Collins’ Crypt: With JAWS 2, Lightning (Almost) Struck Twice

How do you follow perfection? Jaws 2's makers had a fairly good idea.

On Sunday night, I got to see Jaws on the big screen for the 6th or 7th time, and was once again blown away by how damn flawless the movie is. Despite the best efforts of some less than ideal audience members (i.e. the asshole in front of me who kept inexplicably checking his Apple watch) I was often glued to the screen as if I were watching the movie for the first time, marveling at how just plain wonderful it all is. The banter, the little bits of character you might not even notice at first (Hooper demonstrating he knows his way around boats by helping the little rowboat out of the harbor, for example), the way Steven Spielberg and Verna Fields can score a laugh just by fading out while Brody pleas to his mates for a bigger boat... I swear, not a minute ever passes in the film without something to remind you that it's one of the few perfect movies ever made.

So even if Spielberg had returned to direct 1978's Jaws 2, there would be almost no reason to believe it could ever measure up to the original, unless they literally made the exact same movie. Spielberg seemed to agree, and barely even considered a return - he flat out ignored the requests to do so at first, and only mulled over the possibility for a couple days when original director John Hancock left the film after a month of shooting. Ultimately, Spielberg passed and the film was completed by Jeannot Szwarc, who recast most of the film's teenager roles and had the script rewritten, adding to an already tumultuous production that made the original look like a walk in the park in comparison. But it all paid off, financially at least; while it wasn't as big of a hit as the original (then still the #2 highest grosser of all time after Star Wars took its crown the year before), its 81 million gross was nothing to scoff at, and was good enough to rank in the top 30 highest grossers ever at that time and even get a few decent reviews for good measure.

And, of course, it looks even better now than it did then, as whatever drop in quality it had from the original was nowhere near as steep as we'd see in the next two sequels, 1983's Jaws 3-D and 1987's notorious Jaws: The Revenge. At times, it's like the makers of those films wanted to retroactively make Jaws 2 look like a masterpiece, and suggesting either of them were an improvement on Szwarc's effort is an inarguable sign of insanity. No, it's clear that those two films should never have been made, and that whatever life could be pumped into the franchise was used up in 1978. Universal was fortunate enough to walk away with a pretty good flick then and should have quit while they were ahead, before the brand was tainted by the worst 3D effect in history and a roaring shark.

But WHY does Jaws 2 more or less work when the other films are barely worth watching as background noise? Stronger continuity with the first film is probably the biggest factor; while Jaws 4 had Lorraine Gary and a tiny bit of it shot in Martha's Vineyard, Jaws 2 was the only one that felt like they really put the effort into bringing back everyone they could (Jaws 3 has literally no one from the other movies, and wasn't even considered canon by the makers of Revenge). Gary, along with Roy Scheider and Murray Hamilton were all accounted for, as were several of the supporting characters (like the "I don't think that's funny at all!" lady), as well as a few primary crew members (including screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, composer John Williams, production designer Joe Alves, and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown - all but Alves would ditch the series after this). Richard Dreyfuss was shooting Close Encounters and thus unavailable, but his character Matt Hooper was at least mentioned a couple times as Brody tried getting him back to the island for help, only to discover that he had finally made it to the Aurora. The sunken Orca played a small part, and while large chunks of the film were shot in Florida, there was enough Martha's Vineyard footage to keep Amity looking more or less like we know it.

It might border on a subconscious level, but this stuff really does help make a sequel feel satisfying. Horror fans (myself included) have always whined about things like the Myers house or Crystal Lake changing from film to film, and while it sounds petty, there's a genuine argument there - the only reason we want a sequel is to return to that "world", and if the world is completely different, the sequel is no different than a knockoff. But even beyond that, Jaws 2 displays some understanding of what made the first film work, over-showing the shark notwithstanding. The characters are likable and believable, even if the script often just reprises a few lines to sell that idea (such as Ellen Brody once again asking her husband to fool around as a way to escape a dreary day), and there are a number of little nods and gags to the first film's events that I find endearing, such as Brody using his yellow barrel "float" from the ending as a planter on his front porch. And they put their own spin on some iconic scenes - the bit where young Sean Brody helps his dad pick up the bullet shells off the beach is just as endearing as his copycat activity in the first film. I've seen a number of sequels over the years that come off like no one involved had even seen the previous film(s), so when I see evidence that they were thinking things through, I can be won over.

I am also a fan of slasher movies, so I like that the film almost seems like a Jaws-ified response to the slasher boom, as the film's second half revolves around a group of trapped teens being menaced by the shark, with Brody in the Sam Loomis/Roy McLean role as the guy no one's listening to. The body count doesn't get too high (in fact, most of it comes from scattered incidents in the film's first half), but the characters - fun-seeking horny teens played by fresh-faced actors - could easily be transplanted from a Friday the 13th film. But the film was produced in 1977, long before these slashers populated theaters and every studio was trying to cash in on the trend however they could. Had Jaws 2 come along in 1981, it'd almost assuredly kill a few more of these poor boaters off, and sideline Brody to a glorified cameo (indeed, as is, Scheider was reportedly annoyed when one of the young actors got more closeups than he did on a particular shooting day). 

Combining the two above things you get the answer - it's the same but different, giving us more of what we loved but also offering situations that weren't present in the original - i.e. the ideal thing a sequel should do. For a hot second it feels like they're going to copy the "three people on a boat" motif of the first film, when Brody jumps in one with Ellen and also his deputy, but not long after, the other two return to land (with Brody's injured son) while Chief goes off alone to rescue the other kids. The climax is also visually unique; Brody crashes his police boat almost as soon as he arrives and most of the rest of the film involves a little flotilla and the kids' overturned sailboats, giving them different dangers and other ways for the shark to get them. And while a lot of the "close the beaches!" stuff suffers from deja vu, I like that the Mayor takes a backseat to the land developer guys who worry about Brody's rantings scaring off investors. In fact, in the TV version, there's a scene where the Mayor is the only one who votes against firing Brody after the aforementioned beach shooting. Unlike the first film, Brody is never vindicated in front of the others - Ellen is the one who tells off the developer after their son is injured, and the film ends before the chief returns to land. Since they killed the character off in between movies, we just have to assume they all apologized to the poor guy at some point and maybe gave him the benefit of the doubt for any future shark suspicions.

Is it a perfect movie though? No, not at all. Some of the seams of the chaotic production and rewritten script show, and the pacing is wonky on more than one occasion. Szwarc shows the shark a bit too much this time around as well; not that we need the mystery anymore, but I missed those POV shots and people being dragged around from something under the water (spoiler: the shark) moments. When the shark kills one of the teenagers, Marge (heroically dying to save Sean Brody, who'd get chomped nine years later anyway) we see more of the shark than we do her, rendering her death a little less impactful than it would had she gotten the proper treatment afforded to Quint, or even Chrissie Watkins. And while I get the idea that they might think the previous film's events were a one-and-done deal, I don't quite buy how quickly Brody (winner of an Amity "man of the year" award, apparently) is brushed off by the townsfolk when he suspects they might have another shark problem. A smarter idea might have been to introduce a new hero (or maybe even the older son) be convinced of a shark and have to get Martin believing, rather than have the same guys doubting him again.

But again, if you watch either Jaws 3 or 4, you'll recognize that Jaws 2 is apparently a minor miracle for being enjoyable, even quite good at times - and that's if you ignore/don't know how hard it was to bring to the screen at all. It simultaneously proved that you COULD make a sequel to Jaws, but also that it was already pretty tough and no one else should bother trying (the same lesson could have been applied to Jurassic Park, as even Spielberg himself couldn't get it right with Lost World, but a whole bunch of you paid to see and somehow even liked Jurassic World, despite the fact that the film is exactly as stupid as Jaws 4). If Jaws 2 is an enjoyable but unnecessary nightcap after a perfect evening you don't want to end, the others are... I dunno, drinking heavier stuff when you get home and puking everywhere or something. Long story short, they should have stopped after this one, but because they didn't, we can now claim that Jaws 2 is one of the better Jaws films, instead of the lesser of the only two that exist. Thanks, Universal!

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