Oh, the many pleasant hours I spent plucking junk from its spring-loaded jaw!
We are in full summer mode here in the Hunt household, and perhaps there is no greater indication of our seasonal relaxation than the fact that we have just sacrificed four consecutive evenings to view the entire Jaws tetralogy. This is what can happen when you have time on your hands and the ability to stream Netflix offerings on your TV. It all started innocently enough on Sunday evening, the first of several nights that our eldest daughter was away at camp, thus reducing the number of family members needed for unanimous entertainment option agreement to three. Somehow the availability of Jaws for streaming came up, and it struck each of us as a fun viewing choice for different reasons. My wife remembered seeing it many years ago. Our youngest daughter had heard about it and was intrigued. And me? I came within a shark’s tooth of seeing Jaws at a drive-in in the summer of ’77.
It is easy now to forget just how big a pop culture phenomenon Jaws became after its 1975 release. The movie allegedly deterred impressionable viewers from enjoying the beach. It was memorably lampooned in the famous “Landshark” sketches of Saturday Night Live, an effects-laden sendup called “Jowls” on The Carol Burnett Show, and a classic Mort Drucker/Larry Siegel movie parody in MAD magazine. Among the merchandising tie-ins was an Ideal Jaws game that featured a G-rated version of the Freudian movie poster on its box (minus the naked woman swimming above the advancing shark). I owned the game, which consisted of a hollow plastic shark with a hinged jaw, upon which an assorted of marine detritus was balanced. Players used a small hook to retrieve the items, until at last the weight of the remaining pieces no longer counterbalanced the tensile strength of attached rubber bands, whereupon the jaws suddenly snapped shut. I thought the game was great.
A couple summers later I was asked by a friend to accompany her family and some other kids to a drive-in showing of Jaws. I was incensed when my mother firmly declined the invitation on the grounds that the movie was too disturbing for anyone my age. Despite reminding her that I was very nearly nine years old and promising that Jaws would not instill in me a fear of the water, my repeated entreaties were unpersuasive. It was a great letdown, and I thought my mother was being completely unreasonable. In retrospect, however, and through the responsible lens of parenthood, I respect and admire the wisdom of her decision. Short of seeing the film for herself , there was no way for her to know just how intense it was, and the hype at the time proclaimed that Jaws was terrifying. My wife and I have always been rather conservative about what we have endorsed for family viewing, and only recently, with our youngest at age 12, have we carefully expanded our collective entertainment to include more mature fare.
So at long last, as we settled into our living room furniture with ample food and drink, I was finally getting around to seeing Jaws. I found the movie entertaining, though I cannot agree with its presence among our nation’s top fifty films as recognized by the American Film Institute. It was much more a cultural phenomenon than a great movie, although its storytelling is compelling and its technical execution holds up well in our digital age. Not a bad movie by any means, but far short of a great one. I was surprised by its tame depiction of shark-related violence, as I had expected a much more gory experience. However, as my wife reminded me, the graphic scenes of Jaws were more noteworthy in 1975, when a fountain of blood erupting from the waves would have shocked an audience. Ultimately, Jaws is a fun thriller, with interesting performances from its three principals offsetting a few dubious plot contrivances.
The next evening, still chewing over the previous night’s entertainment, we began to wonder how such a film could ever spawn a respectable sequel. Once again, our Netflix connection offered instant gratification to our curiosity. Jaws 2, released in 1978, clocks in at just under two hours with a threadbare script that might have made a decent half hour of television. Long stretches of the movie are simply tedious, and none of the characters nor their relationships are developed enough for anyone to care whether they are destined to be survivors or shark food. Well, that’s not entirely true, as one teenage cast member becomes so obnoxious with incessant screaming that we were begging for her to be eaten. In any case, Jaws 2 is little more than a pointless assemblage of not terribly interesting action scenes interspersed with boring filler. Remarkably, it cost more than three times to make than the original, and one wonders where the money went. Certainly not to special effects.
Having digested the first Jaws sequel and finding the experience distasteful, there was some hesitation over whether we should bother to watch Jaws 3 (1983) the next night. However, knowing that it was originally presented as a 3D film, I was thought that it might contain enough gratuitous effects shots to keep us entertained. We were not disappointed. Jaws 3 is a spectacularly bad movie, but very amusingly so. It is a great flick to laugh at together, and as it rests at the bottom of the cinematic barrel, even serious filmgoers will have no qualms about maintaining a running commentary with fellow viewers. There is so much about it that is abysmally awful, not the least of which is the cooperative participation of Sea World in the endeavor. I mean, we’re talking about a movie in which the chewed end of a severed limb floats lazily before the audience, and the brain trust behind Sea World somehow saw it as a sound promotional tool. Not to mention the out-and-out disaster that occurs at their park under incompetent management. Horrible as the association is for Sea World, Jaws 3 is never dull, and it is often laugh-out-loud funny, though the guffaws are never intentional. Our favorite part of the film, which had us in higher hysterics than many a comedy, featured the great white shark baring its teeth like a dog and roaring like a lion. I highly recommend it.
By Wednesday evening, we were nearly Jawed out, but having come this far, it seemed almost a shame not to complete the cycle. Besides, according to Wikipedia, Jaws: The Revenge (1987) is notable for being critically distinguished as one of the worst films in the history of cinema. So with great anticipation of really bad filmmaking, we hunkered down for the last chapter of the Jaws saga. Though preposterous, Jaws: The Revenge is actually more engaging than Jaws 2, with developed characters interacting in evolving relationships. The presence of Michael Caine as a romantic interest for Lorraine Gary, who played Roy Scheider’s wife in Jaws and Jaws 2, livens things up, though how the esteemed Oscar winner for Hannah and Her Sisters wound up in this mess is nearly as incomprehensible as much of the Jaws saga. Similarly, Mario Van Peebles’ turn as a good-natured Jamaican oceanographer is fun, and we enjoyed dropping the occasional ya, mon as we watched. If only it had not been a Jaws movie, the film might have worked, as the bits not involving the shark are not bad.
Thus we have joined what surely must be an exclusive circle: that small group of people who have seen all four Jaws movies (and the even smaller number who have watched them on consecutive nights, like the lowbrow’s Ring Cycle). How we’ll break the news to our eldest daughter upon her return I don’t yet know, but perhaps we can make it up to her. I see that Netflix also streams three-quarters of the Karate Kid tetralogy.