Are The Jaws Sequels Really That Bad?

There’s very little question that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 breakthrough hit ‘Jaws’ was a true cinematic landmark. It ushered in the era of the blockbuster, made summer time the biggest period for major movie releases, and – of course – it’s the film which, for over 40 years, has left audiences everywhere afraid to go back in the water.

Sounds about right? Well, actually that last point isn’t necessarily true – as the hugely memorable tagline, ‘just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,’ originates not with ‘Jaws’ but its follow-up movie ‘Jaws 2,’ which first opened in US cinemas this week in 1978.

Much as the classic status of ‘Jaws’ is beyond question, it seems generally agreed that all three of the ‘Jaws’ sequels are awful. The concept never seemed a natural fit for a franchise, and the continuations that ensued clearly had little to do with advancing the characters and story world, and everything to do with making a quick buck.

Their reputation is particularly toxic given they sprang forth from an undisputed masterpiece. Where Spielberg’s original took a B-movie concept and gave it the A-movie treatment, ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘Jaws 3-D’ and ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ are just B-movies through and through – and, in-keeping with the law of diminishing returns, the movies only got dumber and cheaper-looking as the series progressed.

Even so, does this mean there’s no joy to be taken from the ‘Jaws’ sequels? Alright, so they’re trashy and silly, but that shouldn’t in any way suggest they can’t still be a lot of fun to watch, especially in the summer time. 

And, for better or worse, we might argue that they’re even more responsible than the original ‘Jaws’ for the endless barrage of self-consciously silly straight-to-DVD shark movies we have today (‘Sharknado,’ ‘Sharktopus’ et al).

Putting taste and decency to one side, let’s take a look back at the three ‘Jaws’ follow-ups in order, and see whether they’re really as bad as all that…

Jaws 2 (1978)

The first sequel plays things as simple as possible: Amity Island comes under attack by a Great White shark, again, forcing Roy Schieder’s Chief Brody to combat the menace, again. Nor is that the only thing Schieder was ‘forced’ into; reportedly the actor had little-to-no interest in making the follow-up film, but was contractually obliged to return.

Not so for Steven Spielberg, who point-blank refused to make ‘Jaws 2’ and, as we all know, went on to considerably bigger and better things. The producers had trouble finding a replacement; initial director John D Hancock was fired shortly into production, before final director Jeannot Szwarc took over, and set out to make an epic, action-packed follow-up. 

While the essential premise (beach town terrorised by shark) is the same, ‘Jaws 2’ has a very different feel to its predecessor. Spielberg’s movie was essentially a hard-edged men-on-a-mission story, centred on a core trio of grown men; whereas ‘Jaws 2’ shifts the focus more to the boat-loving teenagers of Amity, whose thrill-seeking ways land them in more trouble than they bargained for when they’re trapped in the Great White’s path. 

Ultimately, this teen emphasis gives ‘Jaws 2’ more of a slasher movie feel, albeit a comparatively family-friendly one (surprisingly, it’s rated PG to this day).

And, in-keeping with the rules of slasher film sequels, ‘Jaws 2’ boasts a higher body count and more spectacular sequences, including the shark attacking a high-speed water-skier before being burned in a boat explosion, and later on jumping out at a helicopter.

Yes, it’s all a little ridiculous, but it’s a lot of fun. With Schieder on board, along with other returning ‘Jaws’ stars Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton and  Jeffrey Kramer, there’s enough of the original to make it feel a reasonably worthy follow-up; and the new shark is given an appropriately monstrous appearance thanks to some burn scars.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

After Amity Island had been menaced twice, it made sense that the filmmakers opted for a change of scene on the third movie. Where better to throw some shark action than the real-life Florida resort Seaworld?

With a young Dennis Quaid in the lead as the now-grown son of Chief Brody (Schieder didn’t return this time), and a script co-written by legendary genre scribe Richard Matheson (‘I Am Legend,’ Spielberg’s ‘Duel), there were certainly some strong elements here.

Alas, someone thought it would be a good idea to hand the reins to first-time director Joe Alves (production designer on the first two films), and to shoot it in 3D, which was enjoying a brief resurgence in the early 80s. These rather significant errors in judgement helped ‘Jaws 3-D’ on its way to being the silliest entry of the series, and the one which has aged the worst.

It’s already a bit of an ask for us to swallow that a fully grown Great White has somehow snuck into the tanks of Seaworld undetected. What makes it all the worse is how feebly the shark’s trail of destruction is brought to life, via 3D effects that would have looked horrendous even in 1983. Worse yet, watching it in plain old 2D today, the image is horribly murky for pretty much the duration.

But again – none of this means Jaws 3-D isn’t still fun to watch. While much of its pleasures are of the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ variety, the film does make the most of its striking Seaword setting, and boasts some enjoyable performances; as well as Dennis Quaid, we have a key supporting turn from Louis Gosset Jr, and an early role for Lea Thompson. 

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

The fourth and final film in the ‘Jaws’ saga is routinely blasted as one of the absolute worst films ever made. Understandable enough, given it hinges on the barking mad premise of a Great White with a personal vendetta against the Brody family, which somehow follows a bereaved Ellen Brody from Amity Island to the Bahamas – way outside its territorial waters.  

Yes, it’s a stupid idea from a real-world viewpoint – but again, if we regard ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ simply as a horror movie, it’s no more nonsensical than the sheer number of times Dracula, Jason Voorhees or any other monsters we might name have returned from the grave. To dismiss the film entirely because of this is, I think, to overlook some notable strengths.

For one – how many blockbuster sequels are there in which the lead is a middle-aged woman? Forgoing the adolescent/young adult focus of the second and third installments, this one puts Lorraine Gary’s Ellen straight to centre stage, and gives her a meaty role rarely granted to older women in films of this nature. 

While the circumstances are outlandish, Gary plays Ellen’s trauma utterly straight, and at times the film is a surprisingly effective exploration of the agonies of grief. (No, really.)

‘Jaws: The Revenge’ also goes outside of Hollywood conventional wisdom by highlighting a new romance between older people, with Michael Caine joining the action as an easy-living pilot who becomes enamoured with Chief Brody’s widow. 

It’s all rather sweet, even if Caine is clearly just there for the cheque; the actor famously said of the film, “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.”

While I don’t think ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ is quite so awful as it’s generally made out to be, there’s no doubt that it’s let down by the moments that matter most: the shark sequences. Never mind the shark behaving in an utterly unnatural manner, the creature itself looks more rubbery and unconvincing than ever, and the slapdash editing (particularly in the borderline incoherent finale) really doesn’t help.

But even so, while it may be patently absurd, ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ remains a good laugh; and even if it seems a sour footnote to a bona fide classic, it’s a fitting end to an unabashedly trashy follow-up trilogy.

We haven’t had another ‘Jaws’ movie in the 29 years since, but the likes of ‘Deep Blue Sea,’ ‘Shark Night,’ ‘Bait’ and of course the notorious ‘Sharknado’ series have kept shark movies fun in the meantime. Now let’s wait and see if this summer’s ‘The Shallows’ can successfully make sharks truly terrifying again…

Picture Credit: Universal

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