Why Do We Like Such Terrible Movies?

Everyone’s a critic: you’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. However, not everyone has taste. We all have at least one terrible movie that we love with a burning passion, for whatever reason, knowing full well that the quality, acting, and mostly likely even budget are fundamentally lacking. “So bad, it’s good,” or SBIG for short, is a commonly used term to describe our love-hate relationships with objectively bad media, more specifically movies. These movies can be divided into three categories: those that are well executed despite silly concepts, those that we as an we audience take too seriously, and those that appear to purposely have both poorly formed concepts and execution. While running though the many movies that I and others deemed to be SBIG, there was a central conflict as well as a uniting theme. Most iconic SBIG movies are so deeply rooted in nostalgia, particularly for the ‘90s and early 2000s, that to critically discuss their quality is akin to heresy. So, with all due respect, what is it that makes a cult classic or a guilty pleasure so lovable?

Is it in storytelling or atmosphere? Does it come from self depreciation and acknowledgment of its own absurdity or from unflinchingly leaning into its own tropes and shortcomings? Does our need to defend them come from a need to justify the movies themselves or ourselves and our connection to them? How susceptible are our perceptions of bad, good, and SBIG movies to hive-minded thinking?

Perhaps the ultimate paradox, as well as the prime example to explore the first iteration of this phenomena, is Shrek–the 2001 Oscar-winning comedy about an ogre rescuing a princess and finding love, by DreamWorks Animation. Its sequel was among one of the highest grossing animated movies in history, but the future of the franchise was doomed by the ravages of overuse, nearly unavoidable in post-modern capitalist society[1], with every successive spin-off and marketing venture becoming worse than the last. Since[2] 2010, Shrek has seen a resurgence in popularity on the internet, earning it a status in meme culture that has thus far protected its overarching cultural relevance. While many memes come and go, fading into obscurity as quickly as they are born in the fast paced, seemingly endless feeds of this new digital age, Shrek has been a mainstay.

Shrek’s creation of a coherent universe through satirically reimagining the classic Disney love story crafts a unique and incredibly meme-able atmosphere. Set to a cheesy synth ‘80s and funky ska-alt-rock soundtrack, Shrek makes it clear that it does not take itself seriously from the get go. Yet, it still sticks to its messages and has a theme: identity. Its subversion of the traditional narrative drips with the irony and meta humor that the internet thrives off of. Navigating the world of Shrek memes is like swimming through jello for those not well versed in the nuances of internet humor; the edited images with large text phrases like “check yourself before you Shrek yourself,” cheering on of hideous merchandise, and devolution into borderline Neo-Dadaism[3] can seem like a foreign language. However, while the absurdism of these memes can turn dark as they mesh with the juxtaposition of taboo, warped humor, there is still a pure love for the franchise in the hearts of many. Many may hope that the phrase, “Shrek is love, shrek is life,” would fade into infamy, but nevertheless the internet seems to propagate its message, though not as literally as the original source material implies.

Shrek shouldn’t work. Shrek was destined to fade away into obscurity. A movie about a funny-looking ogre and his talking donkey side kick going on an adventure should not still have cultural relevance nearly two decades later. Yet, somehow, it does. Shrek is the quintessential SBIG movie that is both objectively bad but still well executed. It has the unique capability of being ruthlessly criticized and mocked while still being loved. It taps into a nostalgia for simpler times and a sense of bitterness simultaneously. When the movie was released, kids and parents loved it alike, and as a result the franchise was shoved down our collective throats until it reached its current status. Perhaps this contradiction lends itself to our ability to compartmentalize our feelings about Shrek.

The question still stands, though, as to why we can criticize Shrek but not other cult classics. Why is Shrek accepted to be SBIG while others such as Mean Girls are sacred? That brings us to the second category of SBIG movies: ones that have managed to transcend the label of SBIG through the dedication of their fanbases. Nearly everyone can admit that Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls, though highly quotable, is a guilty pleasure. Few, on the other hand, will delve into the lackluster nuances that lay behind its bubble-gum pink aesthetic.

It also has a silly premise. It too explores the concept of identity and acceptance in society, though through the lense of an American high school rather than a swamp. Both have a distinct atmosphere and ironic humor. However, the pair splits in regards to our collective reaction to them. Interestingly, the same ills of the 2000s that led to Shrek’s decline fuel the passion for movies like Mean Girls today. The consumerism and materialism of the early 2000s is instead idealized.

While Shrek was solely created to criticize already existing cliches in fairy tales, Mean Girls exists in a space of both awareness of and an inability to escape the tropes of its genre. We all love a good emotional prom speech, but it’s hard to deny that they aren’t overdone. Shrek’s campy atmosphere makes it low hanging fruit for ridicule, but Mean Girls’s over-glossed early 2000s vibe is so nostalgic, and its iconography so idealized, that they seem to wrap around the movie like a kind of criticism-proof blanket.

Perhaps this is where our own identities combine with the subpar media which we choose to affectionately consume. Mean Girls attempts to be relatable for its pre-teen and teenage audience, and on some levels succeeds in doing so through the many layers of exaggerated situational humor. Our generation grew up on depictions of high school through the sub-genre of early 2000s teen movies. We were too young to experience that time for ourselves, so its charms seem much more shiny. The 2000s seem like a distant universe of tabloid magazines, hot pink, and pop music blaring loudly through car radios, at the start of a new millenia, unmarred by the impending financial crisis of 2008. If we were to criticize media such as Mean Girls, we would have to dismantle our own perceptions of an era that we have decided to collectively love.

Maybe it’s a lot more surface level than that sometimes, though. The last subcategory of SBIG were never meant to be good and appear to be actively trying to rub that fact in our faces. Sharknado, made in 2013 by director Anthony C. Ferrante, is quite literally what it sounds like. An oceanic water vortex develops into a tornado, picking up a swarm of great white sharks in the process, which causes thousands of sharks—still fully capable of attacking—to rain from the heavens. In perhaps the most infamous scene from the franchise, a shark flying at an extremely high speed is cut in half with a chainsaw by one of the “D-list” cast members—from the inside. Sharknado is one of the dumbest things ever created, which makes it hard for a lot of people to not root for its continued success. Who wouldn’t want that to keep going just to see what could happen next?

Alternatively, however, who would want to keep that going? A tornado filled with sharks isn’t supposed to spark five sequels; it shouldn’t have even been green lit to begin with. The one-night-only showing of the first Sharknado at Regal Cinemas grossed an abysmal $200,000 from two hundred screenings. It’s not necessarily a movie that people want to see.

The first Sharknado was filmed like a horror movie despite its outlandish premise. However, follow up titles such as Sharknado 5: Global Swarming took a more obviously comedic approach. The final installment The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time openly admits that the Sharknado franchise should not have had such a long run. The thing about train wrecks is that they are hard to look away from, especially when it feels like the audience is in on the joke. Sharknado has an almost interactive element to it, somewhat comparable to Rocky Horror Picture Show. The audience doesn’t sing songs and throw food, but the same ownership of the material—that for Sharknado originates in the joy of mocking it—is there. We know it’s bad, it knows it’s bad, and therefore there is neither expectation nor need to over analyze. This form of SBIG is all about good, stupid fun and not much more.

Other honorable mentions of SBIGs were White Chicks, the Twilight franchise, The Emperor’s New Groove, Rubber, Legally Blonde, the Purge movies, and more. Though all of these movies fulfill different niches and explore different themes, they all embody some aspect of “so bad it’s good.”

 


[1] A more recent occurrence of this is the Minions franchise.

[2] Prior to 2010, and even though out the period in most circles, there was an obvious distaste for Shrek. It can be argued that Shrek memes were born from it. In 2012, a message board dedicated purely to images and discussions about Shrek was created named ShrekChan. Inside this board, Shrek was satirically talked about and humorous images were produced, which sparked the earliest Shrek memes. Many Shrek memes are in fact metamemes, or memes that reference other memes. Jokingly written fanfictions, often explicit in nature, led to the creation of much darker content. Despite this, in 2014 when ShrekChan disbanded the love for Shrek was still paradoxically pure. To understand the internet’s obsession with Shrek, many layers must be peeled back.

[3] The Dadaism art movement began in Europe in the early 20th century as a reaction to the chaos of WWI by challenging the definition of art itself through avant-garde mediums, and rejected the accepted meaning of everything, including words themselves. Neo-Dadaism, which draws from the same principles, was born in the late 20st century, and incorporates the audio and visual. It heavily relies on absurdism. Many forms of memes are considered Neo-Dada, or even Neo-Neo-Data.

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