A look at the diminishing returns of the troubled Jaws sequels
Here’s a fun little challenge going out to horror fandom: Name the film franchise whose subsequent sequels most besmirch a classic opening entry? The tarnished legacy of Hellraiser might pop instantly to mind, but remember that the second installment Hellbound was actually pretty darn good. The Exorcist has to be up there, though the studio-compromised third film Legion does boast a sizeable cult following of its own.
For your humble columnist’s money, Jaws is the classic film that sired the most useless string of official sequels, along with a dozen more illegitimate imitators. The Jaws sequels made their debuts on Blu-ray from Universal a few months ago, along with the cheaper option of a DVD collection containing Jaws 2, Jaws 3 and the notorious Jaws: The Revenge. So is the DVD collection worth the cash, or are the Jaws sequels really as soggy as their reputation suggests?
Jaws 2 (1978) finds swimmers once again disappearing in the waters off of the idyllic Amity island, and once again Chief Brody (Roy Schieder) has to convince Amity’s venal, dopey town council that there is indeed another shark on the prowl. Unbeknownst to Brody, his sons Mike and Sean have snuck off with a sort of local teen sailing regatta, and the boys are headed directly into the hunting ground staked out by Amity’s newest toothy problem.
Jaws 2 is the movie that the first one probably would have ended up being without Peter Benchley’s bestselling source novel and a director who would soon prove to be modern cinema’s greatest populist craftsman guiding it along. Spielberg and Benchley (whose story pitch for the sequel was soundly rejected by the producers) are absent for part two, along with the adult tone, warm humor, and memorable dialogue of the first. Instead, director Jeannot Szwarc came on the movie as a last-minute replacement and had the thankless task of following up a modern classic. Robert Shaw’s salty scallywag Quint is (understandably) out of the picture; Richard Dreyfuss’s nebbish appeal as Matt Hooper is sorely missed, as is the wonderful chemistry shared between the three leads. It’s replaced by Brody shouting at a gaggle of disobedient teens, the shift in demographic focus evidence that the studio wanted more of a kids’ movie this round.
Right from the very first frames of Jaws 2, with an underwater sequence that ostensibly takes place in Amity’s New England waters and yet is filled with coral reefs and tropical fish, it’s obvious that that the I.Q. has dropped considerably from that displayed by the first film. The usual amped-up sequel foolishness is the result, such as the shark having half its face scarred like an aquatic Freddy Krueger, or the shark gnawing into the pontoons of a floating helicopter and sinking it, or Amity’s mayor (Murray Hamilton) scoffing theatrically at the notion of a shark infesting the area despite being only a few years removed from the events of the first film. Weak plotting aside, the strength of Jaws 2 is in Szwarc’s action sequences, which are dynamic, original, and genuinely thrilling—the shot of the shark sliding gape-mouthed along the gunwale of a tiny boat while a teen gets yanked up to safety just in time is still a heart-stopper. Shame there wasn’t a fresh story or memorable characters to accompany those sequences.
The Jaws 2 disc included in the set is the same edition that was released a few years back (Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge are crammed together on the second disc in the set and come with zero features, unless you’re the type of charitable soul who’d call subtitles an extra). The Jaws 2 disc is loaded with bonuses, including a somewhat sheepish forty-five minute long documentary on the slapdash rush to get part two into production, and then much complaining from crew and cast about the difficulty of shooting on open water ensues. There are also a few brief standalone featurettes, including interviews with minor cast member Keith Gordon (star of Christine and now an acclaimed director in his own right) and composer John Williams on revisiting his famous score.
Mike Brody gets a few years to relax, and is then thrown back up against yet another marauding Great White in Jaws 3 (1983) Mike is now grown and played by Dennis Quaid, who appears alongside a roster of other 1980’s-specific screen notables like Lea (Back to the Future) Thompson and Lou (Iron Eagle) Gossett Jr. Mike apparently overcame the trauma of the shark attacks that so fraught his youth, and has now become a marine engineer working for a Sea World theme park. Sea World is set to open a man-made lagoon attraction, just as a hungry interloper manages to sneak in to the lagoon basin by the skin of its dorsal fin. Here, the formula is similar to the first two films, only now minus the action sequences, tension, or excitement. To be fair, JAWS 3 was meant as a theatrical 3-D spectacle, a film never intended to be judged on a small 2-D screen at home. Nevertheless, the lengthy footage of floating body parts (fish and human), spurting syringes and slo-mo waterskiing sequences that were no doubt dazzling and engrossing in polarized 3D are a monumental test of patience when endured in the home video format. It doesn’t help that the film surrounding those 3-D bits is the worst in the series (yes, worse than Revenge): it’s a sluggish relationship drama and a feature-length commercial for Sea World amusement parks, with some mild shark action sprinkled in here and there. If Jaws were aimed at adults and Jaws 2 at teens, Jaws 3 is one for the tykes—danger and violence are sacrificed in the name of a cheery tone and cute dolphin tricks. (There is one glorious exception of a waterlogged corpse floating into the view of some shocked parkgoers). Joe Alves, who acted as Production Designer on the first two films here takes the directorial reigns, and while he worked with a screenplay that bore contributions from the great Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, the result is a bright, silly, and lifeless film. Matte effects involving a Sea World submersible would make even the most ardent practical effects booster long for CGI to hurry up and become invented, while the actual shark footage is hilariously undercranked to the point that the Great White shark jerks around spasmodically like a squirrel on espresso. Composer Alan Parker does a decent enough cover version of John Williams’ immortal theme music, and seeing the cast together is a wonderful dose of nostalgia for children of the ‘80’s, but other than that, Jaws 3 is an absolute minnow. Let’s not even mention the diver left hanging inside the shark’s mouth for a portion of the film… Don’t sharks have a gag reflex?
Lastly, franchise-killer Jaws: The Revenge (1987). After her youngest son Sean is plucked from his boat and eaten by, yes, a Great White shark, widow Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) becomes convinced that the particular shark is stalking her and her family. Mike Brody, now played by Lance (Halloween 2) Guest and whose engineering gig apparently didn’t work out as he’s now a biologist studying conch shells in the Bahamas, brings his distraught mother down to his tropical home for a vacation. The Brody family reunion is cut short as the shark has somehow followed them down to the islands and is determined to fulfill the ‘revenge’ mentioned in the title.
The over-serious Revenge gets the lion’s share of fan derision toward the Jaws series, and it’s pretty well warranted. The infamous Revenge signifiers will still be either hilarious or painful to sit through: a shark with no vocal cords roaring like a lion when breaching, a dispiritingly slumming Michael Caine sweating his way through scenes, the shark one-upping the helicopter attack of part two by tearing into a small commuter airplane, the wonky and sporadic Bahamian accent of Mario Van Peebles. Worse than any of these sins is veteran director Joseph (Nightmares) Sargent repeating the mistake of the third film, mainly concentrating on boring and cost effective relationship drama over shark action. Both Jaws 3 and Revenge should have either gone dark or gone campy, but instead they try to drive straight down the double yellow. More recent derivatives like Deep Blu Seas or Shark Knight are weightless and silly, but they deliver sharks in abundance and dispense with the first dates and yakking.
The mechanical shark effects continually get worse in the Jaws series, and Revenge’s shark, both in its motion and in its skin texture, is unforgivably phony—sad that the “Bruce” rig from more than ten years prior was a far better sell than Revenge’s mottled blob of rubber. If the shark looks this atrocious in standard def, it’s a great deterrent for splurging on the blu-rays of these movies. Really, the money for this DVD set would be better spent on a single disc of part two, though watching all the sequels in a row leads the viewer to ponder an interesting question:What exactly is Jaws, anyway? Of course it refers to the shark, but is it supposed to be the same shark throughout the series? Is it returning again and again after meeting a definitive end, like some sort of slasher villain? Are the sharks somehow related and holding onto a familial grudge, as is alluded by the appearance of the mother and child sharks of part three? Much has been made of the shark in Revenge’s ability to track the remainder of clan Brody thousands of miles away, but how exactly was the shark able to attack Sean and his boat during a December in New England, when the extreme cold temperature of the Atlantic ocean water would render a shark catatonic? Throw in the propensity for the shark to easily bite through metal and wood, or to ram through water-tight Plexiglas, and it becomes obvious that there must be some sort of supernatural angle to JAWS. Well, it’s that or lazy screenwriting.
The Jaws sequels have aged poorly and don’t improve on repeat viewing. Skip the Jaws: 3-Movie Collection DVD set, if for no other reason than it neglects to mention the best Jaws sequel that never was—namely Jaws 19, as teased in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. “Shark still looks fake,” proclaims Marty McFly after encountering a holographic iteration of the shark; he may have been correct, but at least the laugh brought about by the shark’s appearance that time was intentional.