a conspiratorial, anti-government strain to a lot of these things?). Obviously, the only solution is to take matters into their own hands during a wild climax that finds the crew bickering throughout. Quite possibly the only killer shark movie that climaxes with an honest-to-god catfight. Atomic Shark is a hoot to the end. “You look fat when you’re condescending,” one girl insists before the fisticuffs ensue. I have to admit I actually laughed at this one, but it could just be Stockholm syndrome setting in. Stay tuned in the near future for Sharkholm Syndrome, wherein a group of people is held hostage by a family of sharks.

(Admit it: you totally just had the urge to google and verify if that was a joke or not. It is...for now.)

Dam Sharks (2016)

Despite the title and SyFy’s involvement, Dam Sharks is not a movie about sharks made out of dams, nor is it about a bunch of sharks fusing together to form a dam. Instead, it’s about a group of sharks who are using human remains to build a dam, allowing them to trap more victims to chow down on. I suppose the title could also accurately reflect how everyone feels after watching so many of these goddamn movies. It’s a pun, you see. At any rate, the sharks are swarming in a river, where a tech company has embarked on a team-building retreat. London returns for another tour of duty as the company’s greedy, out-of-touch boss, who at one point delights in the fact that he’s yet to sign the checks for the employees that he watches be devoured by sharks. As you might imagine, his comeuppance is a big deal, even if it does vaguely rip off the infamous Samuel L. Jackson scene from Deep Blue Sea.

With the exception of the premise, Dam Sharks is relatively grounded, save for the sharks’ ridiculous behavior and abilities (last I checked, a bull shark doesn’t leap out of the water to eat humans). You might wonder why I’d quibble over realism, but it’s not like the film itself doesn’t account for the presence of freshwater sharks: did you know that bull sharks can thrive in freshwater? I do because seemingly every one of these movies trots that out as an explanation, including two on this list. For whatever reason, you can’t even make a “sharks in a lake” movie without assuring viewers that it’s possible. Sharknados and Robosharks are perfectly natural, but sharks in a lake? Stretching it, apparently.

Aside from the attempt at grounding this ever so slightly (it is refreshing to just be dealing with normal—well, “normal”—sharks), there’s not a whole lot to like here. London’s smarminess is kind of a hoot, and I guess I like the pretense of character work going on with a couple of disgruntled employees who bond over their mutual distaste for their jobs. While it isn’t exactly compelling, it’s more digestible than the typically over-the-top, broad turns you usually see. I also liked that the title reminds me of that joke in Vegas Vacation where Uncle Eddie asks a tour guide where he “can get some damn bait.” Finally, the fact that this is a movie with a central premise involving sharks building a dam leads me to believe they’re finally running out of ideas for these things. A man can dream, and you are helping that dream, Dam Sharks. Be proud. Damn proud.

Ozark Sharks (2016)

Likewise, Ozark Sharks is promising, if only because the title isn’t literal either. These aren’t sharks made out of the Ozarks but rather sharks swarming into a lake near the Ozarks, which is probably just as impossible but much more amenable. Sharks devouring rednecks has obvious potential, even if the resources are a bit meager even to achieve that. Another relatively grounded effort, this one features a family whose lake vacation is wrecked by a bunch of killer sharks. Just about the only thing more unconvincing than said sharks is everyone’s enthusiasm to visit this Podunk mudhole masquerading as a lake, though that’s kind of par for the course when it comes to these things: they’re not exactly unfolding in any semblance of reality, so none of it makes sense. For example, the family’s jaded disaffected daughter is smitten with an irritating guy who looks like a cross between James Van Der Beek and Scott Stapp, though I can’t begin to fathom what she sees in him. Granted, most characters are pretty awful in these things, but something about him is especially grating.

But to the film’s credit, it does dispose of him in the most satisfying (and surprising) manner imaginable in a SyFy production. Let’s just say an attempt to utilize a woodchopper to destroy a shark goes horribly awry—well, for him. For me, it was sweet relief from suffering through more of his mugging. Anyway, the positives besides that are scarce, as this one doesn’t even bother to wheel out an unexpected celebrity, stranding you with a bunch of overacting bozos and the typically cartoonish sharks. Director Misty Talley (who also directed Zombie Shark and the upcoming Mississippi River Sharks) at least doesn’t try to dwell too much on the beasts, though she does go a bit overboard during a ridiculous climax that finally delivers the fireworks show these yokels have been waiting for all day. If nothing else, there’s some imagination to how these characters rid themselves of the sharks: in the grand tradition of these movies, there’s a grizzled survivalist nearby who’s hoarded tons of outrageous weaponry, like a gun that spits out deer antlers. Maybe that doesn’t sound especially exciting, but, at this point, you take whatever bit of cleverness you can find in these movies and cling to that fucker like it’s a lifeboat.
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