Sharknado and the rules of engagement

When is it okay to laugh at a movie?


Earlier this week, my colleague Calum Marsh wrote a well-argued essay for Film.com about being proud of watching movies unironically. What it was really about was the pitfalls of watching movies ironically. Yes, it can be fun to laugh your way though a bad movie, but if someone else wants to take that movie seriously, you’re making it difficult (if not impossible) for them to do so.

I suppose I’m as guilty of that as anyone, having laughed my way through a press screening – a press screening! – of The Happening a few years back. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one laughing, and it was my genuine response to the film, which is so abominably written and performed that it almost plays better as comedy.

But if there had been anyone else there trying to take the movie seriously, my helpless guffawing over Mark Wahlberg’s conversation with a potted plant late in the picture – or Betty Buckley’s exquisite delivery of this immortal line – would have made it very difficult to engage with Shyamalan’s work as intended.

Now, I didn’t go into The Happening bent on watching it ironically. Shyamalan wasn’t the living joke he is now, and I was one of the few defenders of his previous movie, Lady In The Water, which I found beautiful and weird and engrossing, like a fever dream. It was only when the credits rolled that you realized it was also batshit insane.

But some people do buy their tickets and take their seats in full expectation of laughing their way through a movie that wasn’t intended to be laughed at. Calum writes about seeing David Cronenberg’s wrenching horror movie The Brood with such hammerheads, and we’ve all had similar experiences.

Sometimes the movie refuses to be watched that way. I saw a midnight screening of Jaws back in 1995 with a row of drunk assholes who thought Robert Shaw’s sea-dog swagger as Quint deserved a chorus of pirate cheers. By his second appearance, they’d shut up, sucked in by the power of the movie just like everyone else in the auditorium. But for the most part, if someone wants to laugh at a movie, they’ll find a reason – bad hair, dated fashion styles, an actor who overcommits (or undercommits) to a role, David Schwimmer in The Iceman, and so forth. And the rest of us are stuck there with them.

Now, should an audience agree to mock a movie collectively – whether lovingly, as in the case of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or with sarcasm disguised as good-natured ribbing, as has happened with The Room – that’s a different animal, and a much more pleasurable experience. We’re all on the same page, and being caught up in that sort of group event can be genuinely thrilling. I’ve attended Midnight Madness screenings at the Toronto Film Festival that played like rock concerts, with hundreds of sleep-deprived fans lustily cheering an over-the-top puppet massacre – oh, hai, Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles! – as though the risen Christ had shown up at a revival meeting. And yes, that is an incredibly tortured metaphor.

Anyway, I’ve told tell you all of this because there’s a midnight show of Sharknado at the Carlton Cinemas tonight, in an attempt to turn that made-for-cable monster quickie into the next cult classic.

That’s going to be harder than it sounds. If you caught Sharknado when it ran on Space last month, you know it’s not exactly a fun movie to sit through, despite its ingenious concept – in which a hurricane creates a massive waterspout that sweeps up all of the sharks on the Pacific Ocean and throws them at Los Angeles. (Hey, the science checks out.)

Thunder Levin’s script doesn’t take itself terribly seriously, and Ian Ziering seems to know exactly what sort of movie he’s in. But the budget is too small to create the all-out chaos a movie called Sharknado demands, and most of the movie just kills time between effects sequences. It’s much more fun to talk (or tweet) about Sharknado than it is to actually sit through it, which may prove its undoing as a midnight movie.

That said, it’s still more entertaining than Birdemic: Shock And Terror, so what the hell. Maybe it’ll catch on.

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