Tara Reid, Ian Ziering, the invisible ghosts of a thousand sharks wailing for justice (Image: SyFy)

Sharknado could have saved the world.

That’s potentially the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written in my career, but that’s the impression you get from the recent Hollywood Reporter article about the series’ casting practices. Amongst the article’s fun facts is that during pre-production of Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, Donald Trump was in talks to appear as the president of the United States, getting to the contract stage before he decided to run for the real thing. Imagine the Earth-2 where Asylum offered him more money, or expanded the role. His surface-level taste for the presidency could have been sated by the cameo, and he’d move on to less destructive appetites. Even if it wasn’t, our world would still be different, because regardless of where this country is I have to believe it would never elect a president who was in Sharknado.

Well, maybe Sharknado couldn’t save the world, but in its fifth installment it’s done something possibly even more remarkable: it saved the Sharknado franchise. Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! and Sharknado: The 4th Awakens were borderline unwatchable films, losing all the joy of their original concept in a wave of self-congratulatory smugness, product placement, and cameos that grew to be infuriating in their randomness. Somehow, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming pulls the franchise back from the brink and returns it to what it’s supposed to be: fun to watch.

Why does this one work when recent films have failed? Part of that may be because there’s some relatively new blood running things. For the first time, Thunder “It’s My Real Name” Levin has ceded the role of Sharknado screenwriter, passing it to series casting director Scotty Mullen. Levin’s approach to recent scripts has been building to bigger and bigger heights and getting more and more self-aware about its references, doing so less to entertain than for the sake of blowing the audiences’ minds with its audacity. Those elements are certainly still present—Indiana Jones title font and prehistoric sharknado cave paintings appear in minute one—but Mullen’s version feels less concerned with its own cleverness than it does with its core absurdity and finding ways to make it more absurd.

Mullen’s spin on Sharknado is a National Treasure approach to the story, where bartender turned international shark hunter Nova (Cassie Scerbo) uncovers a druidic relic under Stonehenge used to control sharknados back in ancient times. Removing said relic awakens a primordial sharknado that warps space and time, drawing the world’s “finest shark soldier” Fin Shepherd (Ian Ziering) and his robotic/robot wife April (Tara Reid) back into the mix when their son Gil is trapped in the eye of the storm. Along the way they’ll need to recruit Nova’s Sharknado Sisterhood, ride a steampunk zeppelin, gain a holy chainsaw from the Pope, and harness the power of a shark god pyramid temple.

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Of course none of this makes any sense, which is why it’s a relief that Sharknado 5: Global Swarming: Sold-Out World Tour makes only the bare minimum effort to hold things together. It’s less of a narrative than it is a series of episodic events connected by way of sharknado wormhole, one that takes Fin and April on a world tour through London, Switzerland, Australia, Rome, Tokyo, and Egypt. (All locations identified by the most obvious establishing chyrons in film history.) Key for a film this stupid, Sharknado 5 is constantly in motion, leaving little time to think about the absurdity of what you’re witnessing or get annoyed by the bad dialogue. You go to a location, drop a bunch of sharks on it, have a few fun kills, jump back into the sharknado, repeat.

And there is so much absurdity to be had here. The London Eye and the Sydney Opera House are both missile defense platforms. A mysterious figure in Brazil steals the sharknado-controlling relic, they fight in the Roman Colosseum, he gets killed, and we’re never to think of him again. Pope Fabio awards Fin the aforementioned holy chainshaw, Fin promises not to throw away his shot, and then when jumping into the sharknado the chainsaw deploys a laser defense system. April channels Wonder Woman, Iron Man, and Jean Grey at various points in the film. Tokyo is under siege by a giant shark made of other sharks. It’s pure creative mania in the best possible way, devoid of the feeling that any idea was rejected or that any second passes were taken on the script. And the effects manage to support this course of action—everything still looks cheap in the Asylum house style, but the series’ increased budget makes it consistent in its cheapness, as opposed to the stitched-together first installment.

Sharknado 5 also course-corrects some of the more egregious sins of the past two films, as the roll call of D-list actors and celebrity appearances is much more palatable. Chris Kattan as the British prime minister is an early highlight, playing it entirely straight and self-seriousness in a way that meshes with the original film ethos. Celebrities who drop by are allowed to have fun, rather than blink-and-you-miss-it appearances: Bret Michaels gets hit by a London double-decker bus and rocks out on his guitar as sharks are kicked away. Tony Hawk skates on top of the Sydney Opera House to activate the defense system. Al Roker fills the now-expected role of NBC host getting to bludgeon the sharks. And while product placement is still there, it’s gone from blatant to parody, one character saying out of nowhere: “Let’s see what I can find on the XFINITY Stream app!”

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The most welcome course correction comes into play because Mullen’s actually paying attention to the continuity of the Sharknado franchise—yes, the continuity of the Sharknado franchise. If previous Sharknado films failed because they assumed audiences cared about the Shepherd family, this one works because it keeps things centered on the three main characters: Fin, April, and Nova. Not that you care about them any more than you did before—there’s so little chemistry between any of the three actors that it’s impossible—but their interactions bring you back to the simpler and more laughable speeches of early films. Fin lecturing Nova about her taste for shark genocide reminds you of her uproarious Quint-esque monologue from the first film, and April chewing out Fin for always taking Nova’s side brings you back to their incomprehensible failed marriage. As random as this series has gotten, the fact that it’s maintained the same characters gives it a consistency that other action/horror series—your Anacondas, your Lake Placids, your X-Headed Shark Attacks—can’t pull off.

That emphasis on family and the core Sharknado team makes the dark turns of the third act far more effective than they could be. Sharknado is legendarily cavalier about the lives of its characters, but always pulls back on the main characters as there’s not a shark stomach that can hold them or a chainsaw that can’t cut them out. This time, it goes from succeeding against the odds to losing it all in the course of events, Fin’s family cut down one by one across the world as he struggles to seal the breach. It also gives Ian Ziering, after so many films of telling people to “move, move, move” and deliver bad one-liners, the action movie star trifecta with a “NOOOOOOOOO!” after the world’s saved at the expense of everything he loves and cares about.

That is of course, until the final scene. For a series that can do cameos and references so badly, the final scene of Sharknado 5: Global Swarming: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It is an absolute triumph of both. A Hummer pulls up to Fin, with the driver none other than Dolph freaking Lundgren, who is Gil from the future, who has harnessed a sharknado-powered time machine so they can make go back and restore the timeline to a pre-sharknado world. Fin climbs in, the wheels lift up Delorean-style, and the film soars ahead to Sharknado 6: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again.

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And why not? Jumping across the world worked so well, let’s see if jumping across time can keep the streak going. Sharknado 5: Global Swarming is a welcome return to form for the series that defined peak schlock TV cinema nonsense, with bad habits pushed down and even more steps taken back from logic. Once again, this series is providing the only thing a film that has the word “sharknado” in its title is supposed to do: bonkers gonzo entertainment.

Stray observations:

  • Following original Sharknado reviewer Caroline Framke’s directive that there’s no point in giving anything titled Sharknado an A or an F, this film resoundingly earns the former.
  • Interesting realization while watching this movie: the Sharknado series now forms a interesting parallel to The Fast And The Furious series. Both series morphed from relatively humble beginnings in their first installments to globe-trotting high-stakes exercises, both have more awareness of their mythology than you’d expect, and both have a lead who’s all about family. So what I’m saying here is there’s a lot of crossover potential.
  • One of the more interesting details of that Hollywood Reporter story is that Mullen gets paid by the cameo. That explains a lot.
  • Most Baffling Cameo: Olivia Newton-John as a tech wizard in Australia who gives April an equally baffling makeover.
  • Most Infuriating Cameo: Geraldo Rivera as the inventor of the Hindenburg XP 3000 (empty vault and all), continuing the series’ aggravating trend of giving right-wing pundits a few minutes of screen time.
  • Most Depressing Cameo: Nichelle Nichols as the UN Secretary General, speaking of their proud federation and praising Fin for going where no man has gone before.
  • Given the Hamilton reference, I have to wonder if after writing his script, Mullen leaned back in his chair and said “It makes me wonder why we even bring the Thunder.” If anyone wants to do Sharknado/Hamilton mashups (#Shark4Ham?) in the comments, you’ll have my blessing.
  • “Please do not aggravate, fight, pet, or feed the sharks.” Newscasters having the most benign relationships to the sharknado are a great running gag.
  • “I think we started World War Shark!”
  • “Forgive me father, for I am Fin.”
  • Fin: “Let’s hope that logic holds up.” Nova: “Now you’re worried about logic?”

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