The summer of 1978. Jaws 2 debuts to a respectable box office, in total earning about $81 million and ending up as the seventh highest-grossing film of the year. Great news for Universal Studios, right?
The original Jaws (1975) was made for somewhere between $7 and $10 million, after production ran over budget. But the studio didn’t mind so much when it went on to take a seventh place of its own, but on a slightly different list.
It is still, when adjusted for inflation, the seventh highest-grossing feature film of all time. It pulled in $260 million in 1975. To put it in perspective, that’s 2600% of its budget. And that’s a big damn deal.
Jaws 2 cost $30 million, meaning it didn’t even earn double its budget. While still not a failure, that’s a mighty disappointment.
So producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown went back to the drawing board. Clearly there was still an audience who wanted killer sharks, but how would they proceed?
Forcing another Great White into Amity would just be a rehash of a rehash. And that might mean not even recouping its budget.
To make matters worse, any hope of getting many if any of the principal players was long gone. Spielberg wasn’t coming back. He was off making the twentieth highest-grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and the fourth highest-grossing film of all time (also adjusted), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
But they didn’t have him for Jaws 2, so at least they could use some familiar faces for the audience.
Roy Scheider was so miserable (and vocal about it) on Jaws 2, that the producers knew not to even approach him with an offer. Any price that would approach convincing him to fight another mechanical fish would automatically drive the budget way out of feasibility. But that wasn’t enough. He agreed to do another film, Blue Thunder (1983), to make sure he wasn’t even physically available.
So they decided to take a risk and change the equation entirely – Jaws 3 was to be a comedy.
And it would be named Jaws 3, People 0.
Zanuck and Brown were prepared to do it right.
First off they needed a producer who better grasped comedy. Matty Simmons fit the bill.
Simmons was the push that convinced the National Lampoon magazine to expand into film and radio. He’d just produced the brand’s risky first foray into film – National Lampoon’s Animal House. And it went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time.
A comedy producer who turned a $2.8 million collegiate farce into a $141 million success? He was exactly who Zanuck and Brown needed.
In an ironic twist, Animal House was the third highest-grossing film of 1978, four places ahead of Jaws 2. And it only had about one tenth the budget. As we’ll see later on, 1978 and Jaws 2’s competition in theaters will intertwine yet again. But that’s all in due time. Now the trio of producers needed writers.
And what writers they chose.
Tod Carroll didn’t have much of a resume when he was hired on to handle co-writing duties on the picture. He’d only written an episode of Delta House, the neutered TV spin-off of Animal House. But that got him in with Simmons, which was all he needed.
The other writer wasn’t much better off, having scripted a handful of Delta House episodes but little else. His name was John Hughes.
For those of you who might not immediately understand the weight of that name, allow me to explain.
Breakfast Club John Hughes. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off John Hughes. Sixteen Candles John Hughes. Uncle Buck John Hughes. Weird Science John Hughes. Home Alone John Hughes. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York John Hughes. That John Hughes.
So what did they cook up?
Jaws 3, People 0 was to follow a group of filmmakers as they tried to make the actual Jaws 3. The only problem was that the shark kept eating them. One of its earliest scenes sees Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel Jaws, eaten by the shark before he can write a novel of Jaws 3. Richard Dreyfuss was supposedly going to return. The script is circulating online and it’s worth looking at if you have the motivation and (in)sanity to read it. It’s admittedly hit-and-miss with the jokes, but it’s a fascinatingly self-aware and heady take on a sequel for the time.
And they’d need a director deft and crazy enough to handle it.
Enter Joe Dante, the man who would be most famous for the Gremlins franchise. Like the writers, he wasn’t the most experienced director around, but he had one key production that scored him the job.
Like any wildly successful film, endless knock-offs and imitations are sure to follow. Jaws arguably started this modern trend or at least revived it from the horror films of the 50s and 60s.
Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) was one such rip-off. One that Steven Spielberg himself called “the best of the Jaws rip-offs.”
The film worked as both a parody and a copy of Jaws. Today it might be overshadowed by the recent 3D remake (2010) and its sequel (2012). Ironically, the remake features a brief cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who has admitted that he was reprising his role as Matt Hooper from the original Jaws.
But all that owes to the success of the original. It was made for less than a million, somewhere around $750,000. And while it didn’t make Animal House numbers, it earned $10 million, over ten times its budget.
Turning a shoestring budget into a box office smash. That would be the common ground between all the creative minds involved.
A John Hughes co-scripted satirical sequel to Jaws, directed by Joe Dante of Gremlins fame and produced by Matty Simmons, famous for Animal House and the Vacation series.
There’s no telling how it would’ve turned out, but that’s leagues (get it? a nautical term) more interesting and enticing than the sequel we eventually got.
So what went wrong? The production was already several million dollars into motion. What could derail it?
Steven Spielberg. See, even though Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and 1941 (1979) didn’t break any box office records, he was still assuredly the studio’s golden child. And they weren’t about to make him mad.
But in an ironic twist, it wasn’t the first time the studio asked for Spielberg’s input on a comedic Jaws send-up. In that fateful summer of 1978, the powers-that-be at Universal were ready to sue a certain motion picture out of existence because it was just too much like Jaws. But it had one powerful defender – Spielberg himself. He convinced them to let it be. The film? Piranha. Directed by Joe Dante.
The circle completing itself, Spielberg was furious about the mocking nature of the film and threatened to leave the studio if it went forward.
The plug was pulled.
Jaws 2, People 1.
Brown and Zanuck gave up the shark business and the Universal business once it all fell through. The pair kept producing with remarkable success, with films like The Verdict (1982) and Cocoon (1985). Zanuck found great success late in life after producing several of Tim Burton’s films on his own.
But now that left the Great White without a producer, writers, stars or any hopes of feeding again.
Until an insignificant entry in a long-dead genre threw some chum in the water.
Comin’ At Ya! (1981) wasn’t a great film by most accounts, but it was cheap and it made a bunch of money. And it was all because it was the first 3D film in almost twenty years.
This second boom of 3D reinvigorated a handful of horror franchises looking to make a fast buck with a gimmick. Friday the Thirteenth 3 (1981), Amityville 3-D (1983) and now Jaws 3D (1983).
What’s scarier than a shark? A shark swimming right into the audience.
Unfortunately the rushed production of Jaws 3D coupled with the less well-known names involved meant there wouldn’t be many notes or clear stories about its undertaking. From here on out, this is what I’ve gathered or pieced together.
Producer Rupert Hitzig was chosen to spearhead the sequel, having only worked on TV shows, TV movies and one horror film (1981’s Wolfen). But that was pretty much the same story for everyone involved with the Jaws franchise. So never fear. At least not yet.
Joe Alves was a safe bet as a director. He’d served admirably as the production designer for the first two Jaws features and was a second-unit director for the second. If anyone knew this shark, it was him. The fact that he’d never directed first-unit or anything with a plot surely wouldn’t matter.
Guerdon Trueblood was chosen as the writer. His background was (guess now) TV shows and TV movies. His concept was based on an article he’d read about a shark swimming upstream and getting trapped in a manmade lake.
This idea was shared and developed by Richard Matheson and Carl Gottlieb, one of the best possible combinations Hitzig could’ve rounded up. Matheson was famous both in and out of the TV/film world. His novel I Am Legend rejuvenated the vampire in the public’s eyes. His writing work on The Twilight Zone has become legendary. And he wrote an unexpected box office smash called Duel (1971), directed by a green TV director named Steven Spielberg.
Gottlieb, while not nearly as storied as Matheson, worked on the scripts for the first two Jaws films.
Anyone who’s seen the final film know that it’s only tangentially related to a shark getting trapped in a lake.
Hollywood. Screenwriting is a messy process. It may seem like the credited writers turn in a script, maybe rewrite it and go home with a paycheck. If only it were that simple. Any given film goes through dozens of rewrites and the only writers credited are the ones who change/write the most. And the ones credited in the final film are the ones who get the biggest paycheck and residuals every time the movie plays. That, in turn, encourages rewriters to arbitrarily change as much as they possibly can get away with to score a credit.
That, in turn, makes shitty movies.
Like Jaws 3D.
So without further ado, here’s the plot.
Like Jaws 2, it opens with water skiers. And wouldn’t you know it, a shark is after them.
But surprisingly it doesn’t attack or kill them. It just follows them back to the guarded lake, a SeaWorld park, where they work. On its way into the facility, the Great White breaks the gate that ordinarily keeps undesirables (read: Great Whites) out.
The park’s animals start acting funny (read: trying not to get eaten by a Great White) and we’re introduced to the film’s cast.
Without rewatching the movie as I type this, I can name two offhand. I have some nicknames for the rest, but all I got are Mike and Sean. And they’re the only link to the first two movies, so that doesn’t count.
Instead of just being honest and admitting this film has nothing to do with the first two, Chief Brody’s two sons are dragged into the mix. They both appeared in Jaws 2, but I couldn’t pick out the faces. Which comes in handy considering they’re recast here.
What’s surprising, considering the last film had a gaggle of entirely forgettable teenagers played by mostly forgettable actors, is that Jaws 3D manages to get a trio of recognizable players.
Mike Brody, the de facto hero, is played by Dennis Quaid, whose long career includes The Parent Trap remake (1998) and The Rookie (2002). He’s almost impossibly young and equally as boring. There’s just nothing interesting for him to say or do, including killing a shark if you can believe that.
Kelly (whose name I had to look up and whose last name is completely meaningless) is played by Lea Thompson, most famous as Marty McFly’s mom from Back to the Future (1985). She’s given less to do than Dennis Quaid, aside from one scene, but we’ll get to that.
That leaves Louis Gossett, Jr. as the park’s unscrupulous owner, Calvin. He serves the same purpose as the mayor in the first two, but he actually gets proactively involved with the plot by the end. He’s a veteran of B-movies and certainly knows he’s in one. That’s a compliment to his performance, by the way. And it may be the last one I can so easily give.
The rest of the characters consist of Mike’s love interest, Kay, who serves as the Matt Hooper of the movie, Mike Brody who doesn’t do anything, an Australian hunter whom I’ve nicknamed Muldoon in honor of Jurassic Park and a hapless array of teenagers in skimpy clothes.
As I said about Jaws 2, they took the pointless kids from the last movie and given this one to them entirely. And it’s dirt boring.
Once we know the gang well enough to not fall asleep, a park diver sets out to fix the broken gate. Sure enough, he’s eaten. Then come some coral thieves in the night. They also get eaten.
First off, having coral grow freely in the bottom of a Floridian lake that’s skied on and dived in with regularity makes no logical sense whatsoever. Any given aquarium will have coral in specially designed and maintained tanks. It’s delicate stuff. And if there’s one thing this film is not, it’s delicate.
The nastiness of Jaws 2 is in full swing here, but with a key difference – clumsiness. Jaws 2 had dumb characters, but we tended to like them. We don’t even know their names here. And the direction is sloppy at best. So the deaths come off as gross-out gags rather than actual scares.
And there’s the 3D. Modern audiences will know 3D from Avatar and its ilk. That’s start-to-finish 3D depth. Here, the 3D is (graciously) limited to a few cheap and disgusting (but one hilarious) effects shots. Director Alves felt that, even though he had no practical experience helming a film, the 3D “gave him an edge.” The only thing it gave him was a reputation. It’s funny in the worst way.
But I’ll stop beating on it for now.
Once Mike and the hapless teenagers realize the diver is still missing a day later, they investigate. Diving into the lake, they reach a sunken ship (again, why is all this in a controlled, wildlife-filled lake?). Two dolphins, who amazingly become main characters, try to play with them, but they press on and do indeed find a shark.
But the audience knows it’s way too small to be the maneater. Admittedly, this bit of dramatic irony, where we know what the characters fatally don’t, is about the most compelling plot point of the film.
Calvin, the park’s profiteering owner, hires a hunter, Muldoon, to kill the shark on national TV. Man the 80s were a different time. There’s a genuine buzz that killing a shark for all the media to see would be a great marketing opportunity. I’d like to see someone try that nowadays. Your move, SeaWorld.
But Kay, the Matt Hooper, convinces him that catching the shark and making it an exhibit would be a better investment long term. He agrees because money.
They catch it and throw it in a tank before it has any time to acclimate. And on live TV, it dies. While this scene should be sad, it’s kind of funny because it’s plain to see that Mike and Kay are just shaking a rubber shark in a waist-high tank of water.
But at least they caught the killer shark, right?
Every aquarium worth its salt has a glass tunnel through a big tank of fish. And this fictional SeaWorld is no different. And the hapless (notice the pattern) tourists milling through it are eating it and the subpar 3D effects up. Until the eaten-up body of the first diver smacks against the glass.
If you were wondering how nasty this movie can be, look no further. The low budget but still disgusting corpse hits the glass and the girl who spots it screams. In the ensuing panic, she’s pressed against the walls of the tube, pretty much mouth-to-mouth with the decaying body.
It’s dumb, it’s forced and it’s just uncomfortable. Every time I see this part I can’t help but cringe.
But at least it gives Mike and co. a body to examine. And that body tells them that the shark that died was the baby of a bigger, deadlier shark. Our shark.
Then the hunt is on to find the big one and take it down. Grenades are involved.
Jaws 3D, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t a good movie.
There are a handful of moments that I’d like to highlight if only to further my point.
I mentioned earlier that Lea Thompson’s character is pointless save for one scene. She’s part of the park’s water skiing pyramid. Because it’s a Jaws movie, that fin breaks the water and attacks the group. Mike runs around a lot, trying to get people on shore. But alas, Lea Thompson got bit on the leg. And it’s a grisly wound. We’re supposed to feel the now-real threat of this shark. It attacked one of our friends.
But we hardly know her character. And now we’ve had two films to demonstrate just how much of a bad time a Great White can be. While I strongly feel sequels should be at least accessible to people who haven’t seen their predecessors, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t grasp that a Great White shark is terrifying. So her entire character fails to serve her purpose.
Failing to serve a purpose is a common theme in this entry.
Later on, we have the main characters in the park’s control room, which somehow is only as big as your average motorhome. They all work to do…something to stop the shark but wait – it’s watching them through the conveniently placed but terribly unsound window that shows the underside of the lake. And it’s coming straight for them!
The 3D is supposed to be nerve-grinding. But the shark doesn’t move. Sure, it approaches the glass, but its fins don’t sway. It’s mouth doesn’t open. It’s tail is rigid as a ruler. And once it hits the glass, it shatters but the shark stays perfectly still. You can achieve a pretty spot-on recreation of the effect by looking at the picture on the side and just moving your head towards it.
Then the next shot is the control room just besieged by water. And the shark attacks, etc.
I don’t have to explain why that’s bad.
The final moment is one that every movie in the series has struggled with save the original – how the shark dies.
Jaws – it explodes.
Jaws 2 – it gets electrocuted.
Jaws 3D – let’s just blow it up again.
But the contrivances the movie takes to set up the explosion are brilliant in their own way. See Muldoon set out to hunt the bigger shark armed with the only weapon a self-respecting sealife expert would recommend – hand grenades.
But he’s eaten by the shark (in a manner that’s seemingly a poorly drawn homage to Quint), grenades and all. Oh well.
But in the end, when the shark finally goes for Mike, it opens its mouth wide and reveals that Muldoon is still stuck inside. He’s dead as a doornail but holding an outstretched grenade.
So Mike does what any of us would do and takes a hook on a pole and manages to snag the pin of the grenade, pulling it out and blowing the shark sky high.
Cue the crappy 3D. From the underwater cloud of murky shark blood, two bones float out toward the viewer. What are they? Jaws.
I said it before and I’ll say it again.
Delicate this movie is not.
Jaws 3D is trash. It has its charms if you’re watching it wanting a laugh, but it fails wonderfully at actually being a thriller. It’s a tragic irony that the entry that was supposed to be a comedy is so laughably bad.
The direction by Joe Alves is competent in spurts but purely schlocky where it counts. The charred corpse in Jaws 2 is poetic in comparison. He never directed again and with good reason. He just doesn’t have the eye or mindset for storytelling.
The script was rewritten into a dark, dumb hole. Not one scene is memorable, at least not in the good way. Not one character says or does anything that sticks with the audience.
John Williams decided it was time to stop playing with fish and left the scoring up to Alan Parker. The famous theme is used but the rest of the incidental music is new and not bad.
Jaws 3D lives and dies by its gimmick. But mostly dies. It hasn’t been rebroadcast in 3D and the fad died out within the next year. Critics hated it. Most pointed out very accurately that it really has no right to even be linked to the first two films. I’d call into question just why the Brody family seems cursed with Great White sharks, but I’ll save that for the next and final film – it provides the worst possible explanation.
The series should’ve ended with Jaws 2 or tossed the Brody family altogether. An unrelated shark attack might not’ve been unique anymore, but it wouldn’t be so upsetting to the original story.
I really can’t recommend Jaws 3D except as a joke. Watch it if you really want to finish the series. But otherwise pretend it doesn’t exist. The next film glosses right over it. And maybe you should too.
It was cheap and it showed. It was made for about $20 million, two-thirds of the last film’s budget. And when it opened on July 22nd, 1983, audiences went for it. Well, relatively so.
Jaws 3D ended up grossing around $45 million, a little over twice its budget. It wasn’t the biggest hit of the year and, unlike its predecessors, didn’t even break the top ten highest-grossers.
Matty Simmon’s latest production, National Lampoon’s Vacation, took over $60 million that same summer and went on to become a long-running franchise. Steven Spielberg’s The Twilight Zone, which he produced and partly directed (which, it should be noted, featured a segment directed by Joe Dante), wasn’t so successful. Marred by a tragedy I won’t get into here, the film grossed $30 million on a $10 million budget.
While $45 million isn’t a lot of money in Universal’s pocket, it was a big enough return-on-investment to convince them maybe another shark might still be lurking in the water.
Unfortunately, they were correct.
And it was the meanest of the bunch.