‘That Was a Franchise?’ is a recurring feature that looks at classic horror films that you might not have realized actually spawned entire franchises. This feature is meant to shatter that notion and explore if in the end these classics should be remembered as a franchise or solely as the original film
Believe it or not, ‘Jaws’ actually has a number of sequels! We put them all under the microscope and examine the surprising franchise’s history
“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”
There’s no denying that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 epic, Jaws, literally changed the way in which cinema was watched. The unbelievable, relentless summer horror classic birthed the creation of the “blockbuster” and people never looking at a body of water the same way again. The legacy that Jaws leaves behind is hardly surprising. Even if you’ve somehow never seen the film before, with the amount of countless references and allusions to the classic that have permeated through pop culture like a fin through the water’s surface, it practically feels like you’ve already seen the thing. While it’s not surprising for the subsequent run-off films in a franchise to experience a large drop in quality, many people are blissfully unaware that Spielberg’s classic spawned not one, but three, sequels. Granted, while Spielberg doesn’t helm any of the following titles, and they undoubtedly are less expertly and meticulously assembled as the film that started it all, this isn’t a franchise that’s bereft of charm. The goal here is to examine the Jaws franchise as a whole, de-mystify it, and examine if it’s a series that justifies its sequels or would just be better off as the initial film.
There should be very little need here to outline what makes Spielberg’s original movie such a fundamental piece of horror. If you haven’t seen the film, seriously stop reading this right now and head to your nearest streaming device to consume it immediately. We good now? Formative film, right? That Quint guy’s kind of the greatest, isn’t he? Anyways, with the film destroying all sorts of records, the idea of approaching a sequel is one that was naturally only a matter of time. As soon as the original film began to perform well, Universal started drumming up interest in putting a sequel into production. Producers of the film, Brown and Zanuck, realized that if they weren’t apart of the sequel, someone else would be, so the two opted to stay on board and hopefully steer the direction of what was to come.
For the uninitiated, Spielberg does not direct Jaws 2 (even though we all know that Max Spielberg directs Jaws 19 in 2015). Not only was the auteur not interested in director duties for the sequel, he straight up refused to even consider the opportunity, claiming that he had already made the definitive shark movie and that production on the first was already enough of a nightmare. Accordingly, Howard Sackler, an uncredited writer for the first film was hired to pen the sequel. In spite of having an original idea that would have been a prequel with Quint set on the Indianapolis recounting his famous story (think Prometheus, but with Jaws), the idea was rejected and Sackler went with a more traditional sequel. Sackler recommended John D. Hancock (a theater director, predominantly) to helm the picture, but after 18 months into the film, enough friction had been generated between Hancock and Universal that he was fired from the sequel.
With the status of the film floundering at this point, Spielberg even considered returning to direct himself (and had even, for curiosity sake, written a screenplay of his own based on the Indianapolis idea) but prior obligations with Close Encounters of the Third Kind kept him locked up for at least another year. Finally Carl Gottlieb, writer of the original film was hired to re-shape the previous script (a task that would cost Universal more than if they had just hired him to write the script in the first place), injecting more action into the ordeal, brightening the tone, and making Amity less of a ghost town. It’s really encouraging to see this degree of care being taken and the willingness to “start over” rather than just going forward with a failed film. You hear so much nowadays about re-shoots going on for tent pole films and even titles like Star Wars, but this is a whole other story and it shows the commitment in place here. The fact that even Spielberg was getting antsy to return is huge.
Finally, with a stronger script in place, Gottlieb pushed for Jeannot Szwarc (Somewhere in Time and a whole bunch of Night Gallery) to take over, and at last production could resume with the essentially strong foundation in place. That’s some terrible production drama, but arguably Hancock and Sackler’s original film wouldn’t have worked as well as Szwarc’s does. Also, Spielberg himself went through enough problems while making his movie that maybe such hardships are just par for the course with shark cinema. At the least, John Williams was still along to compose the score, and in a film like Jaws where the music is paramount, Williams’ endorsement was a great vote of confidence.
Jaws 2 fulfills the typical tropes of a sequel, with four years having passed, and another shark arriving in Amity and no one wanting to believe it. It’s of course up to Brody to take it down as everyone else wants to deny it exists or think he’s crazy. It’s a little reductive that nobody believes him, but I suppose it is kind of ridiculous for there to be another shark attack in the first place. Regardless, Brody deserves a little better and shouldn’t be treated like a crazy person, even if it does fit the journey that he’s going through. “Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody,” he’s told, even though that becomes the crux of these sequels.
Roy Scheider is once again back as Martin Brody, but only because he’s contractually obligated to do so, not because he had any interest (even fought with Szwarc, a bunch). Granted, Jaws 2 is not a great film for Brody, and arguably continuing his story weakens it some, but it’s still an entertaining movie. This is all aided by the fact that because he’s there the film can better comment upon the original, rather than just ignoring it or hitting reset. People should respect it for trying to build something new rather than admonish it. It even goes in a bit of the Psycho II route where it looks like Brody might be dealing with PTSD, imagining things, and seeing a shark where there isn’t one. We of course know there is, but scenes like the one where a frenzied Brody empties his pistol into the water at a shark that isn’t there certainly hold a lot of weight and are powerful stuff. It’s just a shame that it has to come at the expense of the character, even if it is conducive to the journey that Brody is going through.
It’s a little beautiful that Brody’s journey here is kind of the same one that tortured Jaws viewers were going through themselves after the first film. Brody evacuating a beach over a school of fish is something that an imaginative filmgoer could easily do in real life after seeing the original movie. Putting Brody in the same place as so much of the audience is another reason why a sequel here is beneficial and can actually expand upon concepts brought up in the original. This film certainly captures the paranoia of the water that’s present in the original.
Szwarc rises to the insurmountable challenge here in other ways too, displaying a lot of really evocative, ambitious camerawork, like sweeping crane shots of expertly edited scenes of chaos. The photograph sequence at the beginning with the shark is another strong example that works surprisingly well as a stinger into this film’s universe. There’s a manic urgency to it where the sequence is almost edited like Psycho’s classic shower scene.
There’s a waterskiing sequence in the film that is expertly shot, scored, is endlessly suspenseful, and has legitimate stakes that it doesn’t chicken out of. This also quickly segues into the genuinely awesome sequence afterwards where we see not only the shark smash through a boat, but then proceed to rock it until its shot with a flare, lit on fire, and then the shark and the boat explode. And we see all of this. This isn’t veiled destruction with hints of the shark. We full-out see a shark engulfed in flames, and it’s only 20 minutes into the film. It’s a remarkable set piece, and some of the best practical work from out of the sequels, that sets the tone for the film early on.
I don’t care how much you love the original Jaws, but the shark attack sequences here are just better. They’re bigger, crazier, and more in your face. Late into the film another crazy set piece has the shark taking down a coast guard helicopter and it’s even more incredible than the material before it. Sequences like this make you question what’s possible in this universe and that makes the film all the more terrifying. In many ways I prefer this cavalier attitude to all of this than the overly methodical one that Spielberg employs. On the “Making Of” feature on the Jaws 2 DVD, Szwarc states, “I kept saying from the beginning: we must show the shark a lot. Because that image of the shark coming out of the water for the first time, it’s already happened in the first one. That is never gonna happen again.” He’s right, too. We’ve seen the shark, so fuck it.
This film also shows us very real consequences to the shark’s carnage. Seeing helpless sailboat after sailboat toppling over like dominoes by this beast is chilling. When Brody swoops into aid one of teenagers who’s stranded with the shark, Tina is hysterical and broken in a way that’s legitimately upsetting. The trauma of this beast is definitely felt here, which is crucial. Even just hearing the infamous “Jaws Theme” from the original provides chills that are earned rather than being manipulative with the music. It’s not as if they’re saying, “I think we’re still going to need a bigger boat.”
In spite of the chemistry created between Quint, Hooper, and Brody from the first film being gone, the film does excel with the chemistry of its teenage cast. They kind of knock it out of the park here. You actually care about them and they don’t just feel like reductive trash. Actual effort is made to make everyone have weight and feel real, and not just become sequel casualties. Time is spent simply watching these guys play around, showing off their character, which is just as effective to the overall film as if this were time spent on building shark suspense. You genuinely like these quirky characters and the more time you spend with them, the more you really hope none of them are going to become shark floss.
At the same time, Spielberg’s original film does have a lot of disposable fodder in the form of its teens and you no doubt care more about the individuals seen here. Tina’s pained journey is a particularly moving one, and she’s not even a main character. This is just the film knowing to shift focus and spread the drama. In the end, killing the shark by electrocution is wonderfully done and a great alternative to blowing up the beast, like in the original. This electrocution even holds more weight behind it when you see that in the other Jaws films, they pretty much just blow him up every other time. Electrocution suddenly becomes pretty poignant in retrospect.
In spite of people harping on this film’s existence, Jaws 2 was still the highest grossing sequel of all time until The Empire Strikes Back came out. It might not have made as much money as the original film (less than half, in fact), but in this case, that’s a rare situation where that doesn’t mean that this was necessarily a failure. It of course still proved that the series was viable enough to continue down the sequel route…
When Jaws 2 saw a performance that was still successful enough to warrant a sequel, Zucker and Brown originally pitched the third film as a parody, titled Jaws 3, People 0 and going as far as enlisting Animal House’s Matty Simmons to outline a script and was brought on as a producer. He even sought out National Lampoon’s John Hughes and Todd Carroll for a script, with it getting as far as Joe Dante being considered for director. Universal ultimately thought this conflicted with their agenda and shut it down, even though they would later admit to regret the decision and the gold mine that it could have been. Can you seriously imagine a Jaws 3 that’s much in the same vein as Gremlins 2? It’d be unreal. It’s funny that I still see Joe Alves’ film as still ultimately attempting this tone, but just to a much more subtle degree.
While experimental filmmaker, Murray Lerner, was pursued at one point to lead the movie, Joe Alves, an unsung hero behind the first two films would eventually earn the role. Alves was considered to co-direct Jaws 2 at one point, as well as being production designer on the first two films, and second unit director on the sequel. That being said, this was still his first film, meaning he caved to a lot of studio pressure and Matheson’s script would continue to so interference. Not to mention Alves’ grasp on the 3D effects was highly problematic.
While existing somewhat outside of the canon of the other films, the movie sets its premise within Sea World, where a Great White Shark gets added into the environment and things begin to go wrong. In that sense it’s almost like a shark/aquatic Jurassic Park, with exposition setting all of this up very early on and getting the heavy plot lifting out of the way early so chaos can just be enjoyed. In the same sentence it’s introduced how nobody has a Great White in captivity because of how dangerous they are, it’s simultaneously argued how good an idea it is to take one. This is all very intentional and a classic case of hubris gone wrong like we’ve seen countless times before. This isn’t just an unfortunate intersection with nature like in the previous films—we’re creating this danger and it’s a story about our arrogance.
Richard Matheson is also the main person responsible for script duty this time, which is nothing to scoff at. This guy knows exactly what he’s doing and is responsible for some of the smartest, more surprising screenplays and teleplays ever written. Perhaps certain beats that fall flat are meant to do so and this is Matheson’s intentional send-up of 3D blockbusters. He’s of course admitted to changes happening to his script beyond his control, but that doesn’t mean that the kernel of this idea wasn’t present.
The floating severed limbs that float towards the audience, as hokey as they may be, are very deliberate. Almost like what Alexandre Aja is trying to say with Piranha 3D, but doesn’t go as far with it all. Granted, a few non-death elements like their underwater sea vehicle, the Challenger, are also in 3D, but it’s an effect that’s predominantly being utilized for carnage. This culminates in the amazing conclusion of the film again where the shark is blown up, which might feel reductive to this series, but the action has new weight considering the explosion of viscera and jawbones that are thrown at the viewer. Even the cloud of blood that accompanies the explosion is such an evocative image.
I still think that Matheson’s script accomplishes a lot, but he talks about the end product being heavily re-written (including Carl Gottlieb contributing for good measure) and ultimately being unhappy with the final result. Elements like Brody’s sons being in the film (which feels shoe-horned) or the shark being the same one from Jaws 2 are all examples of studio interference and muddling Matheson’s vision. The fact that any of it still gets out is a testament to his talent and an example of the writer rising above the director here.
With how Jaws 2 benefits by playing with the paranoia of the first film and then feeding into it, Jaws 3 goes a different direction by playing with these expectations that have been established and using that to its advantage. For instance, there’s some great misdirection early on where things like synchronized water skiers—that would be too perfect of targets—keep you wondering if this pyramid of athletes is going to see destruction before the opening credits have even finished rolling. The film plays with this idea increasingly, so after what you’ve seen happen to water skiers in Jaws 2, it’s as if this is intentionally referencing the set piece from the film.
Another thrilling, inventive scene sees a shark chasing a swimmer who’s holding onto a dolphin for support, using their speed to escape to safety. Out-swimming a shark is obviously unrealistic, but subversions like this make people-in-water scenes still have tension. The shark even becomes more dangerous as a weapon, not just by eating people, but also by smashing the underwater tunnel walkways, causing floods and the risk of everyone drowning, which is a whole other sort of terror to consider.
A lot of the fun here is that you know this is all going to go horribly wrong, but no one in the film does. The idea of adding a shark to a water-based amusement park’s set-up is almost hilariously a bad idea in the context of a Jaws film, but no one in the movie has any reason to be suspicious of what’s going on. Accordingly, the film is constantly presenting you with scenes like the waterskiing one where it’s almost taunting you with the carnage that might happen, playing with your fear in a way that the characters are immune to (up to a point, of course). The film gets a lot of criticism for the fact that Mike Brody isn’t much of a hero and doesn’t really do anything for most of the runtime. I argue that it’s because his role ultimately doesn’t matter for the first half of the film because the picture is much more interested in making you the protagonist at that point, with everything reliant on your preexisting knowledge of the preceding films.
Alves’ Jaws 3 also exhibits plenty of charm in the form of its cast. As silly and reductive as they may be, they’re still actual characters! Much like the teenagers from Jaws 2, these feel like people that you get to know and grow to like, where their possible deaths actually hold some sort of weight. It’s not an endless cast of teens. No one is Quint either, but the brotherly bond between the Brodys that the film pushes works well for it.
It’s also an interesting development when it’s discovered that the real epidemic in play here is not the shark that they kidnap, but rather that shark’s mother getting into the park for revenge. This is of course an inherently flawed concept as sharks are not maternal, but who cares! It posits that sharks are vindictive sons of bitches, and that’s a great horror villain!
Jaws 3 is additionally full of some truly haunting visuals that help elevate the film to a higher level, too. The film’s introduction shows a beautiful, messed up beginning of ultra-blue water turning blood, blood red as a severed fish head careens into your face. Even the opening shark murder is dark, intimate, under water and almost feels like a murder from out of Alien. The scene sneaks up and swallows you rather than a huge spectacle that thrashes about. Alves also employs a bizarre shot from the shark’s POV, which is a nice touch that goes far and takes some weird liberties. Another ghastly moment is from the perspective of the shark’s mouth, as body parts and bloodied water slowly fill the void between his teeth. Finally, the scene at the end of the film where it seems like everything is fixed, only for the shark to ram into mission control (in glorious 3D), spraying glass and water over everyone, is such a good final beat and a surprising rug pull. When people praise that surprising ending on Deep Blue Sea, remember that Jaws 3-D did it first, you guys.
Jaws 3 doesn’t see the same degree of celebration that Jaws 2 does, but it still does have its support. Really the film’s only fault is that not enough happens and it doesn’t push all of this as far as it could. It feels surprisingly empty in the end and that there hasn’t been nearly enough carnage for something that has such an inventive plot behind it. Hope continued to spring eternal, and while it might have taken four years, another attempt at the Jaws mythos was only a matter of time.
It’s worth noting that each film in the Jaws series made less money than the one before it (a fact that’s a little heartbreaking considering the original film saw such success), but this was truly the breaking point where they gave up and couldn’t recover. The film is such a disaster that it’s even one of the few elusive titles on Rotten Tomatoes that’s emblazoned with a 0%.
If there had to be some sort of “Turning Point” that calculates exactly the moment where things go wrong and the Jaws series truly sours, it’d probably be the opening frames of Jaws 4: The Revenge. Things are so beautifully off right from the jump and the film never recovers. To begin with, previous Jaws films took two years to produce, but this one was finished within nine months. The associate producer and production manager of the film said, “This (Revenge) will be the fastest I have ever seen a major film planned and executed in all of my 35 years as a production manager.” I suppose there’s a reason why it was nominated for 7 Razzies.
Jaws: The Revenge at least benefits from falling into the territory of genuinely being so bad that it’s good, rather than just being a bland mess. The most bonkers sort of craziness is going on in this film. Joseph Sargeant even elaborates on the film’s nonsensical plot with, “Out of a little bit of desperation to find something fresh to do with the shark. We thought that maybe if we take a mystical point of view, and go for a little bit of…magic, we might be able to find something interesting enough to sit through.”
That “interesting” story sees Ellen Brody declaring revenge on the shark that killed her offspring. First off, this makes no sense because it’s such crazy logic to begin with, but then, they also killed the shark that should have the grudge against them! So it doesn’t even make sense, unless this is also the shark’s offspring and this is a generational thing, which is an even crazier idea. The shark is so intelligent and focused it manages to follow Ellen to the fucking Bahamas in the final act to finish things off! It’s ridiculous. The film also happens to be responsible for the now-famous tagline, “This time, it’s personal,” and it’s just crazy that such a shoddy film is responsible for such an iconic line.
It’s all the more tragic that the film’s director and producer, Joseph Sargeant (The Marcus-Nelson Murders) was so optimistic and headstrong about the whole endeavor. Sargeant essentially had seven sharks (or pieces of sharks) made for the film, but none of it would coalesce together. People were often being tasked to work without there even being a script in place yet, with this excitement having nothing of substance to fall back on. On top of that, other puzzling decisions like a shark that at one point roars like a lion, Mario Van Peebles’ character humming the Jaws theme within the movie, and there maybe being an abandoned sub-plot involving voodoo and witch doctors, according to the film’s novelization.
All of this comes down to the film’s huge conclusion, which is such an utter disaster (Roger Ebert’s takedown of it is classic). This is supposed to be the film’s crown jewel and instead it’s just a melted hunk of metal. The result is an incomprehensible ending that was re-shot, but ends up being still just as dumb and incomprehensible as before (the boat smashes into the shark and blows him up, rather than him getting shot).
Now that the tide has settled some, it’s a little surprising to consider all of the drama and sheer absurdity that is associated with this collection of films that spawned from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic. In spite of the ebb and flow of the series’ quality, I still believe that it should be remembered as a franchise. The sequels have a lot to offer up, and it’s really only the final film that’s a true wreck that should be ignored, but even then the movie is spectacularly bad in the best possible way. Jaws 1 through 3 are a solid trilogy though that tell a great two-tiered story, and then go out on a creative alternate take on the premise.
For now, it’s at least safe to go back into the water…