"Sharknado" is the latest SyFy original movie produced by the infamous direct-to-DVD studio The Asylum. It arrives the same week as Guillermo del Toro's epic sci-fi flick, "Pacific Rim." Appropriate, as the two are cut from the same cloth. One might be a mega-budgeted rockin' sockin' robot epic that has been years in the making and the other might be an on-the-cheap sci-fi thriller about a couple of folks who spend an hour and a half running away from a Sharknado (that's tornado with sharks in it, FYI), but their cores are high concepts born from striking images. Execution becomes everything, and if there's any proof that Hollywood is in desperate need for variety, it's that "Sharknado" is the more enjoyable of the two. Neither are "dumb fun" — the escape route for any spectacle that flounders in its execution — but where "Pacific Rim" dreams big, "Sharknado" dreams ridiculous. And for 80 minutes it's exciting.
Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is grand and often jaw-dropping. The legendary team at Industrial Light & Magic have spent years detailing the towering Jaegers and their beastly foes, the Kaiju, so that when the two duel on IMAX screens across the country, audiences feel the weight, power, and intensity of the larger than life battle. It mostly works. Despite the unique design work and pristine CGI that allows the sci-fi creations to exist in our world, "Pacific Rim" relies on darkness and weather to cast a shadow on the action. We can only see so much. Surrounding the robot-on-monster fighting is a script crowded with half-hearted character work and side plots that raise more questions than answers. It has moments of absolute fun: When a Jaeger finally picks up a oil tanker and smashes it into a Kaiju, knocking the creature into the side of a Hong Kong skyscraper, we're getting a taste of the movie's full potential. But it's fleeting as the other fights are constrained to the ocean. In that way, "Pacific Rim" comes short in fulfilling its promise.
"Sharknado" is on the other end of the spectrum in terms of every production value. A majority of it is shot in the backyards of Los Angelenos, it's got a cast with less clout that Charlie Hunnam (sorry, Tara Reid), and the special effects are recognizably low-rent. Not for one second do you believe that a typhoon is carrying a swarm of sharks through L.A., but the charm of "Sharknado" is its investment in that image. Director Anthony C. Ferrante and screenwriter Thunder Levin saw potential in the "What If?" scenario and they tackle it full force. Time isn't wasted reverse engineering an explanation for why and how its happening (a throwaway line reminds us that it's happened to smaller animals, so why not sharks?) and with cheap special effects, anything is possible. Sending sharks flying through the air in every way imaginable is prioritized over reality.
Roger Corman was the master of cracking a genre movie and pushing it to extremes. There wasn't a concept he couldn't bring to life with the right director and a few thousand bucks. He helped establish major directors with films that, today, would end up on SyFy: Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13, Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha, Peter Bogdanovich's Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women, Jonathan Demme's Angels Hard as They Come, and James Cameron's special effects directing on Battle Beyond the Stars. Corman turned shlock into art by keeping the movies lean and focused.
In another era, "Pacific Rim" would be a Corman picture. Instead, it's trapped in the body of a Hollywood tentpole. The moments of science fiction genius and visceral mayhem suffocate under a bloated movie that strives to keep its vision intact while playing ball with a hero's tale and blockbuster conventions. It's hard not to wonder what del Toro would do or where "Pacific Rim" would go if it was allowed to be 90 minutes of over-the-top Kaiju smashing.
This is where The Asylum deserves more credit. Known for knock-offs, the production company's parallel slate has been comprised of movies like "Sharknado." They hone in on hyper-specific images and exploit them. If they have an After Effects wizard who can make a 3D shark soar through the air to attack a guy, they do it. If that guy can also be wielding a chainsaw so that said shark is cut in two, even better. They're not as rough around the edges as Corman's work from the '70s or Grindhouse cinema's penchant for shock value, but they do understand the rules of a swift piece of entertainment: Continually heighten the action and provoke through imagery.
There's a clear separation between the shot footage and the computer graphics overlay when "Sharknado" pulls back to see all of Los Angeles being consumed by a swirling maelstrom of rain, wind, and hammerheads. But that's why the film exists — to create that composition and for us to recognize that someone had to dream up the absurdity. It's not a far reach from what people love about abstract painting or avant-garde film. "Sharknado" may seem like an obvious, sensational piece of direct-to-DVD entertainment, but someone still had to manifest it. So Ferrante and Levi luxuriate in the damn thing. In "Pacific Rim," there's too much going on for del Toro to prove why the visual of Jaegers vs. Kaijus is so vivid in his mind. We don't get to see his dreams.
"Sharknado" premieres on SyFy tonight at 9PM ET/PT.