Ian Ziering (Image: Syfy). Not pictured: Sharks.

In 2016, the Syfy brand exists in something of a split personality state, less a unified front than the network equivalent of Two-Face’s scarred coin. On the shiny side is the network that remembers it was once the home of Battlestar Galactica and wants to be a home for interesting and progressive genre fare like Killjoys, Dark Matter, and 12 Monkeys. And then on the scarred side there’s its reputation as the king of schlock made-for-TV monster movies, driven by the unquenchable urge to grab every shark, alligator, snake, and octopus they can get their hands on, cross-breed them thanks to dirt-cheap CGI, and pit them against each other and a pool of C-list actors.

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No film personifies the dark side of Syfy better than Sharknado, which took the world by storm in 2013—that storm being a tornado filled with sharks. Armed with CGI, writing, and acting that was equally and wonderfully terrible, it was an unexpected joy to watch and an unexpected hit for the network, who immediately decided “We’re gonna need a bigger film” and signed off on making sequels. Unfortunately, having struck gold, the creative team was continually spurred to dig deeper and with a more manic pace, trying to top themselves at every turn. Sharknado 2: The Second One still had its grip on what made the series fun, but Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! lost its mind in a sea of product placement, cameos, and grotesque self-awareness.

I hoped that Sharknado: The 4th Awakens would be the film to course-correct back to those halcyon days, but such is not the case. If anything, it doubles down on the bad, and not the kind that loops around to good. It’s the second sequel in a row that has too many cameos and too many calculated shock value moments, a film that drowns in references and provides them with increasing smugness. What was once a guilty pleasure has now said farewell to the pleasure part of that equation, and what’s left is just so much light and noise that sweeps away the things to appreciate.

Of all my issues with Sharknado: The 4th Awakens: Go The Fuck To Sleep, the most glaring one is that they’ve destroyed the fun that was inherent in its selling point. While the central narrative remains the same—tornados full of sharks have sprung up and Ian Ziering is the only one who can stop them—writer Thunder Levin continually feels the urge to ramp it up beyond the pale. They’ve gone from sharknado to mega-sharknado to sharkicane, and in this installment the only answer is to give the sharknados full-on superpowers. Now, whenever a sharknado hits anything it takes on its abilities by some form of osmosis, leading to an endless parade of multicolored “-nados” striking across various unconvincing CGI city backdrops. During the film’s interminable 90 minutes I counted the following: bouldernado, oilnado, lightingnado, cownado, lavanado, icenado, and nukenado, the latter of which was technically a shark-boulder-oil-nukenado at the end. The film throws these at us with such rapidity that it’s exhausting and irritating, only a palette swap to demonstrably change the threat levels. We know that your concept is already at ludicrous speed, Sharknado, and you sold us on it. You can take a breath.

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That rapidity applies to the other major problem with the franchise, its craven desire to put anyone who asks in the film. When it comes to guest stars, the Sharknado franchise has transformed into the cinematic equivalent of Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention, attracting an endless parade of has-beens and c-listers whose appearances are random at best and self-indulgent at worst. There are some that are easily identifiable—Carrot Top as an Uber driver, Gilbert Gottfried as a storm-chaser, Dog the Bounty Hunter as proprietor of a small town’s chainsaw store, Paul Schaffer as a street musician—but the vast majority are blink-and-you-miss it appearance before a shark gets dropped on their head. There’s no rhyme or reason to the cameos, the appearances are either not winking or aggressively winking, and you get no sense that any of them are taking legitimate joy in being there.

Where the joy comes in is when anyone’s making a reference, though it’s the “oh we’re so clever” kind of joy that brings out the opposite reaction in the viewer. Star Wars is of course omnipresent in the opening scroll, quotes, and lightsaber chainsaws, but it casts a net that is at least impressive in its scope. There’s a character named Howard Beale who is told that we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, there’s a red 1950s car named Christine—introduced by Steve Guttenberg in a painfully forced tie-in to Syfy’s other pillar of schlock Lavalantula—and a point where a yellow shed is destroyed and characters follow the yellow brick road. Ian Ziering even says “I can’t believe I said that” immediately afterwards, which I choose to believe was a moment of genuinely breaking character.

Underneath all those issues, the rotten core of this film is the plot. Yes, I said the plot. While picking on Sharknado for its plot feels anathema to everything the franchise stands for, Sharknado: The 4th Awakens: All In The Family makes the assumption that we care about members of the Shepard family who aren’t Ian Ziering, after failing to do any substantive work on that front for three films. Weirdly, it decides that Ian Ziering’s story is their story, and is entirely too invested in turning its central clan into a sharknado-slaying clan of destiny. They bring back both junior Shepards and assume that recasting them will reenergize our investment in their survival (it doesn’t), and they introduce a completely new cousin named Gemini (Masiela Lusha) who’s solely there to be a Nova equivalent without all that ambiguous love interest baggage. And if you’re not in this family by blood, don’t count on sticking around. Son Matt gets a new wife named Gabrielle (Imani Hakim) at the start of the film, she dies in a fashion unglamorous even for this series, and she doesn’t even get a pained “Damn, we lost another one” reaction from any member of the family.

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Perhaps most baffling, the film decides that in this epic about storms that are very selective in the marine life they scoop up, it will pivot around our affection for the love story at the center. Which would be perfect if it wasn’t the thinnest part of the series, given that in four movies I believe Ian Ziering and Tara Reid have been on screen together for less than 20 minutes. Given Reid’s apparent disinterest in the franchise, one wonders why they didn’t pull the #AprilDies trigger and decide to give Ian Ziering some new love interest. Instead, April’s back and transformed into a cyborg, which doesm’t get much mileage but at the very least gives us an excuse for the lack of emotion and a training montage with a coach from The Biggest Loser.

Threaded throughout all of this family drama are the usual Sharknado set pieces. There’s a pirate ship sailing through Las Vegas, a battle on a train with rock-studded sharks, Ian Ziering taking a backhoe-mounted giant chainsaw to a firenado, and a house being swept up in the sharknado and carried across the country. To their credit, most of these scenes focus on Ian Ziering, whose understanding of the movies he’s in has never faltered. He remains enjoyably humorless and is rewarded for his longevity with superhuman strength, punching sharks in the face and swinging them into poles without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, they suffer from the same problems as Sharknado 3 in that they’re without any continuity, big action pieces that were designed first and then latched together with masking tape.

And the ending is, somehow, even more insulting and cynical than Sharknado 3’s disingenuous gesture at audience participation. Once again, it takes one of the moments that people liked best in the first film—the glorious stupidity of having Ian Ziering be eaten by a shark and having to chainsaw his way out of it—and decides the only way to top that is to do it over and over and over again. It’s a Russian nesting doll of sharks and Shepards that have to be cut out by the youngest Shepard, Little Gil, who pulls a chainsaw out of a stone to become the King Arthur of sharknado slayers. The family all turns out to be okay, the feeling of joy is layered on as thick as the fake gore, and it’s a happy ending. At least until the Eiffel Tower comes crashing down in the middle of Niagara Falls, Ian Ziering whispers “Nova?” in disbelief, and we cut to credits until Sharknado: Episode V: It’s A Small World After All.

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But honestly, Syfy, don’t. When a film climaxes with Ian Ziering driving a chainsaw-armed mech into a storm of radioactive sharks and the most that sight can evoke out of the viewer is a shrug, you know that it’s time to pack it in—or in keeping with the title, put it to sleep. Sharknado: The 4th Awakens is the gasping flop of a series long past its stale date, the efforts to shock it back to life are doing nothing but leaving shark defibrillator-shaped burn marks on its chest. Stick the chainsaw in it, it’s done.

Stray observations:

  • Keeping to former Sharknado reviewer Caroline Framke’s rule that “there’s just no point in giving anything with the word ‘sharknado’ in its title anything other than an A or an F,” this one resoundingly earns the latter.
  • In the interest of saying something nice about the film, I will admit that I did laugh out loud when the Chippendales dancer used a pelvic thrust to send a shark flying. I hope that’s in the next Magic Mike film.
  • This film doesn’t have Ann Coulter or Michele Bachmann in it, but it does still have Fox News contributor Stacey Dash playing the mayor of Chicago, who hates Ian Ziering because he’s brings sharknados wherever he goes. This time they get around to killing her off, so it gets a gold star over its predecessor.
  • Oh right, Gary Busey is also in this movie. He plays April’s mad scientist father and gives a disappointingly low-key performance, confined to one room for his scenes. He does get one of the few genuinely funny lines in the movie though, when Claudia yells at him for keeping her mother’s survival a secret: “Dad has your ashes on the fireplace!” Gary Busey: “That’s your dog.”
  • On that note, from the least two films we are to assume that the combination of Gary Busey and Bo Derek produced Tara Reid, and the combination of David Hasselhoff and Cheryl Tiegs produced Ian Ziering. Someone run that through a baby picture maker and see if it comes close.
  • The award for saddest cameo goes to Vegas legend Wayne Newton, who appears singing the Sharknado theme song and looking like his eyebrows were painted on.
  • Matt Lauer got out of being in this sequel, but Al Roker and Natalie Morales did not. Was there a bet at Today over who had to answer the call?
  • Everyone who works at Astro-X appears to be a platinum blonde, which makes the company’s offices feel like the Playboy Mansion with Google Glass.
  • How do you have a Sharknado film set in Las Vegas and not have one of your cast say “We can’t stop here, this is shark country”?
  • “We just had the Xfinity X1 installed!” I know product placement is typically blatant, especially in these films, but that was really blatant.
  • “It’s turning into a regular sharknado, do you read me?” The fact that this movie has the term “regular sharknado” spoken without irony sums it all up.
  • “You know what Dad? Sharks suck.”

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