Finding Environmental History in … Sharknado?

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The Sharknado franchise, which airs on the Syfy channel, is known for bad CGI, cheesy dialogue, fantastical plot lines, unapologetic product placements, and appearances by C-list actors (Gary Busey, David Hasselhoff, or Fabio as the Pope, anyone?). Oh, and of course, tornadoes with sharks.

So why am I posting about this? Maybe I was dared on Twitter. But you should read on and find out whether this is the academic blog post equivalent of Sharknado – silly and full of fluff.

In this low-budget science fiction disaster offering – with the emphasis decidedly on “fiction” and not “science” – the strategy seems to be to purposefully create a cinematic event that literally “jumped the shark” right off the bat and just kept pushing to see how crazy it could become. That approach has given this made-for-TV spectacle a cult following. The main protagonists are former Beverly Hills 90210 regular Ian Ziering, and American Pie star Tara Reid. The first Sharknado is set in L.A., the second in New York. In the next few movies the action goes inland and around the world – that, however, is no obstacle to shark tornadoes (you’re asking for too much if you expect them to parse whether each seafood-infested wind storm is a tornado, hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone).

Recently, a marathon of Sharknado movies was playing in the leadup to the sixth – and final – installment in the series. I was aware of the Sharknado style, shall we say, but I don’t think I’d ever actually watched it. But, flipping through the channels with a few minutes to kill, I decided I’d check it out.

Lo and behold, I had serendipitous timing. I had stumbled upon Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens, which riffs on Star Wars, at the exact point where they were trying to reverse Niagara Falls (watch the trailer here). Now, as regular readers of The Otter may know, I’m writing a book about Niagara Falls and post about this subject with some frequency – to the point that I kept thinking, do readers really want another post on the famed cataract? What if it involved sharks and tornadoes?

Obviously I answered myself in the affirmative. The Sharknado series has a penchant for featuring – and destroying – famous landmarks: e.g., Stonehenge, the Sphinx in Egypt, Great Wall of China, etc.  And earlier in Sharknado 4 the airborne sharks had taken a destructive course across the US including Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Chicago. So including Niagara Falls made sense, if that can ever be said about these movies.

To be honest, the entire premise of Sharknado defies any type of rational analysis. After all, the cinematic style could perhaps be best described as “tongue-in-cheek” and the basic plot line defies basic physics and logic: tornadoes can go pretty much anywhere,  spewing a seemingly infinite supply of a variety of shark species (and swordfish, for the impaling factor). And in the fourth installment in the franchise we are introduced to cownados, oilnados, lavanados and …. wait for it … a nuclearized sharknado.

I’d further summarize the “plot” of Sharknado 4, but it is mostly just a bunch of events crashing into each other, not unlike the flying sharks. Let’s just say that, seeking to combine a sufficiently large body of water with a special power source to quell the nukenado, they head to Niagara Falls. One character activates the “quantum box”, but that fails. Ian Ziering’s lead character, Fin Shepard, jumps into some sort of mech suit (pictured below).

SHARKNADO: THE 4TH AWAKENS — Pictured: Ian Ziering as Fin Shepard — (Photo by: Tyler Golden/Syfy)

He successfully reverses some – though apparently not all – of Niagara’s waters to denuclearize the ‘nado. While this is going on, Fin’s 5-year old son, Gil, goes over the Falls in a barrel, but is rescued in the rapids by Tara Reid’s character – who, after having been declared dead, has recently returned as some sort of cyborg. For effect, the Eiffel Tower lands upside down at the base of the Horseshoe Falls (incidentally, it is quite apparent that they didn’t shoot on location at Niagara Falls, but instead interspersed some stock footage).



However, Fin’s efforts have only denuclearized the tornado: it is still chockfull of sharks. Despite a valiant stand, he and his family are eaten by sharks. One of those sharks is swallowed by a bigger shark, which is devoured by a bigger shark, which is in turn ingested by a bigger shark, and then a whale chows down on the whole lot (see gif below). All in front of Niagara Falls. But fear not – for the movie’s denouement, Gil slices through the stomach of each successive level of shark/whale, like some sort of macabre matyroshka. For some reason, mini-shark defibrillators are employed to shock Fin back to life. The whole posse is alive and well. And then the movie ends, or just sort of runs out of time – though they make sure to set up the sequel.



So what to make of all of this? It wouldn’t be too hard to characterize the Sharknado movies as representing cultural anxiety about climate change and natural disasters. After all, the next Sharknado, number 5, is subtitled Global Swarming. But I’m wary of over-ascribing some deep meaning here. I did my MA thesis on history in film, and was recently asked to contribute a chapter on hydro-electricity and dams to an edited collection on energy cinemas (I also made some bad student films and almost went to film school instead of doing an MA, and before starting a PhD worked as a writer/researcher for a company subcontracted to the History Channel). Consequently, I’m familiar with film analysis methods and literature, and I’ve seen plenty of scholars overanalyzing movies and ascribing meanings that are a real stretch.

Yes, arthouse films often feature layers upon layers of meaning and symbolism. But that usually isn’t the case with your run-of-the-mill big-budget summer thriller (or, in this case, low-budget made-for-TV schlock). If you look into these popcorn flicks – read an interview with the director, or watch the DVD commentary – it usually becomes apparent that the use of, say, Hoover Dam, was based on pragmatic reasons (e.g., it was big, dramatic, and close to Hollywood) rather than an attempt to say something profound about societal views of energy. Granted, the use of such tropes and symbols often reflects something about cultural beliefs and values. But sometimes we have to realize that a rose is just a rose.

In other words, Sharknado’s creators aren’t exactly trying to teach us any deep environmental lessons. Heck, they aren’t trying to teach anything resembling a lesson – aside of how to make films so bad that they’re kind of good.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t engage in a little bit of analysis … even if just for some light end-of-summer entertainment as we finish (hopefully) months of serious research/writing and head back to the classroom. What makes this portrayal of Niagara Falls effective as a plot device in the context of this film? For starters, it is a famous natural landmark that would be easily recognized by the audience, as a symbol of both natural and energetic power, as shorthand for danger and drama.

Built-up flank of Horseshoe Falls at Goat Island

Thus, Sharknado reflects or reifies common conceptions and stereotypes about Niagara Falls. But, in doing so, the screenwriter unwittingly intimates that the manipulation of Niagara’s water regime is so outlandish that it is appropriate fodder for this film franchise. This is where my research comes in.

In fact, Niagara Falls has been heavily replumbed. This process had started in the late nineteenth century, and progressed throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Binational studies and environmental diplomacy resulted in the 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty. The treaty authorized remedial works that physically reconfigured Niagara Falls and the Niagara River in order to divert water while masking the scenic effect of lower flow volumes – e.g., at both flanks, the lip of the Horseshoe Falls was shrunk by 355 feet, and the middle section of the brink was carved out. A control dam was installed just upriver from the Falls. As a result, during daylight tourist hours, half of the Niagara River’s water does not go over the falls but is sent via massive tunnels to hydroelectric generating stations downstream. At nighttime, and from late fall until early spring, three-quarters of the water is abstracted for hydropower production. In the 1960s, engineers looked at also giving the American Falls a facelift, which included turning them off in 1969.

Stealing away the majority of the water that was meant to go over Niagara Falls, and then terraforming the waterfall to hide the impact and ostensibly keep it aesthetically pleasing for the tourist industry, strikes me as almost as wacky as what takes place at the Falls in Sharknado. And the filmmakers seem to agree. By using Niagara Falls, they’ve accidentally given me fodder to make a point: people aren’t aware that this natural wonder is, in many ways, quite unnatural.

My admonitions about not taking nonserious things too seriously aside, given that the Sharknado movies center around natural disasters, of sorts, and repeatedly use famous landmarks as tropes, they are probably ripe for deconstruction by other environmental historians. I’m not suggesting that an edited volume on the environmental history of Sharknado is in the offing, or that Sharknado has shaped a generation’s view of the environmental past; but surely the wide-ranging nature of these films has touched on some other subjects studied by environmental historians out there. If so, let us know in the comment section – or maybe there is even enough material for a blog series on Sharknado?

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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