Sunday, January 13, 2013

JAWS: The Complete Series

Steven Spielberg, 1975
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary

There is little I can say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said. Easily the greatest shark movie of all time, widely considered one of the greatest films of all time period, and was such a staple of my life growing up that I can’t imagine a world without the cultural phenomenon that is Jaws. I assume most people know the basic plot, but if not, Jaws concerns a giant great white shark that terrorizes Amity Island. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is unsure what to do about the missing swimmers and increasing number of bodies. He is pressured by the small city council to ignore the clues that a shark is responsible, so that the beach can remain open and tourists will continue flooding the area. Soon he gets help from marine biologist and shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and they convince WWII ship captain and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to take them out on a hunting trip from which they may not return...

Nearly everything about this film is perfect - the iconic score by John Williams, the lovely cinematography from Bill Butler and the absolutely perfect editing from Verna Fields. Seriously, the next time you watch Jaws, pay close attention to the editing. This wouldn’t be half the film it is without Fields’ work. She won an Academy Award for it, which she richly deserved. Allegedly an improvement on Peter Benchley’s novel - which I admittedly have not read - Jaws works because it streamlines a simple plot into two sections. Though the script is attributed to both Benchley and re-writer Carl Gottlieb, Gottlieb removed some of the more emotionally involved sections of the novel. The first, landlocked part of the film is concerned with Brody’s attempts to understand and deal with the shark attacks, despite public criticism and interference from the island’s elite. The second, more interesting half follows Brody, Quint and Hooper on their hunting expedition. Spielberg wisely (and supposedly accidentally) chose to show as little of the shark as possible, resulting in a suspense driven horror-action film whose effective scares could never be repeated with any of the film’s sequels.

For some reason I have never thought of Jaws as a horror film, though I’m sure much of the general public does. It is more along the lines of Hitchcock’s The Birds, except it is obviously more plausible for a renegade shark to decimate hapless swimmers than it is for birds to collectively mutiny against the general populace. The violence in Jaws is understated, but incredibly well done and manages to be chilling despite the fact that most of it is implied, beginning with the shocking death of a young boy. Its effectiveness as a suspense/horror film can certainly be linked to the adage that “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” There are dozens of Jaws rip-offs both with or without sharks, many of which I’m covering during animals attack month. Nearly all of these films are post-Jaws. And of course there is the fact that no matter how many times I see Jaws, it holds up every time and seems to have not aged a day. 

A lot has already been said about the symbolism of Jaws - the references to Vietnam and Watergate, the themes of alienation, the fear of death, exorcising public demons, etc. Many horror films either confront or flirt with these themes, but Jaws works because it puts emphasis on development of character and attention to detail. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are both excellent, though Robert Shaw undeniably steals the film. “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” is a line nearly everyone knows.

Though there are many reasons Jaws is famous, one of which is that it essentially created what we think of as a summer blockbuster. It is also known for its troubled production history; the film went well over budget and beyond schedule. Spielberg’s insistence to shoot on location in Martha’s Vineyard and in the ocean instead of in a studio lead to numerous problems for the actors, the crew and the mechanical sharks created by Bob Mattey (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Though Spielberg’s films are generally too sentimental and mainstream for my tastes, I can’t deny that he might all the right decisions where Jaws was concerned. 

The 2-disc, anniversary Blu-ray comes highly recommended and is chock full of special features. There are several documentaries - the famous The Making of Jaws, a landmark in movie making-of documentaries, and the fan-made The Shark is Still Working: The Legacy and Impact of Jaws - as well as a number of behind the scenes featurettes and archival galleries. 

On a final note, I would like to have a moment of silence for the Universal Studios Jaws ride, which closed in January of 2012. I must have been on that ride a good 20-30 times through my childhood and teenage years. It was my favorite ride at Universal Studios and I can’t image going back without it being there. RIP.

Jaws 2
Jeannot Szwarc, 1978
Starring: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton

Let’s get this out of the way now. There is no way that any Jaws sequel was ever going to live up to Jaws. Not a chance. With that said, I seem to be one of the few people who genuinely enjoys Jaws 2. I think this may be because I can watch any festering turd of a film that features a shark eating people. There are really not a lot of surprises with this sequel. Roy Scheider returns as Chief Brody, four years after he, Quint and Hooper blew the shit out the giant great white in Jaws. Another shark is back terrorizing the New England coast, but this time no one believes Brody until it is too late. When he panics and shoots up the beach, mistaking a school of fish for the giant shark, he is fired from his position. The city council does not believe him - again - despite past events. He has to take the law into his own hands to rescue a bunch of idiot teenagers, including his two children, who decided to go sailing very far from the shore. 

Jaws 2 is certainly an inferior film and there are three things that set it apart from Jaws. Even though Brody is largely repeating the first half of Jaws in the beginning of Jaws 2, he is forced to act solo and the film simply suffers from the lack of excellent chemistry between he, Shaw and Dreyfuss in the first film. The second different is that we wander more closely into traditional horror movie territory and the main cast of characters are a bunch of horny teenagers. Frustratingly, the character to die the most violently is the one who spends most of his screen time planning to have sex. The suspense and impactful deaths of the first films are gone and I was honestly relieved when several of them kicked the bucket. Sadly, the screaming girl never gets eaten. 

The third and most important difference is that we see the shark quite often. Though John Williams’ wrote another successful score for this film, the subtle, suspenseful shark scenes in Jaws completely powered by music are gone. There is no way this gimmick would have worked a second time, so I’m actually glad director Jeannot Szwarc bravely included more of the shark and upped the violence and body count a bit. 

Szwarc, known for the abysmally bad Bug (1975) and a lot of television, was not actually the first choice for Jaws 2. This was another long, troubled production. John D. Hancock (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, 1971), the first director chosen after Spielberg refused, intended to make a darker film, possibly a prequel. Unfortunately the studio wanted something lighter and more action based. Szwarc does a decent job with the material and keeps things moving at a good pace, even providing some nice scares throughout the film. Roy Scheider was forced to return for contractual reasons, and even though he didn’t want to be there, he gives another good performance as Brody. His paranoia is significantly increased from the first film, which works because he is so alone throughout much of the film. Unfortunately he is the only likable or interesting character. 

This might not be a perfect movie, but there are some wonderful moments in Jaws 2. My favorite scene is when a helicopter comes to rescues the scared and lost teenagers, but before the pilot can begin towing them to safety, he and his helicopter are ripped out of the water by the shark. The ending is equally spectacular, though in a much more ridiculous way than the first film. Instead of being blown up, the shark is tricked into biting a giant power line and electrocuting itself. 

From a technical standpoint, this is probably the best Jaws sequel, though it is certainly not my favorite. It was successful in the theater and remained the highest grossing sequel for a year, until Rocky II came out. There’s a basic DVD from Universal and, honestly, if you like shark attack movies, there’s no reason not to pick up Jaws 2

Jaws 3-D
Joe Alves, 1983
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Lea Thompson, Louis Gossett, Jr.

Jaws 3-D is, hands down, my favorite of the Jaws sequels. Strictly speaking, Jaws 2 is superior, but there are so many more things about 3-D that I enjoy and it has a certain charm than 2 utterly lacks. I also simply love ‘80s 3-D films during that weird revival period, back when studios actually bothered to make the 3-D worthwhile. Another reason I probably love it is that it was filmed in 1983, the year of my birth. I have an abiding love for many horror, action and fantasy films made during this year. A lot of them are legitimately entertaining, but with some of them it is probably just an irrational and sentimental impulse.

Jaws 3-D is fun and completely ridiculous. It abandons all hope of being a serious, suspenseful film, as the first two were. SeaWorld, just about to open, is under siege from a killer great white who has managed to penetrate one of the park’s many underwater tunnels and starts bumping off the park employees, some of whom are up to no good in the late night hours. Brody (Dennis Quaid this time, no longer a police chief) and the resident marine biologist, Kay (Bess Armstrong), begin an investigation, during which they are rescued by dolphins. That never bodes well for a film’s integrity. Brody and Kay spot the shark, who escapes back into the park. Kay keeps it from being killed and moves it into captivity instead. When it dies soon after, Kay and Brody realize, to their horror, that the shark was just a baby and its mother has come looking for it, even if that means killing everyone in the park along the way. 

With a script by Carl Gottlieb and some contribution from Richard Matheson, this probably should have been a more serious affair, but Jaws 3-D was initially pitched as a spoof. The producers rejected this idea outright, but they basically wound up with one anyway. Production designer on Jaws and Jaws 2, Joe Alves was roped into directing Jaws 3-D and does a serviceable job, though his career didn’t go much further after this. You can say a lot of bad things about this film, but he did a hell of a job with the 3-D, which is all I really cared about. 

Reception for the film was and remains to be poor, though it has become a cult classic and falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. I can’t deny that the film is gimmicky, full of silly effects and inept acting. I don’t even know what Dennis Quaid is doing here and - based on his performance - neither did he. His character is a sad attempt to connect Jaws 3-D to the first two films. I can understand why this was done, but the third film in the series feels like a Jaw film in name only, which is fine with me. If the studio had bothered to pay a competent screenwriter instead of steamrolling over Matheson and Gottlieb’s ideas and bringing in a horde of re-writers, we probably would have had more developed characters, but oh well. 

I can’t help myself, though. I have to recommend Jaws 3-D, even though you will likely only have an opportunity to see it as Jaws III, sans 3-D. Watch it just for the amazing ending, when the shark is killed by a grenade lodged in the hand of a corpse stuck in the shark’s throat. Seriously. There’s some other nice gore, too, for those of you who care. Jaws 3-D is available as a cheap DVD release from Universal

Jaws: The Revenge
Joseph Sargent, 1987
Starring: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Mario Van Peebles, Michael Caine

Universal could have kept Jaws as a trilogy, but no, they had to churn out this final, lousy entry in the series that could not even be saved by the great Michael Caine. In a desperate attempt to cling to continuity - though completely ignoring Jaws 3-D - the plot follows Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) who in turn is being followed by a great white shark after her husband’s death. Though they managed to survive for the first three, a lot of the Brody family dies in this film. And in a headache inducing move, one of the film’s key plot devices is that Ellen has some sort of telepathic connection to the shark that is trying to kill her and her family. 

Please do not watch this film. I like a lot of deplorable trash, but this is just pitifully boring, wasting even the shark attack scenes. Shot between New England and the Bahamas and with an increased number of shark models, I don’t understand how this could be such an abject failure. I rarely agree with Roger Ebert, possibly the U.S.’s most famous and milquetoast film critic, but his assessment that Jaws: The Revenge "is not simply a bad movie, but also a stupid and incompetent one" is dead on. I love shark attack films - even a lot of the terrible Italian rip-offs - and I love Christmas movies. It’s something of an achievement to get me to hate a film that has one of these elements, let alone both of them, yet Jaws: The Revenge manages to accomplish this. The only good thing about this film is Michael Caine, who does bring an element of charm and class to the film, despite the script’s constant attempts to waylay him. 

I wish my review of the Jaws series didn’t have to end on this note. Instead, I will leave you with the only reason I can tolerate part of summer: Shark Week. 

No comments:

Post a Comment