The original Jaws (1975) broke box office records. To this day, it stands as the seventh highest-grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation.
As we all know, a ridiculously successful film can only mean one thing – a sequel.
But it wasn’t as much of a reflex as it is now. Quick – name a sequel made before 1975. Try Imbd. I’ll wait.
Your choices are pretty limited. You have the James Bond series, which is obviously still going strong today. The French Connection II, released the same year as Jaws. And of course The Godfather Part II. There are other scattered sequels, the Universal Horror film had a bunch, but ultimately those were the highest profile examples. But let’s look at them.
The James Bond series had a solid catalog of Ian Fleming stories to adapt, so sequels weren’t nearly as challenging. The then-latest installment, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), was the first truly original entry, just borrowing an Ian Fleming title. And it was remarkably well received. Even if they’d run out of books (almost; Moonraker and parts of The Living Daylights were still to come from Fleming), they had the structure down and still follow it to this day.
The Godfather Part II likewise had literary material to mine, using parts of the original novel that its predecessor did not.
The French Connection II is the outlier, having no novel or short story to run with. But the first film ended on a major cliffhanger. It wasn’t a huge leap to imagine the sequel following it through, which is exactly what it does.
Then there’s Jaws. It was based on Peter Benchley’s (inferior) novel, but was heavily amended from its source material. And it ends with the titular shark exploding in a bloody mess.
How do you follow it up?
Whereas Jaws essentially created the summer blockbuster, Jaws 2 spawned something else – the sequel to the summer blockbuster. A carbon copy of the original with less enthusiasm and less reason for being.
Though this was not always going to be the case.
Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper) were busy with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and both expressed that they had no interest in returning to Amity anyway. While this is a decision at least Spielberg would come to later regret, this left Roy Scheider (Chief Brody) to do the heavy lifting. And he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Fortunately for Universal Studios, Scheider had a three-picture deal, owed them two of the three and just left The Deer Hunter (1978). They offered him an arrangement – do Jaws 2 and it counts as his last two movies.
He rejected it. He didn’t want to spend another summer in the water with a malfunctioning fish. So they threw barrels of money at him until he came around.
The bigger question was who to direct? The first made Spielberg an auteuristic superstar. Who can follow that?
John D. Hancock, most famous now for the Christmas movie Prancer (1989), was chosen to write and direct. At the time he’d only helmed a B-grade horror film and an Oscar-nominated baseball drama.
He turned in a script based partly on leftover elements of Benchley’s original novel, like the mayor’s involvement with the mob and getting strong-armed into keeping the beaches open. Hancock managed to get about a month of production done before the studio called him in for a talk. A bad talk.
Hancock’s Jaws 2 envisioned Amity as financially and socially wrecked after the original film. Even though the shark was killed, the incident painted the town as a dangerous vacation spot so the vacationers stopped coming back. It’s an intriguing and darker concept that might’ve at least produced a more interesting sequel.
But the Martha’s Vineyard shops refused to make themselves look abandoned (go figure) and the studio complained that they wanted a lighter (tonally and physically; they felt his dailies were too dark) film.
That’s when it all started to fall apart. In addition to the notes on tone, the head of MCA, Universal’s parent company at the time, had one friendly suggestion – make his wife, Lorraine Gary (Mrs. Brody), a much bigger part of the movie.
Hancock refused. A little while later he fired an actress who turned out to be a ladyfriend of another MCA higher-up.
Suffice it to say, Hancock was shown the door.
The big-budget sequel ($30 million to the original’s final tab of $10 million) was in danger of losing momentum so they brought on Jeannot Szwarc to direct a new script by Howard Sackler and Carl Gottlieb.
Szwarc had been mostly a TV and TV movie director, having worked on some of the same shows as Steven Spielberg. His hiring made perfect sense.
And Roy Scheider hated his guts. Rumors have persisted that tensions ran so high between them that they got into a fistfight. The problem seems to have stemmed from Szwarc’s focus on the special effects and compositions as opposed to actually communicating with the actors. Jaws 2 didn’t just create the summer blockbuster sequel, but the summer blockbuster sequel director.
Despite many and varied problems, some shared with the original movie’s production and some brand new, the movie premiered with a marketing blitz on June 16th, 1978.
And it had the one of the greatest taglines of all time:
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…
And it broke records. It went on to become the highest grossing sequel ever made at the time. Unfortunately it lost that record to Rocky II the very next year. But that’s another series for another post.
So is it a good movie?
Let’s look at the story.
Two scuba divers find the underwater wreck of the Orca. While this provides a nice nod to the original, it also just makes us want Quint back. But wouldn’t you know it, a shark shows up. And does what sharks tend to do. When there’s a killer shark in Amity, there’s only one man to call – Chief Martin Brody.
Well not yet. We haven’t been shown how evil the shark, which has a huge burn scar along its nose in this one, is yet. So it swims into Amity sound and kills a hapless teen (this will be a recurring theme) water skier. But it’s just getting warmed up. It pursues the boat that was dragging her, wrecks it and gets the boater to accidentally kill herself.
If that sounded strangely dark, that’s because it is. And it’s the main problem with this movie.
Jeannot Szwarc, to his credit, seems to have the Spielberg visual style pretty down pat. The classy pans, focus shifts and measured compositions are all here. But he doesn’t have any of the instinct.
In the first movie, the shark kills one swimmer and that starts the whole investigation. Here it kills four people. This movie follows the same structure but tries to up the ante by making it more violent and grisly. By any means necessary.
What do I mean? The first movie is that rarest of creatures – a blockbuster with no stupid characters. Some of them may do stupid things (i.e. the mayor keeping the beaches open) but there’s a real, rational reason for it (the city would lose tremendous income).
From the opening minutes of this movie, we see a woman try to scare off a shark by pouring gasoline on it, then fire a flare gun while she’s soaked in it. Firing a flare gun or trying to pour gas on a shark would be considered panic. But doing both is stupid. She died of her own stupidity. And why? To up the body count, add an explosion and get a really gross (and cheap) jump scare later in the movie.
It’s pointless and it really makes the movie feel grimy at times. But let’s keep moving.
Because of the explosion, the shark has a burn scar across its nose. So that’s how it’s different from the last movie’s shark. This helps to figure out which Jaws you’re watching when you’re seeing what’s on.
But now Chief Brody is in the mix after getting a call about a dead killer whale washing up on shore. In an interesting turnaround from the first movie, it’s Brody who hopes it’s a boating accident so that he doesn’t have to kill another shark.
But we have to stop again. The killer whale is an attempt to do things differently. After all, a great white would have affects on the local sealife. But it’s done without grace. We see a beached, gutted orca in all its gruesome glory. Sure, it reminds us how dangerous and deadly this shark is, but we’ve already seen four people die. And we have the entire first movie to remind us if we napped through the start of this one. It’s an unnecessary show of blood and guts. Again, no restraint.
The most gruesome things in the original were mostly implied, apart from a stray body part or Ben Gardner’s head.
Take, for instance, when Hooper examines the remains of the swimmer. He’s handed a bucket and told that’s all they could find. You never see inside the bucket, but it’s disgusting just the same. It makes your skin crawl.
In this movie, it’s all on the screen. That boater from earlier makes a return appearance. Brody finds the remnants of the boat floating off shore and investigates, only for (stop reading if you still want to be surprised by a nearly 35-year-old movie) the charred and bloodied corpse to seemingly leap out of the water and into his arms.
He screams, they tussle and he drops it in the water, shocked. Is it surprising? Yeah. Scary? Only for a moment. It just makes you feel bad for Chief Brody and Roy Scheider. It’s disgusting and tasteless. But the show must go on. Back to the killer whale-
An expert (not Matt Hooper, alas) convinces Brody it’s a shark attack. Once again he goes to the mayor, played wonderfully again by Murray Hamilton. And like last time, he doesn’t want the beaches closed.
From there you can pretty much guess how the movie progresses. The only two notable additions are teenagers and an attempt at a possible rival for Mrs. Brody’s affections.
Let’s talk about the teenagers. I don’t know any movie that can really be improved by the forceful addition of teenagers. My best guess is they added the big group of seemingly nameless (except for Brody’s kids) teenagers to appeal to a big part of the audience from the original. But here’s the problem – none of them are remotely interesting. I’ve watched this movie dozens of times and couldn’t pick out what hardly any of them do or say.
Instead of Brody, Hooper and Quint, a trio of experts in their own fields, forced together to try and cooperate and kill the shark, we get teenagers flirting with her. The only line I remember anyone saying is “She’s got tits like a sparrow.” And I don’t really know what that means.
Roy Scheider manages to carry the movie almost by himself. He has no other great actors to team up with. And unfortunately for the next movie they figured the teenagers could handle the whole thing themselves.
A couple teens die. At the end they’re all in danger and Brody swoops in to save them all, but you never care enough about any of them to feel any danger. You just want to make sure Brody doesn’t die. And no, he doesn’t die. The shark does. If that’s a surprise to you, you need to get out more.
The other addition is the romantic subplot as I mentioned. Early in the movie, when we first meet Brody, we follow him (in a gorgeous long take from a beach road to the interior of a hotel) to a new resort his wife had a hand in designing. This hotel, designed by professional scumbag Len Peterson (played well by Joseph Mascolo), is supposed to bring the masses to Amity. Obviously another shark in the water would put a dent in those plans. So Peterson is instrumental in getting Chief Brody fired after one too many paranoid beach evacuations. All the while he’s trying to cozy up to Mrs. Brody (Lorraine Gary, who does have a bigger role than in the first, as per her husband’s request). From here on out, the Jaws movies try to push a romantic subplot into each entry. And it never works. In this film, it goes nowhere. As you’d expect, Mrs. Brody stays with her shark-killing husband and Peterson is shown as a creep.
Interestingly, this was from the original novel Jaws. But it was Hooper romancing Mrs. Brody. Successfully, I might add. And in Hancock’s original Jaws 2 script, Peterson was played by an entirely different actor (Dana Elcar, of MacGyver fame, who filmed for that fateful month) and had mob ties. That would’ve been the focus instead of the trite love triangle that dies a worse death than any of the boaters in Amity.
Would it have been better? I don’t know, but it would’ve been a more bold break from the first movie.
So how is it as a whole?
Not bad. Better than a killer shark sequel has a right to be, especially one with so little of the original’s cast and crew.
It’s leagues better than what was to follow and taken on its own, it’s perfectly acceptable summer entertainment. Roy Scheider, the shark and John Williams are the greatest assets to its success. Brody is in top form and it’s hard to tell he was so dejected about the film. The shark is as big and threatening as ever, but it’s not shot in the same “what you don’t see is even scarier” flair. And John Williams returns to the series that made his music (in)famous. The shark’s theme returns but alongside a lot of new and excellent compositions right at home in Amity.
It’s biggest problem is Steven Spielberg. Or a lack of him. The first film was so inimitably a Spielberg picture that they should’ve tried to take a different approach to the followup. Make it a different sort of movie, one with its own distinct visual style. Sadly, that seemed to be the route John D. Hancock wanted to take. But we’ll never know.
Without Spielberg, the shark is nastier, the swimmers are dumber and the whole thing just isn’t quite as fun.
I once heard Jaws described as a B-movie made as an A-movie. And that’s precisely what it is. Spielberg did it the way he wanted and made it far better than anyone would’ve expected. But Jaws 2 is a B-movie made as one. It won’t wow you, but you probably won’t be disappointed.
Jaws 2 getting triple the budget of the first didn’t pay off quite like they’d hoped; it only grossed about 40% of the original.
But it still brought in money by the truckload. The sequel experiment paid off. And that could only mean one thing…