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Series Link #5 09.02.08: Jaws
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Frequently when reviewing movies I notice I'm missing sequels here and there from classic series. In line with one of my key film watching beliefs I'll be making a point of tidying up some of my sequel history. The belief in question being that as long as I enjoyed the original I'll watch any sequel made of it. I don't know where this belief came from but it's one that seems to work out for me quite frequently and there are many film series where I have enjoyed multiple sequels based on my love and respect for the initial instalment (Alien, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky etc).
For this fifth column I'm taking a look a series that made its name on a stellar opening chapter…and some less than impressive sequels.
Series Link #5:
How many films?
Lorraine Gary (3 times), Roy Scheider (2 times), Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Dennis Quaid, Michael Caine.
Steven Spielberg, Jeannot Szwarc, Joe Alves, Joseph Sargent.
When I was younger the term "Blockbuster" had already been coined. Now it's a globally recognised term and the name of a chain of DVD rental stores. But the term "blockbuster" originated during the 1970's and the first blockbuster movie was Jaws. It shattered box office records and potential punters would queue around the block to see the film. Hence the block was busted by movie patrons. Steven Spielberg was the golden boy of US cinema when Jaws broke all the records in the book and went on to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET to solidify that reputation. But make no mistake Jaws was the movie that made Spielberg. The original plan was somewhat different though. The mechanical sharks didn't work in the water and the shoot suffered delays and ran over budget. But the delays allowed actor Robert Shaw to famously re-tool his best scene and provide Jaws with more substance. They also got lucky when hiring Richard Dreyfuss who believed he had to take the part because no one would hire him after his dreadful performance in the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He needed to rebuild his reputation before the film was released.
The plot to Jaws, in case you're the only person reading who's never seen one of cinema's most iconic movies, is as follows. The small North-Eastern American holiday resort island of Amity is facing crisis. In the leadup to their money spinning July 4th weekend a shark attacked a swimmer at night and forced Chief of Police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to close the beaches. Outraged the major (Murray Hamilton) convinces Brody that the shark doesn't exist and the beaches open once again…only for the shark to return. In the early stages of Jaws you don't see much of the shark at all. Originally that hadn't been the plan but the new approach creates a real sense of tension. Especially with the addition of John Williams now famous score. As shark fever gets about in Amity the mother of a victim places a $3000 bounty on the shark's head sending every fisherman in town out with buckets of blood and harpoons. This is the point where the other two key characters in Jaws arrive. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) a rich shark expert and Quint (Richard Shaw) a grizzled veteran of WWII who hunts sharks for a living. The trio of central characters take on the burden of getting the shark and head out into open water. After first contact with the shark Brody finally realises what they're up against. "You're going to need a bigger boat". The film's conclusion is only slightly marred by the dodgy looking shark but it's the performances by the actors, not the special effects, that steal the show. In particular Shaw whose USS Indianapolis scene was re-written by himself. There are many iconic scenes in Jaws from the pull focus on Brody as he witnesses the shark for the first time to Quint's fingernails down the blackboard to shut up the town meeting to Chrissie swimming alone at the film's opening. There are moments in Jaws where it looks a touch dated but they're few and far between because Spielberg uses tension the rest of the time. There are a few jump out of the seat moments if you don't know they're coming and suspense on future viewings because you do know they're coming and the characters don't.
Jaws borrows somewhat from the classic Moby Dick but the updating of the story was essential to attract the blockbuster crowd. Every dramatic film set on the water since Jaws has borrowed a little tension from it and every monster picture made since Jaws has been influenced by it (in particular Grizzly, which appeared the following summer and Orca the next). It's the quintessential summer thrill ride and the bar for every blockbuster since. If Star Wars hadn't battered Jaws' box office figures just two years later it might even be held in higher esteem. If you look at box office adjusted for inflation Jaws lies only $2M behind Titanic. The music has become iconic as have the images and Jaws is among the most referenced and parodied films of all time.
BEST BIT – I was tempted to go for something different but there's no beating this…
"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer…"
Jaws 2 (1978)
With the enormous success of Jaws it was almost inevitable that there would be a sequel. Immediately Spielberg withdrew. He wasn't interested in making a sequel to the definitive shark movie. After all, what would be the point? Something he gleefully ignored while making Jurassic Park 2…but I digress. He had other bigger fish to fry and passed. With Spielberg unavailable the job behind the lens went to Jeannot Szwarc (Supergirl/Santa Claus: The Movie). There were early script problems that delayed the shoot and original director John Hancock was fired. Meanwhile star of the first movie Richard Dreyfuss was with Spielberg making Close Encounters of the Third Kind so he was out as well. But Roy Scheider was available and made his return as Chief Martin Brody.
In Jaws 2 a series of apparent freak accidents come to the attention of Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) who suspects a Great White shark is responsible. When he pushes the issue and goes slightly nuts firing his pistol into the ocean he's fired by Major Larry Vaughan (the returning Murray Hamilton). To make matters worse his wife Ellen (also returning Lorraine Gary) works for one of the main tourist companies on the island. So Brody finds himself very much alone until all the island's teens get caught out on the open sea by the same Great White shark. Brody has to go to the rescue.
Jaws 2 isn't a bad film. But it's not Jaws. And ultimately that's the biggest problem it would always suffer with. It lacks Jaws taut pacing and rich characters. It also lacks Jaws riveting tension and terrific score. John Williams returns to score this film but the score is really lightweight compared to Jaws and its only the iconic music from the original that's any good. The inexperienced director can't quite get to grips with the film and it suffers because of that. The characters are too thin. The shark is overly visible. The best thing about Jaws 2 was the tagline, which is one of the best ever written; "just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water". They poke fun at some of the Jaws spinoffs that had come out. In particular Orca where this new Jaws has mauled and killed a Killer Whale. As if to say to those producers; yeah, there's your movie…dead on the beach.
Jaws 2 does have moments where it feels like a Spielberg film, which is probably what they were aiming for; recapturing the glory of Jaws. Unfortunately there aren't enough of them. There are still scares though with the water being treated as permanently suspect. To begin with it's only the audience that doesn't trust it, then Brody and eventually all the characters. They learned what worked on the cheap during Jaws and there is good use of the fin and the shark from directly above and the shark's POV shots. Szwarc makes good use of Spielberg's established tension getting shots and they had the money to make a better looking shark too. The film still feels a little too cliched (the teenage kids in danger) and bright and slow for that matter (at times it feels like a marketing video for sailing). However it is a worthwhile contribution even it was entirely superfluous. The best thing you can say about Jaws 2 is that it isn't a bad film. Sure, it's a level below Spielberg's work but its about as good a sequel as you could have expected without Spielberg or Dreyfuss. Or Shaw.
BEST BIT – Eddie swimming towards his boat and Tina being quickly aware that the shark was coming from the opposite direction and was moving a lot quicker. Will he be able to make it in time?
Jaws 3-D (1983)
When you start stealing plot ideas from Piranha, the crappy 1978 Jaws rip-off, you know your franchise is in trouble. Also this was originally intended to be a spoof but the idea was so bad (aliens in shark costumes) that Steven Spielberg threatened to quit Universal studios if the film was made. None of the actors return from Jaws 2. At least Carl Gottlieb (writer of the first two Jaws films) returns so the script isn't horrendous or anything. But the special, and I use that word in the loosest possible fashion, effects are. They're terrible. The 3-D gimmick is awful. Every now and again some crappy looking effect floats in front of the camera. Bobbing around so everyone can see how shitty it looks. That extends to the shark, which looks so fake and embarrassingly cheap in Jaws 3 that I'm surprised they didn't scrap half the footage. Sometimes it's a real shark in stock footage, sometimes it's done with really weak stop-go animation and sometimes it's just really ropey CGI. The mini-sub is shot in the same fashion, using ropey CGI, and looks so bad the first time I saw it I laughed out loud. I also got a few chuckles from the shark. That's probably not what the studio was aiming for. The director here is Joe Alves, a second unit director on Jaws 2 and production designer on Jaws. He only directed one film. That doesn't surprise me.
Jaws 3 sees Chief Brody's eldest son Mike (now played by Dennis Quaid) working on Sea World; an underwater theme park in Florida. There are a few able supporting actors too with Lou Gossett Jr playing theme park owner Calvin Bouchard and Lea Thompson making her debut as a theme park employee. Sadly neither one of them gets a great deal of screen time or storyline arcs. The film feels half finished and half assed and looks terrible. The plot is highly unoriginal and the reliance on the 3-D gimmick results in the film's worst moments. The 3-D deal was an attempt to take Jaws in an innovative new direction. Unfortunately 3-D techniques in the early 80's left a lot to be desired. Compare the pathetic efforts from back then to the modern IMAX 3-D movies and we're in a different world. Even without the bad gimmick on Jaws 3 it still wouldn't be a good film. The subplots are all over the place; Mike's little brother visits and shows he's still scared of water. Selecting mediocre actor John Putch didn't help matters but any scene with Shawn in is automatically bad. The "bonding" between brothers and between Shawn & Lea Thompson's character are just badly written and poorly delivered. There aren't really characters behind the actors faces. Just weak lines and all this isn't helped by director Alves who only deals with effects usually. Other wacky subplots include relationship difficulties between park employees and thieves who break in to try and steal coral. None of which go anywhere.
The film is so bad that the conclusion is almost welcome and yet it's worse than any other part of the film. The shark charging the control tower's glass front, in "glorious" 3-D, while the cast scream in super slo-mo is one of the worst shots ever committed to film. It's so laughably bad I can't honestly believe any studio boss would watch it and think it was acceptable to release the film. The conclusion where a grenade explodes in the shark's mouth produces the worst 3-D effect of the film, which is saying something, and left me in fits of laughter. How in the fuck did they manage to waste, not spend mind you, $20M on the budget for this film? And why did people go to see this film? It doubled the budget! I was embarrassed the first time I saw Jaws 3 by how bad it was, the second viewing doesn't help it much. It's still laughably bad. It's still a horrible idea and it's still badly executed by a clueless director.
FACTS I learned from Jaws 3;
• Sharks growl. And occasionally snarl. Despite the lack of vocal chords.
• A 35 foot long shark looks deceptively smaller on camera.
• And while we're at it; Great White Sharks really can grow to 35 feet. That's normal.
• Underwater observation towers only require glass that's about 2 millimetres thick. Any more would just be showing off.
• Shark fins give off air bubbles.
• The entire surface of a shark's body is smooth like a baby's bottom and can be stroked and petted without suffering any injury.
• Sharks CAN swim backwards.
Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
And who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? The premise for Jaws 4 is so ridiculous, so utterly stupid that no producer should have touched it with a bargepole. The plot is that the shark (yanno, the one that Chief Brody killed in Jaws) now has a hatred of the Brody family and wants to kill them all as revenge for Brody's actions in Jaws. Yanno, the shark that's dead. That shark. That shark that's dead, wants revenge. Quite how no one spotted this the first time the script was laid out is a mystery. Hey, this shark that's desperate for revenge…didn't he get blown up? Isn't he dead? So we're off to a bad start. And yet Jaws: The Revenge, despite its total nonsensical plot, is still a better film than Jaws 3. Mainly because it's technical effects aren't a complete joke even if it resorts to the same slo-mo shark attack as the one at the end of Jaws 3. The shark in Jaws: The Revenge looks less fake than the Jaws 3 shark and yet more fake than the other Jaws sharks. I suspect this is because it looks like it's made of polystyrene. I'm not really scared of something I could put my fist through with minimal effort.
The cast are about on a par with the dodgy cast for Jaws 3. At least there's the compensation of having Michael Caine on board as degenerate gambler and laid back pilot Hoagie. Lorraine Gary also gets her best scenes of the series as Chief Brody's widow Ellen alongside Caine. Ah yes, poor Chief Brody, survivor of two shark attacks falls victim to an attack of the heart. Sadly, or perhaps not, Dennis Quaid was unable to return as Mike Brody and gets replaced by one of the Bee Gees. Or at least on appearances that's who it is. Some dude with a bad mullet and dodgy beard. On closer inspection it's Lance "The Last Starfighter" Guest. Mitchell Anderson is the other son Shawn and becomes the 4th actor to play him. He's slightly less irritating than John Putch and pulls off a larger range of emotions than wooden before being devoured about 10 minutes into the film. Rounding out the cast is Mario Van Peebles that well known Jamaican actor complete with an accent that involves him dumbing down his English and putting the word "mon" on the end of sentences. It's cringeworthy. Although I did enjoy his wife Louisa (Lynn Whitfield) because she looks a little bit like Lacey Duvall, one of my favourite porn stars.
Jaws: The Revenge struggles to make it up to 80 minutes in terms of run time and has already worn out its welcome by then. Apparently the original script involved a huge subplot involving Hoagie smuggling drugs but that distracted from the shark that everyone bought tickets to see. Caine himself has never seen the movie. And I quote; "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." Ah, so that's what they spent the $23M budget on. This Jaws movie made history as it was the first in the Jaws series to lose money dropping around $3M before doing ok in foreign markets. Ultimately this was the film that sank the series for good. Possibly because it had the sheer gall to include not one but two dream sequences of shark attacks and had a shark so immobile that when it attacks the boat in the Bahamas it looks like its fallen asleep. I'm soooo scared.
BEST BIT – Mario Van Peebles becoming shark food. How'd ya like that, mon?
Jaws is a masterpiece of tension and suspense. It's arguably one of the defining films of cinematic history and certainly was one of the biggest box office hits of all time. The sequels got progressively dafter. After all; how much can you do with a shark? Especially with all the copycat movies that followed suit in the 70's. The great thing about Jaws is that it became a symbol for ‘the' monster. The tension Spielberg used in Jaws was imitated by all the great and not so great monster and horror movies for years afterwards. Michael Myers in Halloween, when he's hiding in the corner behind Laurie? He's the shark in Jaws. We know he's there, lurking in the water, but we can't do anything about it. The T-Rex in Jurassic Park. He's the shark in Jaws. Big, scary and impossible to outrun in his environment. The Terminator is the shark in Jaws. Relentless. Determined. The Predator is the shark from Jaws. Alien is the shark from Jaws. None of them would have been presented the same way without this movie. That's how fucking important it is. The less said about Jaws 3-D and the Revenge the better but Jaws 2 is a passable follow up if only for Roy Scheider's paranoia driven performance. Personally, given the chance to do it again, I'd stick with just watching the original. It's powerful, it's slick and it practically defines the ‘blockbuster' genre. If you've not seen it then stop reading this now and go and buy yourself a copy. Pronto.