Shark Week 2016: Tales of the SyFy seas

Unsurprisingly, the SyFy channel has seized the chance to build off the viral success of the Sharknado series. Just as the Discovery Channel has its Shark Week, so SyFy now has Sharknado Week. This showcased premieres of a whole slew of similar films, mostly getting their world premieres on the station, leading up to the debut of Sharknado 4 on Sunday night. In an act of supreme personal sacrifice, we watched these, so you don’t have to. Here are our reviews of all this year’s new offerings in the sharksploitation genre.

Note: ratings of the entries below are on our standard scale, and probably need to be adjusted, giving the genre. I’d suggest adding a letter to each to get their “shark rating”, e.g. C+ becomes a B+ in the field. For “Good” becomes an entirely different thing, once you dare venture into the water…

Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016)

Rating: C+

Dir: Anthony C. Ferrante
Star: Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cody Linley, Imani Hakim

Since the first appeared in 2013, the annual Sharknado film on SyFy has become the Super Bowl of B-movies. It may or may not actually be any good, but no-one calling themselves a fan can afford to miss it. This year, it was Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens, and the series continues to provoke disparate reactions. At time of writing, 22.5% of IMDb raters gave it a 10/10: the next most were the 14.4% who gave it a 1/10. My theory is, the Sharknado series is a litmus test. Those who watch “bad films” to mock them and feel superior, will hate these movies, because the films are quite deliberately intended to be how they are. It’s a great deal harder to mock something, when it successfully achieves its goals. Those who are happy to enjoy the nonsense for what it is, however, are likely fine with the concept, will take the entertainment value as offered and judge it on those terms.

It’s probably clear my view tends toward the latter, since I’ve been fond of The Asylum for a while. They deserve respect, for having found a niche and exploiting it, in a way B-movie producers have been doing since the roadshow films of the thirties. David Michael Latt is just one in a line of such mavericks as Roger Corman, Samuel Zarkoff, Lloyd Kaufman, etc. Criticizing the Sharknado series for being “stupid” is a nonsensical irrelevance. I don’t claim it’s immune to criticism: purely on the level of enjoyment, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No was disappointing, and perhaps tried too damn hard. I mean, sharks in space? That’s a stretch, even given the limited amount of plausibility for the series overall. It’s just that you need to understand what it’s trying to achieve.

This is something of a return to form, although still short of the most entertaining entry, Sharknado 2: The Second One. Set five years after #3, the world is now safe from sharknados, thanks to the efforts of the Astro-X corporation, whose network has stabilized the atmosphere. Except, it turns out to be no good against sharknados made from sand, as we find out when Las Vegas gets it. Things then escalate through sharknados of boulders, oil and fire to the, likely inevitable, nuclearnado, which can only be stopped by the ever-heroic Fin (Ziering) diverting Niagara Falls into the air to act as coolant. Meanwhile, his wife April (Reid) is actually alive, and has been given cyborg powers by her father, played by Jake Busey.

The last entry galloped up and down the East coast of America, and it’s only fair that this time, the mid-West and West are the main targets. You can pretty much cross off the states as they whizz by: Nevada, Arizona, Texas, California, Washington and Missouri all get their share of carnage. Naturally, this is less about plot than a relentless excuse for a succession of pop-culture references and C-list celebrity appearances, and these are the usual mixed bag. I know little and care less about any Real Housewives, who seem to infest this film, hanging off it like so many remoras. Reality TV and alleged “YouTube stars” are virtually a blank slate to me, so I probably missed most of these. There were certainly points where I felt I was supposed to be going “Ooh! That’s ___”.

The best were probably Gilbert Gottfried as a sharknado chaser (above), and a Baywatch reunion, teaming up Alexandra Paul and Gena Lee Nolin with Fin’s father, played by David Hasselhoff. And yes, there was slow-motion running.  Most of the film nods hit the mark, at least once they got past the obvious Star Wars mentions, starting with the opening prologue crawl. The rest ran from The Wizard of Oz through Network to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I was fairly impressed how these meshed into the narrative. However, it was often the little moments I loved: the concept of Sharknado slot-machines rang true (we were there in April, and themed slots were rampant, from Game of Thrones to Gremlins), and I loved how during the attack, the Bellagio fountains were squirting sharks into the air.

I’m not sure I saw the need for throwing all the different -nados at the audience. As the Vegas opener shows, a well-crafted sharknado is more than sufficient to hold the audience’s attention, and the new dishes on the menu didn’t add particularly much. And even by Asylum standards, the CGI for the finale at Niagara was particularly woeful, especially when April was rescuing her son from a barrel which had been blown into the river. Or was this a subtle dig at The Hobbit? Despite apparently running through the entire spectrum of ‘nadoliciousness, it seems there’s still room for franchise expansion. Based on the way this ends (though I’m damned I can even remember who that “Nova” character mentioned is or was), I’m guessing #5 will be going international.

The optimist in me hopes this might be the opening of a new vista of creative possibilities. The pessimist thinks this is Latt making a cheap grab for the overseas market – a sharknado on the Great Wall of China, anyone? Of course, there’s no reason it has exclusively to be one or the other. However, the financial aspects of the production really don’t bother me, and the potential in worldwide sharkiness certainly cannot be denied. This latest entry proved more than adequately entertaining, especially compared to the fourth entries in some other series (hello, Crystal Skull). So, like sharks returning to their spawning grounds [note to Film Blitz intern: please fact-check this before publication [note to self: hire intern]], we’ll return to SyFy at around this point next year, and await the next installment.

Atomic Shark (2016)

Rating: C+

Dir: A.B. Stone
Star: Rachele Brooke Smith, Jeff Fahey, David Faustino, Bobby Campo

The nuclear monster has a long tradition in American cinema (and elsewhere – most obviously, Gojira). 1954’s Them! remains a classic, and represents only the tip of the atomic iceberg. At first, I thought this was going to be a throw-back to that era, opening as it does with Cold War footage and J. Robert Oppenheimer solemnly intoning, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Even the font for the title in nostalgic for an earlier time. Instead, the film is almost defiantly hip: R/C drones play a prominent role, and we get references to Instagram, YouTube, Yelp, hashtags, emojis and foodie shows. This probably gives it a limited shelf-life (or half-life?), yet overall, it works surprisingly well for late 2016.

It’s set in San Diego, and the wreck of a Soviet submarine has leaked radiation into the water. This has caused a local shark to become hyper-aggressive, and radio-active to such an extent, its fin literally glows cherry-red, while boiling the water nearby (pre-fried fish washing up on the beach being one of the signs puzzling beach-goers). In fact, only the cooling effect of the water stops the shark from going critical and exploding in a mushroom cloud. With the government trying to suppress the rising body-count, it’s up to local life-guard, Gina (Smith), and her largely useless sidekick, Kaplan (Campo), to save the day, along with her sailor father (Fahey) and drone-flying sleazeball, Fletcher. The last is played bu Faustino, who used to be Bud Bundy in Married With Children, 20-30 years ago. I feel old.

The approach here is to take a ludicrous concept and have everyone involved play it totally serious. At no point does anyone point out the biological impossibility of the shark here existing: that’s taken as read, and everyone is simply dealing with it. Yet the film has some genuinely amusing moments too. At one point, it goes epically wide-screen for a heroic jet-ski assault. Another involves a musical cue and a dynamite fuse. We actually laughed out loud at both scenes – and I stress, this was with the movie, rather than at it. Certainly, some of the effects leave a bit to be desired – okay, a lot to be desired. Yet Smith makes for a fine, independent heroine, completely defying any Baywatch-esque expectations.

Best death: an obnoxious TV food host eats one of the pre-fried fish and not-so spontaneously combusts.

Dam Sharks (2016)

Rating: C-

Dir: James Kondelik. Jon Kondelik
Star: Matt Mercer, Nikki Zang, Robert Craighead, Jessica Blackmore

This feels like two different movies, spliced together unconvincingly in a couple of scenes – maybe the co-directors each did their own half? One chunk concerns park ranger Kate (Blackmore) who witnesses her scuba partner being chewed up by bull sharks. These have come upstream and are building dams of branches and human corpses to stop their prey from escaping. Stop me if I’m wrong, but save for the corpse bit, isn’t that beavers? Anyway, she teams up with a local survivalist, Carl (Craighead) to try and clear the river of human prey. The other half sees a tech company on a team building exercise with their crappy boss. Their purpose is to be the human prey. Save the couple of vaguely-likeable ones, of course.

One of the genre tropes is sharks leaping up, to attack people who aren’t actually in the water, and this is full of it (top). Seriously, these sharks have a better hang time than Michael Jordan at his peak – except when necessary to the plot, if it’s vaguely-likeable characters in the boat. Then, the sharks forget they can fly, in favor of kinda circling aimlessly. The “ranger” side of the plot works rather better, since it’s more relevant and shark-related. The tech company side is a tedious exercise in office politics, when all we really want to see is sharkicide. The film does well there, with more CGI blood and severed body parts than expected, which helps make up for there being no-one you’ve ever heard of being in the film. [Actually, Jason London, who plays the big boss, has an okay resume. Most importantly, he was in last year’s Zombie Shark]

There are some shameless lifts from other (probably far better) movies. For instance, the concept of using scuba tanks to blow shit up is an obvious Jaws nod, acknowledged by more than one character as being something they saw in a film. In quick succession, we also get a PG version of Ripley’s line from Aliens, “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage,” and another character proclaiming “Game over!” If only they could have afforded Bill Paxton. Still, there are a couple of surprises and sufficient fun to be found here: if you’re not predicting the casualties when three people are crossing a river on a tree-trunk, you’re not watching this the right way.

Best death: the ranger shoots someone being eaten by sharks, in the head.

Ice Sharks (2016)

Rating: D-

Dir: Emile Edwin Smith
Star: Edward DeRuiter, Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau, Jenna Parker, Clarissa Thibeaux

There is a sweet spot for this kind of film, located at the point between not taking yourself seriously enough and taking yourself too seriously. You are typically dealing with a concept containing no small amount of imaginative lunacy, requiring significant suspension of disbelief. If the film doesn’t make at least some effort to sell this, why should the audience be buying it? But on the other hand, you need to remain aware that people are generally watching for the amusement of their lizard brains. This is not the Discovery Channel, least of all back in the day when you could actually learn things not involving pawn shops and swamp people.

While produced by The Asylum, who are responsible for Sharknado and its sequels (as well as a slew of mockbusters, which run from the sublimely bad to the surprisingly competent), you’re going to be disappointed if you’re expecting a blizzard-oriented version of the same. Instead, this is a non-camp tale, which seems closer to Tremors with a side-order of DeepStar Six. An Arctic research base finds itself under assault from a previously unknown species of shark, apparently moving south due to global warming. Its main talent is sawing through ice with its dorsal fin, like a fishy icebreaker. Oh, and eating people. That goes without saying though.

The second half takes a bit of a detour, as the sharks’ relentless carving off of pack-ice, eventually leads the base to run out of support entirely, and sink to the bottom of the sea, 90 feet below. Remarkably, the building is both heavy enough to sink, yet watertight enough to remain habitable, at least in the short term. The survivors have to figure out to how to call for help and/or escape their frigid tomb, as well as the predators circling outside. It’s played dead straight, with little or no humor at all. If they’d abandoned the entire “ice-breaking sharks” thing, and found an alternate method of driving the plot, this could have been a generic Arctic action film, operating entirely outside the parameters of Sharknado Week.

That is not necessarily a good thing, however, especially when there are enough flaws to stop it from being genuinely credible. Apparently when you’re doing scuba and have a regulator in your mouth, you can still speak without the slightest impediment. As I said: not seriously enough. When you aren’t winking at, or along with, the audience, the standards by which you must expected to be measured, shift and become more stringent. Under this tougher assessment, flaws you might be prepared to overlook in a less serious production, become harder to ignore.

Best death: seen top, the scientist who gets his lower leg bitten off, and is left to bleed out on the ice.

Planet of the Sharks (2016)

Rating: D

Dir: Mark Atkins
Star: Brandon Auret, Stephanie Beran, Lindsay Sullivan, Lauren Joseph

In the future, glacial melting has covered 98% of earth’s landmass.” Not the best of starts to your film’s synopsis, when it contains a large scientific whopper. Truth is, if every bit of glacier and ice-cap turned to water, sea-level would rise by less then 300 feet. Not that this wouldn’t case issues, naturally – just that, here’s what North America would look like if that happened. Sucks to be in Florida, to be sure. Arizona? Not so much. It’s odd, because other stuff here is relatively on point. One of the big plot elements is the use of a HAARP cannon to stimulate the atmosphere and, in here, trigger a volcanic eruption. This is actually a thing. There’s a government facility in Alaska that does this, which has been linked by some to areas such as weather modification and earthquakes. Surprised to see it showing up in a SyFy original movie. Maybe it’s the government’s way of getting nobody to take the idea seriously…

Anyway, in this fictitious future, global warming has sunk humanity, save a few hardy survivors, eking out a precarious existence in floating communities. There’s an effort to reverse the trend, under Dr. Shaw (Sullivan), using a rocket to send a “CO2 scrubber” into the upper atmosphere and a narrow window for launch is approaching. Unfortunately, the local sharks are being mind-controlled by a gigantic mama shark, who appears to have a grudge against humanity, and the hordes are gnawing their way through everything in their path, up to and potentially including the rocket launch-site. Perhaps they can be lured to a dormant underwater volcanic caldera, which can be triggered using their HAARP gun, to wipe the fish out? Just throwing that out there.

Mostly Waterworld with sharks, there are elements of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Day of the Dead in the early going. This is a post-apocalyptic world, which scientists are trying desperately to fix – but other survivors might be the biggest threat, rather than the external problem. There’s also a kid survivor, who does nothing of note, and a Tina Turner wanna-be in charge of a tribe of bandits. She speaks with a distractingly strange accent that seems to be aiming for N’orleans, yet should have made a left turn at Albuquerque.

Still, if they’d kept going down those routes, this might have been more interesting. Just as zombies were tangential to what made Zombieland work, so this could have been a shark movie about more than sharks. Unfortunately, any such lofty ambitions are abandoned at about the one-third point, and we’re left with a largely predictable procession of people and sharks towards the launch-site. Though I did like the way they used the giant shark to power the facility, after firing the HAARP cannon knocked out all their electronics, due to the resulting electromagnetic pulse. Or maybe I dreamed that. Not sure. It is comforting to realize that, after the coming apocalypse, while fresh water and dry land may be hard to come by, there will be no apparent shortage of parasailing equipment.

Best death: Actually, it’s a non-death. Parasailing in a shark movie seems perilously close to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek. Yet, miraculously, the participant here actually survives with their limbs intact. That was unexpected.

Ozark Sharks (2016)

Rating: E

Dir: Misty Talley
Star: Allisyn Ashley Arm, Dave Davis, Michael Papajohn, Thomas Francis Murphy

I realized when watching this, that I didn’t actually know where the Ozark Mountains are. Turns out they’re on the border between Missouri and (I should probably have guessed) Arkansas. Given this was filmed in Louisiana, I’m not sure the makers known much about the Ozarks either – except that they rhyme with “shark”.  Painfully generic, and populated largely by painfully stupid characters, this has a nuclear family – mom, dad, introverted teen daughter, preppy-ish son and grandma – take a trip to a lakeside cabin. Inevitably, and for no particular reason, the river is infested with sharks that chew up grandma, and go on to threaten everyone else in the area dumb enough to set toe near the water. Which, it appears, is about 99% of the population.

Yes, the idiocy is strong in this one. For example, none of the adults even try to notify the authorities – that’s left to one of the teenagers, and they are inevitably written off as a prank caller. There’s another point where someone is “stranded” on a log, and demanding rescue, when the bank is about 10 feet behind them and easily accessible. And I lost count of the number of times people stood right on the edge of the lake to have a conversation, when any sensible person in their situation, would be moving rapidly toward higher, more shark-resistant ground. Oh, I know a certain lack of intelligence is par for the horror genre. If it weren’t for people entering basements, reading books and staying in locations they really shouldn’t, movies would be a lot shorter and considerably duller. This, however, takes it to and beyond dumb, to an eye-rolling degree.

There are a couple of bright spots. The best character is likely Jones (Murphy), the local bait-shop owner who possesses the biggest weapons stash since the original Tremors. His truck comes equipped with the kind of weaponry necessary to the plot, triggering the following exchange with one of the city folk, who it appears is not a devotee of the second amendment:
   “Why do you need a harpoon cannon?”
   “To shoot my harpoon with.”
Murphy appears largely to be channeling Tommy Lee Jones – which may explain the name – yet is a lot of fun to watch. The rest of the cast appear to be going through the motions, with daughter Molly (Arm) the sole character to show anything like development. Although I have to say, the final death did come as a significant surprise, both in target and execution. It may be related to the image above, which had us quoting Fargo: “I guess that was your aquatic life-form in the wood chipper.”

They do also play nicely with the Deep Blue Sea trope, in which a character gives a rousing speech only to be interrupted by being eaten. In this case, the victim barely gets half a sentence in – just long enough for us to identify the cliche – before getting gobbled. That, and a “I need a hand” joke that appealed enormously to the 11-year-old in us, were the high moments of what was otherwise significantly more irritating than amusing. Lazy and uninventive, the imagination on view here appears to begin and end at the title.

Best death: giving this to one of the sharks, who has its mouth stuffed full of fireworks, turning it into an water-dwelling pyrotechnic display.