The most unbelievable thing about Sharknado isn’t its asinine premise, its Z-grade production values, or its sub-cartoonish comedic action. No, it’s that the low-budget monster movie series has now spawned four—yes, FOUR—features, the newest of which arrived this Sunday under the Star Wars-riffing moniker Sharknado: The Fourth Awakens. Prepare to resume rolling your eyes—or praying that a chomping aquatic predator falls from the sky to put you out of your misery.
When Syfy network debuted Sharknado in 2013, its preternaturally moronic conceit—L.A. is besieged by tornados chockablock with hungry sharks!—immediately turned it into a Snakes on a Plane-style phenomenon, one in which everyone could be in on the dim-bulb, too-dumb-for-words joke, including production company The Asylum. Known for churning out cheapo creature-features marked by C-list casts and 1996-style CGI, The Asylum was well-aware it was crafting third-rate tongue-in-cheek schlock. Gleefully embracing its own badness, director Anthony C. Ferrante’s film, headlined by 90210 alum Ian Ziering as a former surfer-turned-shark-slayer and Tara Reid as his predictably blank-faced ex-wife, became a jokey cultural touchstone that, three years later, remains—somehow, some way—afloat.
Sensing it had struck a numbskulled nerve, The Asylum enhanced the campy absurdity of each subsequent outing, with Ziering’s chainsaw-wielding hero Fin (get it? Like a shark’s fin?) buzzsawing his way through New York in Sharknado 2: The Second One, and then blasting off into outer space to fight space sharks (no water or oxygen necessary!) with Reid’s April and his astronaut father (David Hasselhoff) in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!. Along the way, its signature became both its moronic mayhem and its endless cameos from pseudo-celebs who fell into four categories: those who, like headliners Ziering and Reid, couldn’t get better work (Mark McGrath, Frankie Muniz, Vivica A. Fox, Kari Wuhrer, Judd Hirsch, Bo Derek); those who view any publicity as good publicity (Ann Coulter, Michele Bachmann, Perez Hilton, Andy Dick); those who found it funny to appear in such dreck (Judah Friedlander, Penn and Teller, Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban, Damon Dash, and now Lori Greiner); and those who, as employees of NBC Universal (Syfy’s parent corporation), were contractually obligated to participate (Today’s Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Natalie Morales).
The Fourth Awakens doesn’t alter that formula, drenching its action in flying shark storms, fake blood, and embarrassing-for-all-involved guest spots from the likes of Jillian Barberie, Vince Neil, Wayne Newton, Slipknot singer Cory Taylor, David Faustino, Dr. Drew Pinsky, Stacey Dash, Steve Guttenberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Brandi Glanville, and Carrot Top—most of whom only momentarily materialize on-screen before a giant shark lands, mouth-first, on their heads. Even Paul Shafer briefly shows up as a street musician, implying that retirement from The Late Show is hitting him harder than expected. At least neither Anthony Weiner nor Jared Fogle—both of whom factored into the last film (the latter thanks to Subway’s product-placement sponsorship)—return, suggesting that even Sharknado has its lowlife limits.
No matter its title’s allusion, The Fourth Awakens doesn’t bother parodying J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars saga. Instead, it opts for a scattershot Earth-bound story (set five years after its predecessor) that reunites much of the prior cast, who are now joined by a lifeless Cheryl Tiegs as Fin’s mother, and a typically crazy-eyed Gary Busey as April’s mad-scientist father. Ziering’s Fin now lives on a Kansas farm where he’s raising his young son Gil (get it? Because sharks have gills?), and continues to mourn April, who was supposedly consumed by a shark at the conclusion of Oh Hell No!. The sharknados, meanwhile, have supposedly been eradicated thanks to the work of Astro-X and its “astro pods,” which were created by Tommy Davidson’s tech genius—although when they stop working during Fin’s trip to Vegas, the hero has to assume his shark-sawing ways.
That the ensuing cross-country plot is stupid and sloppy is no surprise. Yet the lack of imagination put into the film’s reference-ready gags is downright depressing. In Texas, Fin frequents a chainsaw store run by Caroline Williams (heroine of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Dan Yeager (Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw 3D), and Duane “Dog” Chapman (aka “Dog the Bounty Hunter”), and the best The Fourth Awakens can do is make ham-fisted allusions to the horror series before having Williams outright say “Texas chainsaw massacre!” to hammer home the ongoing joke—even as the filmmakers somehow squander the opportunity to have Williams, in Dog’s presence, repeat her Chainsaw sequel’s most famous line: “Dog will hunt!”
Then again, if cleverness is what you’re after, The Fourth Awakens isn’t for you, what with its gory action eventually making its way back to Kansas so Fin can say “Follow the yellow brick road” and a house can get sucked up into a twister, all while director Ferrante clumsily cuts away to Stacy Dash (as Chicago’s mayor) acting like a wicked witch. Ziering once more affects a dreary He-Man pose as the material’s de facto superman, punching sharks out of mid-air and glowering intensely. And as for Reid—no callous jokes will be made here about the aptness of her heroine being reconstructed into an artificial bleached-blonde cyborg, but suffice it to say that she retains the dubious distinction of being the worst actress in a franchise that revels in its lousiness.
The film eventually piles on all manner of ‘nados (boulder-nados, lightning-nados, nuclear-nados) in a vain effort to up the idiotic ante, but Ferrante and company keep wrongly assuming that, with enough over-the-top ideas and chintzy effects, it’s possible to deliberately make something so bad that it’s actually good (or, at least, ironically entertaining). What they fail to realize is that unintentional humor is amusing precisely because it’s unintentional; trying to manufacture it only leads to egregious nonsense that can’t stop winking at everyone and everything, including itself. Denied even the chance to crack “jumping the shark” and “making it up as they go along” jokes because those options were already exhausted by prior installments, The Fourth Awakens proves merely another piece of dreary detritus to take up residence at the bottom of the pop-culture barrel.