It’s been a long time coming but this month sees the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws on Blu-ray, so we here at Eat Sleep Live Film thought it would be a good time to take to the high seas and have a trawl through all four films in the series – for better or for worse…
Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1975)
Adapted from Peter Benchley’s 1973 novel of the same name, Jaws is commonly credited with being the first proper summer blockbuster and rightly so. A budget of around $9,000,000 brought back returns of approximately $450, 000, 000 and put the film at the top of highest earners for a while, and nearly forty years later the name Jaws is used as a byword for general terror around water, the use of the first two notes of its iconic score instantly recognisable by generations of movie fans.
Set in the summer resort of Amity Island the film really centres on Police Chief Martin Brody, a New Yorker who has moved to the island with his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and his two young sons Michael (Chris Rebello) and Sean (Jay Mello). Initially getting frustrated having to deal with the everyday goings on within a fairly close-knit community, Brody is called into action around the 4th of July weekend when parts of a swimmer’s body are washed up on the beach. Putting the incident down to a shark attack Brody attempts to close the beaches until he can confirm what’s going on, but he soon comes up against hostile public opinion and the wrath of Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who insists that the beaches stay open.
After a young boy is killed by the shark in front of a packed beach and two more local people are killed, Martin confronts Vaughn and forces him to sign a contract to pay local shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to catch and kill the fish and, along with oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Brody and Quint take to the seas in Quint’s boat the Orca to find the menace that’s staked a claim in Amity’s waters.
Using Benchley’s novel as a template, Steven Spielberg – then only 28 years old and a relative newcomer – wisely scrapped a lot of the novel’s meandering storylines; gone was the romance between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper – a source of Chief Brody’s insecurities aboard the boat that was addressed in another way in the film – and the sub-plot about Mayor Vaughn’s ties with the mob and his real reasons for wanting to keep the beaches open. Stripping away the excess, the screenplay – written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (who appeared in the film) – sticks closely to the adventure side of the story after establishing its main characters and their motivations. Obviously Brody has the most interesting character arc of all – he lives on an island and hates the sea, he faces mild hostility from the locals because he’s not a born-and-bred islander, he’s the least experienced of the three men on the Orca, he doesn’t have the collection of battle scars that Quint and Hooper have and bond over, his authority as a police officer is undermined by Quint who sees it as his boat, his rules, etc. – and Quint has his share of troubles also, being the Ahab of the story, but the rest of the film keeps everything else to a minimum as we – the audience – climb aboard the Orca and join the three men in their quest.
To be honest, there isn’t any more critique that could be added about this film that hasn’t been written elsewhere. It still features regularly in pretty much all of those wonderful Greatest Ever Movies lists that get scattered around, and as far as film making goes it is pretty much damn near perfect. The only real criticism that you could throw at it is the look of the shark itself, which has always been laughably false but thanks to the new HD print of the film it looks even more rubbery than in the hazy VHS days. But it doesn’t really matter as due to some headache-inducing technical failures, Spielberg kept the shark’s appearances to a minimum and making the sheer terror occur from the impending threat of seeing the fish, meaning that you didn’t really notice the model’s shortcomings due to being petrified.
There are also some who believe Roy Scheider’s performance to be slightly wooden, especially when compared to the relatively quirky and charismatic turns from Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. In truth, Scheider’s performance is very much in keeping with the character of Chief Brody as he is written; a man who has the power of the law but is seemingly ineffective when pitted against the other people involved in the whole situation. It’s quite telling that it was Roy Scheider who came up with the often quoted line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
It must be said that after nearly forty years Jaws still has the ability to remain suspenseful, even if you’ve seen it dozens of times. For those of us of a certain age it will forever be a film intrinsically linked to our childhoods and a reminder of an age of renting VHS tapes and the like. For others it could be the first time they’re seeing it and getting to experience the many joys within. Whatever your history with the film it is definitely worth getting the new Blu-ray edition, for not only do you get to see those rich, textured blues of the Atlantic Ocean, the influential camera work of Steven Spielberg in sharper detail and a very jowly shark, you also get a two-hour making of documentary (the same one that’s on the 30th Anniversary DVD) and the excellent The Shark is Still Working documentary. Still giving Steven Spielberg nightmares due to the troubled production – the crew ended up spending months at sea instead of the fifty-five days that Universal Studios allowed, not to mention having to triple the budget – it’s obviously still a source of pride for the director and after all this time not one shark-based film – or any sea creature film for that matter – has even come close to capturing the cinematic magic of this classic film. And it’s still the reason most of us look twice before getting in the sea…
Jaws 2 (Jeannot Szwarc, USA, 1978)
Having struck gold with Jaws in 1975 it was inevitable that Universal Pictures would want to cash-in on their new-found blockbuster status and Jaws 2 was put into production, albeit without Steven Spielberg, Robert Shaw (who died of a heart attack in the summer of ’78 but seeing as ***spoiler*** his character died in the first film it was unlikely they’d try to shoehorn Quint in there somehow) or Richard Dreyfuss. But they did have Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton returning to reprise their roles, so it wasn’t all bad… was it?
Four years after Chief Brody (Scheider) destroyed the killer shark off the coast of Amity Island, a new menace has arrived to take advantage of the many holidaymakers making waves on the island’s coastline. After several incidents involving water-skiers, divers and a washed-up killer whale carcass point towards shark activity, Brody goes back to Mayor Vaughn (Hamilton) to get permission to close the beaches but once again he is met with hostility and beaurocracy, forcing the local councellors into a vote as to whether Brody is fit to keep his position as Chief of Police.
The following day, all the local teenagers – including Brody’s two sons Mike and Sean – go out onto the ocean for a sailing trip but instead of stopping at the agreed point of the local lighthouse they continue further out to Cabal Junction, a small island that houses an electrical power station. Pursued by the shark the kids find themselves in deeper water than they thought, so it’s up to the now-former Chief Brody to sail out there on his own to face his ultimate fear once again.
It goes without saying that the law of sequels applies here and that Jaws 2 is not as good as the original, but that isn’t to say that it is a bad film. The presence of Scheider, Gary and Hamilton keeps the continuity from the first film and, despite there being a different director, some of the shots and angles keep the visual flow going. The extended cast – featuring a young Keith Gordon, who would continue playing a teenager for the next decade in films like Christine and Combat Academy – gets a little cumbersome at times but the shark soon seems to thin out the numbers pretty quickly.
If the original Jaws didn’t exist then this would probably be the best shark film out there, although it is still quite a way behind that first film in terms of film making, suspense and characters. Jaws relied heavily on the inter-play between the ineffective authority of Brody, old sea-dog Quint and the scientific methods of rich-kid Hooper but none of that really applies here, the only brick-wall being put up coming from Brody’s on-going battles with Mayor Vaughn. There is, though, a case for Jaws 2 being a sort-of proto-slasher film; the group of rebellious teenagers escaping the confines of their parents, the silent killer in hot pursuit, the unlikely hero overcoming a deep-rooted fear to do the right thing – it’s all there, only the slasher is a shark rather than a masked madman… and in the same year that John Carpenter’s Halloween supposedly became the blueprint for those sorts of films.
Whatever it’s shortcomings, Jaws 2 is as good a sequel to Spielberg’s classic as it could be. It suffered a similarly troubled production as that film, with Roy Scheider – who only did it to end his contract with Universal – in particular not getting along with director Jeannot Szwarc, who was brought in to replace original director John D. Hancock. That said, it’s still good fun, it has the best looking shark of the series and it doesn’t do any harm to the original film or the franchise. It’s also as good as the series got after the first film.
Jaws 3-D (Joe Alves, USA, 1983)
That’s right, there’s a ‘D’ after that ’3′. This was 1983 after all, and there were a few franchises on their third instalments that took advantage of the gimmick that hadn’t been seen much since the glory days of William Castle back in the 1950s; the tepid Amityville 3-D and the decent Friday the 13th Part III: 3-D both appeared around that time but the highest profile film was the much-anticipated third part in the Jaws series which shifted the action away from Amity Island and into the lagoons and lakes of Florida’s Sea World.
Now grown-up, Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid) works at the water park along with his marine biologist girlfriend Kay (Bess Armstrong). As they prepare for the opening of Sea World’s latest attraction of a series of underwater tunnels, one of their staff goes missing after going to lock the underwater gates that connect to the ocean. After finding a severed limb Mike and Kay search the park’s lagoon in a submarine and get attacked by an infant great white shark. Narrowly escaping, the pair then set about capturing the fish with the help of Sea World manager Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and his shark-hunter friend Phillip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkindale), although once the rest of the missing diver’s corpse is found it would appear that the shark that killed him is considerably bigger than the one that they are holding in captivity. So if the man died in the park then the shark that killed him is also in the park – oh dear…
And ‘oh dear’ is right, for this is a real travesty of a film. Really no more than a 100-minute advert for Sea World, Jaws 3-D had nothing to do with the previous films apart from the idea of a killer shark and a character with the surname Brody, which in itself is a bit of a joke as Mike Brody doesn’t really do much apart from observe what’s going on and shout about it, until the end when he actually gets to do something. Dennis Quaid looks thoroughly embarrassed throughout most of the film, although to be fair most of the cast are all taking it all far too seriously, apart from Louis Gossett, Jr. who seems to realise that he’s in a turd of a film and somebody’s paying him for it so he may as well have a bit of fun (see the next film for more of the same from Michael Caine).
And the shark? The most ridiculous looking shark seen in pretty much any shark film, and that includes most of the dire direct-to-DVD toss that gets churned out on a regular basis. For a start they’ve made the thing 35 feet long – most great whites are around 20 feet so they’re evidently going for some sort of Megalodon-type monster – and it doesn’t actually look like a shark. Hilariously, the mother shark’s features are lop-sided and the teeth look like they’re about to drop out at any second. And can great white sharks swim backwards? They can now, apparently.
The only real saving grace that this film has is the fact that the next one was even worse and took the whole premise to new levels of ridiculousness. Flatter than a manta ray and about as much fun as having to choose between drowning or being shark food, Jaws 3-D is bad in every sense of the word and has very little character or charm to divert your attention from the horrible special effects, which were made worse by the clunky 3-D. Could have been good… but wasn’t.
Jaws: The Revenge (Joseph Sargent, USA, 1987)
Normally there would be a paragraph here to give you a bit of background or context to prepare you for the plot but this is Jaws: The Revenge, and if you’ve ever heard anything about this film then you know that words like ‘plot’ get thrown overboard like a bucket of chum.
So here goes: Police Chief Sean Brody (Mitchell Anderson), son of the now-deceased former Police Chief Martin Brody, goes out onto the ocean to clear a log from a buoy when he is attacked and killed by a great white shark. Believing her family to be cursed, Brody’s mother Ellen (Lorraine Gary) travels to the Bahamas to stay with her remaining son Michael (Lance Guest) and his family.
But this shark has a plan (no, it really does!) because it follows her there. Not on the plane obviously, but because it can track a Brody’s blood or something. Maybe it’s because of the psychic link between Ellen and the creature because when Michael – a marine biologist of all things – and his business partner Jake (Mario Van Peebles) are attacked whilst tagging snails she seems to feel it deep within her soul. Likewise when the shark, which can roar like a lion and balance upright halfway out of the water like a performing dolphin, attacks Michael’s young daughter Thea whilst she’s on a banana boat. So Ellen, aided by local pilot Hoagie (Michael Caine), takes to the seas (why not stay on land? It can’t get you there) and ***spoiler*** spears it with the broken bowsprit of the boat as it leaps out of the water.
You really couldn’t make it up… but somebody did and then actually pitched this crap and got it made. So let’s just look at what we have – a man who killed two killer sharks dead because of fear, a family curse, psychic sharks that roar and stand out of the water on their tails, a marine biologist who clearly hasn’t had enough of being attacked by great white sharks, Mario Van Peebles unsuccessfully doing his bit for not stereotyping Jamaicans, Lorraine Gary not aging well and looking like Dee Snider’s mum, an angry welder with the most annoying voice ever and Lance Guest being a bit of a plank.
Despite all of the absurdities that make this film what it is there are a few plus points, if you can call them that. The first is that it completely ignores Jaws 3-D, much like most people do nowadays. Also the shark is better than the shark in Jaws 3-D, mainly due to the fact that it looks more like a great white and not by the mechanics of its movements. By better, though, that doesn’t mean it actually looks good; twelve years on since Jaws and you would have thought that the practical effects would have improved a little, but no, apparently not. The other enjoyable factor is the presence of Michael Caine, who was unable to accept his Oscar for Hannah & Her Sisters due to being in the Bahamas filming this but he does add a little (intentional) humour and character to the film, although the man himself has never seen the film, preferring to admire the house that his fee paid for (Caine has remarked several times how he only took the part for the money).
But whereas Jaws 3-D was just bad with absolutely no redeeming features or sense of fun, Jaws: The Revenge is equally – if not more – a pile of poo yet it does have the necessary camp value to mark it as ‘so bad it’s good’. It goes without saying that the first Jaws film is an absolute necessity, and also Jaws 2 is worth checking out for some late-70s killer shark action. Avoid Jaws 3-D unless you’re a completist or just easily pleased but please, please, please give this a watch, just once, if only to see the unintentional comedy gold that the film provides. Also recommended is the novelisation that goes even further into insanity when it is suggested that the shark is being controlled by a voodoo witch doctor trying to exact revenge on the Brody family! Bit of a longshot to send a shark – what if they never went in the sea again? There’d be no film and this is a film that must exist, purely to show what can be achieved when movie execs think there’s a dollar to be squeezed out of a dead horse… or shark.