Sharknado a thrill for the low-budget minded



Good news for lovers of pulp TV and haters of sharks: The SyFy network announced that it has greenlit Sharknado 2. And next time, the sharks are headed for New York.

A sequel felt inevitable, given the frenzy over Sharknado, the SyFy original movie that sparked a Twitter storm — 5,000 tweets per minute — when it aired last week. Whatever we lack in national glue, we still can come together to mock the concept of airborne sharks descending on Los Angeles, teeth first.

But I submit to you: When Sharknado re-airs, you should watch it — or watch it again — because it’s good.

Not good as in so-bad-it’s-good, though that’s also true: There is joy in the slightly-off dubbing, the variety of shark-induced deaths, the shameless dialogue (“They took my grandfather. That’s why I really hate sharks”).

But Sharknado is also something worth cherishing, at a time when big studios break the bank on animation and explosions: The low-budget thriller that makes the most of its economy.

The casting is part of it. Ian Ziering, of the original Beverly Hills 90210, makes a more-than-serviceable cheap action hero. But mostly, it’s the visual effects. I tend to judge movies by how much they stick with me. When I saw the Superman reboot Man of Steel earlier this summer, I couldn’t get one particular set of images out of my mind.

Unfortunately, it came from a different film entirely: Superman II, released in 1980. It was the Krypton punishment scene, in which General Zod and his lieutenants are trapped between what look to be two hula hoops, then sentenced to eternity inside a flying plate of glass.

In Man of Steel, the bad guys are encased in some sort of winding, writhing, computer-generated metal, which blends in your mind with the other winding, writhing computer-generated metals that regularly sweep across the screen.

I think I’ll remember Sharknado more. The effects are computer-generated, too, and overseen by some veteran practitioners: The movie’s visual effects supervisor, Emile Smith, worked on Battlestar Galactica and Rango.

But where Man of Steel reportedly cost $225 million to produce, Sharknado had a budget of $1 million to $2 million — typical for its studio, The Asylum, which regularly churns out pulpy straight-to-video movies. (Previous titles include Nazis at the Center of the Earth and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.)

A big studio picture might have a crew of 150 to 250 on special effects: artists, animators, lighting specialists, Smith told me. On a typical Asylum feature, the effects staff is closer to five or seven.

“The budget constraints drive this movie completely,” Smith said of Sharknado. “We know we can’t do 100-percent photoreal work and make this look absolutely perfect, and even if we did, we know that it would look over the top and kind of cartoony.”

On the other hand, the Asylum way is to play it straight.

“It’d be very easy for us to make parody movies that are laughable.  . . . Look, this shark has a big goofy grin on its face or is winking at the camera,” said Joe Lawson, the studio’s overall visual effects supervisor. “You want the effects to serve the story, you want them to be as good as possible, and you don’t want them to be crappy effects for the sake of being crappy effects.”

That gives Sharknado a beautiful circa-1980 quality, a sense that it was cobbled together with creativity and fearlessness, the digital equivalent of chewing gum and spit. And there are sequences you will remember: the ferris wheel rolling off the Santa Monica pier; Ziering chainsawing his way out of a shark’s belly; the tornadoes themselves.

And then there’s the scene in which Ziering raises a chainsaw into the air and slices a falling shark in half, a sort of cross between Jaws and Fruit Ninja. Lawson dubbed it instant “trailer material.” He swears Sharknado 2 will have more.

I asked him if they were planning to write in the guy from Nantucket who wrestled a shark.

“I dunno,” Lawson replied. “Can he act?”

In a low-budget movie, anything is possible.

© 2013 The New York Times

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