An Analysis – So Bad It’s Awesome
Upon the premiere of the SyFy network’s made-for-television movie Sharknado (2013), one had to wonder how it is that a film like that built up so much buzz. To some extent, social media and the internet would be the answer to that question, and like the similarly marketed and similarly silly-titled Snakes on a Plane (2006), we are living in a world where a film in and of itself—or at least the idea behind its conceptual existence—can become a meme, even if people aren’t actually all that interested in really seeing it. Or maybe they are.
The film industry has changed. Nobody is arguing that. What can be argued is whether these recent changes in budgets, commercial franchizability, and the expansion of the foreign market have changed the industry for the better or for the worse. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, and producer Lynda Obst—in her new “tell all” memoir Sleepless in Hollywood—have all been chanting the same chant: the industry is pushing for bigger movies that appeal to broader audiences, that cost more to make and even more to market—pushing all mid-level, character-based films to the over-populated, niche divisions. So what does all that mean in terms of a shark-laden tornado?
Hollywood is now in the business of spectacle. 3D, 4k, IMAX, and hi-def are the new industry buzzwords. Why do we go to movies anymore? It’s not for good stories, memorable acting, or even an emotional experience. We now go to movies simply to see what sequels are going to be announced after the credits.
I don’t mean to beat up on summer superhero flicks too much. I am and will always be a geek. I grew up with superheroes and science fiction, and like many in my generation, I spent much of my childhood waiting for special effects to effectively bring these obsessions to the screen. Now, after decades of clamoring, the manna has been raining for nearly twelve straight years, and it looks as though even the geeks are starting to get hungry for some quail.
The problem isn’t that all of these movies suck. Many of them are perfectly adequate. The problem is that all of these movies are awesome. Too awesome. The exact same kind of awesome…over and over and over again. When everything is awesome, and when everything is on the same level of eye-shattering, ear-bleeding, camera-twirling, high-octane sugar-rush, then suddenly everything seems boring. And when something is even just a hair below awesome, the disappointment becomes even more substantial.
Back in 1993, when Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) were the only two movies you could think of that were using computer graphics, it was something unique and special and exciting. These days, everything uses CGI. Video games, commercials, advertisements, and entire films, from the first frame to the last, are an effect shot. It’s not exciting anymore. It’s standard. So what becomes unique and exciting when everything is mind-blowingly awesome? Sharknado—or at least the sensibility it represents.
With the rise of the current “cinema of excess,” so has risen the interest in the ironic, so-bad-it’s-good genre. Classic camp, such as Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Reefer Madness (1936), are still finding new audiences—even without the help of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the now-cancelled comedy television program that reintroduced these films to Gen-X. Because of the internet and free streaming sites like Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime, these B-movie gems of the past are getting a new day in court by a whole new generation, and this time without any editorializing from snickering robots.
Along with the usual exploitation standards, we also have a newer crop of so-bad-it’s-good cult sensations like Showgirls (1995), Troll 2 (1990), and Tommy Wiseau’s camp masterpiece The Room (2003).
When I discovered The Room through the IMDb message boards and experienced its inane stupidity for myself, I did what everybody who has seen it feels like they’re compelled to do and immediately shared it with everyone I knew. Since its initial microscopic release, this film has become a full-fledged water cooler talking point, filling weekly midnight shows all over the US. People don’t just love to hate The Room, they genuinely love it. They love it for its soft-core-porn production quality, its wildly bad dialogue, and especially because of the alien-like lead performance from Wiseau himself. In its world, for its pop culture purpose, The Room is a perfect film.
You could argue that the reason good has become the new bad and that bad has become the new good is because current generations have become terminally cynical and that millennials can only get off by making fun of things. That’s a point of view worth expressing, but I believe that if you investigate these attitudes deeper, you will find that there is true and sincere glee that comes with finding a new bad movie and sharing it with your friends. It’s a type of jubilee that used to exist in a distant time, when people were sincerely excited by mainstream cinema.
Young people don’t get together with beer and pizza to watch The Avengers (2012) or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). Once they’ve seen those movies in the theater and bought the Blu-ray, the marketing campaigns have run their course, and those experiences quickly expire. These days, if people can peel themselves from their smartphones long enough, they are far more likely to crowd together in a darkened living room to watch a well-meaning mess like Sharktopus (2010) or The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1986). Yes, they may laugh at them, mock them, or even express outright self-righteousness towards these kinds of flicks, but they’re not bored, and, more importantly, they’re actively engaged with the film, rather than passively entertained by movies that beat their senses into submission with CGI disaster-porn.
I suppose it needs to be said that plenty of campy cult-classics were made by major studios with major budgets, with the intentions of making major bucks….and then they didn’t. Super Mario Bros (1993), Howard the Duck (1990), and Xanadu (1980) were all designed by committee just as cynically as the aforementioned blockbusters of today. However, these films were all made before the wide use of CGI and hi-def exhibition, and part of the reason they failed in their time was because they took peculiar risks and were too idiosyncratic for their intended audiences. Only after some distance were these movies later reexamined for their unintentional entertainment value—a quality that can’t be created, but just happens. In the near future, I suspect even some massively successful Hollywood offerings like Space Jam (1996) and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) will date awkwardly and ripen for the next generation of camp-film enthusiasts. Mark. My. Words.
So why do we like these stupid things? It’s actually simple. So-bad-they’re-good movies are fun to watch, and they have personality. That’s it.
When the filmmakers are so inept and the budgets are so small, or the producers and writers are so insane, these films can’t help but be (something like) of a piece. Also, unlike today’s homogenized Hollywood genre machine, these films are specific. They’re specific of the year they were made, specific to the directors’ abilities, and specific to their regional origins. Blockbusters that are made for 300 million dollars and created with the intentions to play to the ever-expanding Chinese market are not allowed to be specific about anything. They have to be simple, recognizable, and safe, and unless there’s no other way around it, they have to be a sequel.
I will admit that the culture I’m speaking for is not the dominant culture at large. But it is certainly one that’s growing. Need proof? Sharknado, a film that was premiered on and made for television, was released on 200 screens, for one midnight showing, by a national mall-theater chain. And surprisingly, it actually did okay, managing to sell out theaters in Seattle, Boston, and New York.
Whether people know it or not, they are starved for motion pictures that feel like they were made by human beings, for human beings. If the only way we can make that distinction anymore is through a film’s mistakes, then maybe some of us would rather enjoy a series of homegrown flaws than lament a line of factory-sealed, market-tested awesomeness.