Sharknado 2 at TCA: Legitimating the Sharknado

Sharknado2In the past few weeks, I’ve been highly skeptical regarding Sharknado 2: The Second One.

In truth, I have no strong emotional investment in Sharknado 2. I watched the first Sharknado a good week or so after it first aired, and so I missed the social media fever and ended up finding the film itself…dull. Sharknado is not a particularly engaging film—even by B-Movie (or C-Movie or whatever we’re calling it) standards—when it is removed from the context of the Twitter commentary generated around it. And yet you wouldn’t know that given how Syfy has fully committed to Sharknado as an ongoing franchise, diving into licensing opportunities and treating this as a huge cultural phenomenon based entirely on social media fever despite a fundamental lack of evidence anyone other than people on Twitter care about Sharknado (which didn’t make it a failure, but does keep it from being a definitive mainstream hit).

It’s specifically reminded me of the release of Snakes on a Plane: the online fan base that emerged around the film convinced New Line to add new footage and push the film for an R rating, but then the film was a huge box office disappointment, and even failed to generate any significant cult following on DVD. It was a cult film in reverse: rather than struggling to find an audience then building a community of people unearthing a forgotten gem, the cult audience latched onto the film quickly but built a set of expectations that the film couldn’t live up to, and that killed that cult audience potential before it could develop into a long-term commodity. I’ve been convinced for weeks that all of the money Syfy is spending to push Sharknado as something more than a slightly more resonant movie-of-the-week has the risk of throwing good money after a bad movie that won’t sustain this level of franchise-building.

And yet when I arrived poolside at the Beverly Hilton hotel for Syfy’s Sharknado 2 screening event as part of NBC Universal’s TCA presentation, I began to feel somewhat differently. The notion of Syfy bringing one of its monster movies to a press tour was absurd before Sharknado, and yet it felt perfectly natural for the critics to be gathering together to laugh their way through Ian Ziering and Tara Reid’s latest encounter with shark-related weather events. Themed as a drive-in theater, complete with popcorn and car-themed couches and drive-in-style speakers, it was not just “Sharknado at Press Tour”: it was Sharknado as a marquee event, one that brings the channel the very legitimacy this type of movie kept them from achieving in the past.

Without going too deeply into spoilers, Sharknado 2: The Second One does a lot of this work in its own right. The film is basically the same as the first structurally, with groups of characters running for their lives from sharks, but it amps up the energy of the first film. The scale of the film is simply larger: whereas the first film was largely tied to the characters, this time around there’s more cameos, and the larger canvas of New York City is filled in with cutaways that make the film feel livelier. The pacing still struggles to maintain its momentum—there’s only so many cameos and cutaways the film can use to keep from running into the repetitiveness of its setup—but the effects have gone up a level such that the film is generally more engaging. Sharknado 2 is still fundamentally cheesy, but the effects quality has evolved from Syfy movie-of-the-week to mid-2000s NBC disaster miniseries—it may not seem like a huge difference, but there is no single moment where the film feels like it wanted to do something one way and didn’t have the budget to achieve it. This is a film that knew what it was doing and had the budget to do it, and thus any limitations feel inherently self-imposed, and consistent with the franchise’s appeals.

In this way, I was impressed by how intelligently Sharknado 2 navigated its two primary goals. The first is simply to deliver on the kind of social media-friendly, absurd disaster movie comedy that made the first film so successful on Twitter: given how much press the Twitter discussion earned, this film needs to live up to that expectation, and there are plenty of moments clearly designed to be hashtagged (there were no onscreen hashtags on the copy screened). At the same time, however, the film also doesn’t feel like it drives the basic premise into the ground, evolving enough that it seems way more plausible now that Thunder Levin will get an opportunity to conclude his trilogy (likely by taking the sharks overseas, if I had to guess). It’s a film that’s clearly steering into the social media appeals of the first film, but I didn’t find that as blatant or as tedious as I imagined it might be, and I have every reason to believe those who enjoyed themselves with the first film are going to enjoy themselves with this one.

SharknadoTShirtThe second goal, however, was to rescue Sharknado from the Syfy Original Movie brand more broadly, although any such work legitimating the franchise must avoid stripping the film of the very elements—the cheese, the puns, the still not all that impressive effects work—the brand was built on. Sharknado 2: The Second One was never going to be high-class entertainment, and so to suggest that Sharknado has been legitimated is not to say that it enters into the pantheon of television’s finest dramatic series or anything like that. However, through events like this one and the film itself, Sharknado 2 elevates itself out of the conversation of fleeting social media success and cheaply made monster movies in a way that both legitimately surprised me and seems to make it more possible than I’d imagined for Sharknado to be something Syfy can turn into something more than a flash-in-the-pan in the next few years. It’s still unlikely the phenomenon will last for long, but it seems unlikely to me that Sharknado 2 will do anything other than keep the shark-infested waters churning at least until Sharknado 3 hits next year.

Sharknado 2 debuts on Syfy on July 30.

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