Swimming through the “Jaws” saga


Just when you thought there was nothing new to learn about Jaws, The Bio Channel brings forth a new documentary that takes a deeper look at the movie that many say created the summer blockbuster as we know it. Just in time for the film’s 35th anniversary, Jaws: The Inside Story premieres tonight and features new interviews many of the cast and crew, including director Steven Spielberg and star Richard Dreyfuss.

Color me excited. I wasn’t old enough to catch Jaws in the theater, but I knew that it scared my parents, and that was good enough for me. Then after I saw it for myself, I was among those who eyed the open water with a bit more suspicion. Still, as exhaustive as the two-hour special promises to be, it’s doubtful that much time, if any, will be spent on what came after Jaws — namely Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge. But hey, since we’re in a retrospective mood here, I took it upon myself to revisit each of the movies to see how they held up all these years later. Watching with fresh eyes, would I still jump at Sheriff Brody’s first encounter with Bruce? Would the 3-D in the third movie really look that bad? Could The Revenge be as awful as I remember it? Dive in and find out.

Jaws (1975) — Everybody Into The Bigger Boat!

jaws_11One of the byproducts of a movie becoming a classic is that it is imitated so often that it loses its power to thrill. It becomes something to be admired more than enjoyed. In my own experience, the example that jumps out is Psycho. Having grown up in the heyday of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal chiller was too far removed from my sensibilities to actually scare me, but even my TV-rotted brain could tell it was a better movie than Friday the 13th Part VI. Which brings us to the point, how does Jaws hold up?

Beautifully, I’m happy to say. None of the weak retreads and rip-offs (see below for some prime examples) ever got what really made Jaws so great. It wasn’t the shark, which was famously not very reliable during shooting, or even the fact that it is rarely shown that creates such suspense. It’s the human beings, who are so real and so believable, that you can’t help but become involved in their plight — and when you put yourself in someone’s shoes, their fear becomes your fear. When Chief Brody pops up after seeing the shark up close, that’s exactly what everyone watching does. It’s not all that different from the documentary-like approach favored in earlier films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — as outlandish as the premise was in each of those films, the filmmaking approach was one of portraying authenticity. These were normal people, in normal situations, who were dealing with something  incredible shaking up their lives. It’s a description so many thrillers go for, but so few achieve.

Think of the most memorable moments from Jaws: Quint raking his fingernails on the chalkboard; the U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue; the impromptu singalong aboard the Orca; the mother of the dead boy slapping Chief Brody; the mayor who takes denial to a new level; Brody’s young son imitating him at the dinner table; Hooper’s late-night autopsy of the shark; and, my personal favorite, Hooper and Brody unable to hold back a smile of admiration for the beast as it races away from them on the high seas. How many of these have to do with the shark eating people?

There’s so much more going on to keep you entertained. I had forgotten that much is made of Chief Brody being a native New Yorker, and the permanent sense of separation that gives him from the Amity folk. Then of course there is Hooper vs. Quint, which is a microcosm of the old world vs. the new. They don’t understand each other, but there’s a grudging respect that allows them to come together to hunt the shark. They’re both Ahab, but Quint feels victory can come only from a one-on-one conquering of his prey, while Hooper seeks to take knowledge from it. Spielberg fits all of this in seamlessly, in the process improving greatly on Peter Benchley’s novel, which veered into soap opera territory a little too often (e.g. the Hooper-Mrs. Brody affair), and making what Time magazine called in 1975 an “efficient entertainment machine.” It would be his first of many.

Speaking of efficiency, you also get to enjoy John Williams’ unforgettable — and unbelievably simple — musical score. Really, has anyone ever done so much with just two notes?

Jaws 2 (1978) — The Shark As Slasher

The biggest contribution Jaws 2 ever made to the world was delivered well before it hit theaters. The previews and posters hooked audiences with the irresistible line, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …” Sadly, that’s as good as it gets with this rehash that, by keeping Scheider and the same grainy film stock, succeeds only in reminding you that you’re not watching the original. What we’re left with is more or less a formless collection of scenes that come across as stuff Spielberg wisely left on the cutting room floor. Of course, Spielberg didn’t come anywhere near this thing. Instead, the studio brought in journeyman director Jeannot Szwarc, whose previous experience had mainly consisted of kicking around TV, and since then he has gone on to helm notorious flops like Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie before heading back to TV, where he’s still working today.

While it’s nice to have Scheider back, his job is to basically deliver the “how-can-the-same-s@#%-happen-to-the-same-guy-twice” lines, along with several wink-wink references to the original (“I have a little experience with sharks.”). He goes through the identical motions he did before, pissing off the same bottom-line bureaucrats (Nice to see you again, Murray Hamilton!), who apparently learned nothing from their previous brush with the Great White. But he’s by far the best thing the movie has going for it, and yet he’s off-screen for several agonizing stretches to make way for a cast of interchangeable teenagers who really, really like to go sailing. It’s as though the filmmakers saw the prologue to the original Jaws, where the future shark-bait girl carouses around the campfire with her boozy friends before taking her final dip, and said, “Yeah, more of that!”

As someone who grew up on a steady diet of slasher movies in the ’80s, it also struck me that Jaws 2 might just have inadvertently helped set the template for the Freddys and Jasons that came after (It preceded the original Halloween by a good four months). If 1974 saw the true origin of the slasher species with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, then Jaws 2 is what it looks like grafted onto the summer blockbuster template. It replaces all those scenes where stupid teenagers run around empty spaces and say, “Is anybody there? … This isn’t funny” with endless footage of stupid teenagers sailing and flirting. It doesn’t help that the acting is amateurish at best, although I did enjoy seeing a young Keith Gordon (Back to School, Christine) in his first role. Even some of the types fit what you find in later slasher movies: the hunky stud, the prissy girls, the troublemaking little brother, the curly-haired weirdo with the Raglan Tee … they’re all there. They also seem to be acting in a completely different movie from Scheider and the other grown-ups. The shark plays like a boogeyman killer in this one more than just the monstrous force of nature it was in the original. Like, it’s a shark named Jaws instead of the terrifying idea of jaws crushing you to death. It spends most of the movie with a nasty scar and burn marks from an early encounter in which a ship explodes, and it leaps out of the water with alarming regularity. It even attacks a helicopter. That’s right, a helicopter.

Notice I haven’t said much in the way of plot description. My bad. It goes something like this: Sheriff Brody sees another shark in Amity, has to convince everyone it’s real, then go kill it. Simple as that. Shouldn’t have been too hard to make it work, but the pacing — at nearly two hours — is absolutely brutal. While not seeing the shark much in the original made for great suspense, here it’s just an annoying tease. The fish really felt like a character before, but by now has been reduced to a thing. Having Hooper around would have helped, but his absence is explained away with a quick, “He’s in Antarctica” line. John Williams, surprisingly enough, does contribute the music, but most of it is scene-setting for all those otherwise dull patches with the teens out on boats. Given the benefit of future knowledge, I can also say it sounds far more suited (and similar) to the lighter parts of an Indiana Jones movie than to Jaws.

Brody again must go out to vanquish the shark, and succeeds (this time by getting it to chew on an underwater power cable), even having time to get in a snappy farewell line. Instead of “Smile, you son of a—” he says, “Say ahhh!” It’s only the last example of how Szwarc & Co. never miss an opportunity to rip off — er, pay homage to the original. Which is really all they set out to do anyway.

Jaws 3-D (1983)  — Jumping The … Well, You Know

It might have been encouraging to hear that for the third Jaws, Universal hired a first-time director. Were they taking a chance on a new, young auteur who might become the next Spielberg? Nope. They picked the guy who built the shark in the first two movies. It’s the only movie Joe Alves would ever direct, and he packed enough goofiness into it for a whole career.

Tied only marginally to the first two films — Dennis Quaid and John Putch play supposed grown-up versions of the Brody sons — this time the shark attacks the fun-loving staff at Sea World. Bess Armstrong plays Quaid’s whale-and-dolphin trainer girlfriend, and stars alongside a young Lea Thompson (whose perky smile belies the fact that in a few short years she would star in Howard the Duck) and Louis Gossett Jr. (in his first movie after winning an Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman, making it the most depressing Oscar follow-up until Anthony Hopkins went from The Silence of the Lambs to Freejack). But of course the real star is the 3-D. Nearly every attack ends with a severed head or other body part floating conspicuously toward the viewer, amid an insane amount of blood gushing about.

Jaws 3 (nee Jaws 3-D) gets a lot of crap for cheapening the legacy of a great movie, but from the outset there is absolutely no attempt to pretend this was meant to be anything other than a fun night out at the movies. The obligatory Brody connection aside, the original is but a fond memory.  The credits even remind us that this installment is merely “suggested by” the Peter Benchley novel — and on that account, it’s not a complete failure. Set free from the delusions of grandeur that plagued the first sequel, this is a fast-paced and (most importantly) fun picture that admittedly benefits from the warm, fuzzy perspective of nostalgia. The 3-D is so sketchy, so … ’80s, that you can’t help but smile. I mean, Manimal is in it!

I’ll cop to some personal bias here, too. When I was a kid, this thing was on constant rotation on HBO, and I watched it far too many times. Catching up with it all these years later, it was easy to see the cheese, and a bit of a letdown to see that not even Quaid gets through the movie without having delivered a wretched performance. At least he’s not stuck with poor Bess Armstrong’s job of selling the line, “Our shark didn’t kill Overman. Its mother did.” That said, Jaws 3 did give the world that scene where a half-eaten Manimal is sticking out of the shark’s mouth conveniently holding an underwater grenade for the heroes to activate and save the day. There was furious debate among some of my fellow elementary-school friends at the time as to whether Manimal was still alive, and doing his part to help kill the fish, or if he was merely a sure-handed corpse. I was right then, and I’m right now. Once Jaws does go boom, all that’s left of her are the bony jaws that float into the third dimension. This movie also represents the first time I heard the term “bumper boats.” So there’s that.

Coupla other things that had nothing to do with the movie kept me entertained: 1) Noticing the similarities between the Undersea Kingdom attraction in this movie and the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance in Back to the Future. Both were quite life-altering for Lea Thompson. 2) Wondering if Quaid and Gossett talked much about their Jaws 3-D experience two years later while making Enemy Mine.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987) — This Time, It’s Ridiculous

Man, these movies got stupider and stupider, but our collection of memorable taglines would be much poorer without them. Jaws 2 had “Just when you thought it was safe …” and Jaws: The Revenge gave us “This time, it’s personal.” Plus, there’s that fun Jaws 19 joke in Back to the Future Part II.

Other than that, this is pretty dreadful stuff, and the most blatant attempt yet to feed off the increasingly rotting corpse of the original. That doesn’t include taking into account anything that happened in Jaws 3, apparently, as we’re now back in Amity and the events at Sea World are never mentioned. The younger Brody, Sean, has followed his dad’s footsteps and become chief. And in case you were afraid they wouldn’t pay proper homage to Roy Scheider, his portrait is given prominent space in the office. And Mrs. Brody (Lorraine Gary) has several flashbacks — sometimes to events where she wasn’t even present! — that show Scheider’s past heroics in an appropriately obeisant sepia tone. He died of a heart attack, but as we find out shortly, Mrs. Brody believed it was galeophobia that did him in. Because, you know, he’d killed two Great White sharks and lived in constant fear that a third would come for him. Too bad he didn’t have the option of, say, moving to Kansas or something.

Unfortunately, for Sean, the shark isn’t done with the Brody family. As he’s clearing out a piece of driftwood, the new Jaws leaps up and chomps his arm off. Then it drags him down into the water and finishes the job. Mrs. Brody is convinced it was a targeted attack, retribution for the previous movies. Which leaves one to wonder whether the shark came to Amity only after disposing of all those other shark killers, like dolphins and octopi. But the other Brody son, played by The Last Starfighter‘s Lance Guest, invites his mom down to the Bahamas to take her mind off things. She’s not able to relax much, though, since she thinks Michael’s job as a marine biologist puts him in constant risk.

She’s proven right when a Great White makes its way down to the tropics. And she also seems to have a psychic connection to the fish, as she stops dead in her tracks while Michael first encounters the shark at sea. From there, the nonsense continues, and the only relief to be had is seeing if you can keep a straight face as Mario Van Peebles attempts a Jamaican accent, and trying not to wince through Michael Caine’s seduction of Lorraine Gary. Caine, who never denied he took the role of Hoagie for a free trip to the Bahamas, is clearly phoning it in, although his mood might have been darkened on the day he had to miss accepting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters.

Eventually, Mrs. Brody commandeers a small boat and sails out to the ocean in an attempt to sacrifice herself to the shark so that it will finally leave her family alone. But she’s followed by our rugged heroes, and together they battle the big fish as it roars at them — seriously, the shark freaking roars at them. Still, the roaring shark (which would be a great name for a band, BTW) is no match for Mrs. Brody, who spears it with the front of the boat, which somehow causes it to explode. … OK, that’s kind of awesome.

This trek out to the open water apparently does wonders for Mrs. Brody, who is as carefree as can be in the epilogue, jaunting off with her new love, Hoagie, for parts unknown. She must believe she killed the last vengeful shark in the entire world. Must be nice to be so secure in that knowledge. Or maybe, like the rest of us, she’s just pleased the whole damn thing is finally over, and that we can now get back to remembering what a great movie Jaws was, and not all the horrible sequels that came after. I also feel compelled to point out that Lorraine Gary never worked again after this travesty. In the end, I guess the shark did get her.

Photo: Jaws: Credit: Edith Blake