‘Jaws 3D’: Cheap Carny Tricks and SeaWorld Sharks

timemag_cover (1)The summer of 2001 was especially tense. Having just been through an unending presidential election, the U.S. seemed especially on edge. Even before the towers fell in September, the media was already pushing a large, unknown insurgency, it’s face gracing the cover of Time just a month before.

The infamous “Summer of the Shark” cover is today gawked upon, like Y2K or the Africanized bees that preceded it. After a media feeding frenzy, there is always a through-the-looking-glass “What were we so worried about?” perspective that takes hold once reason sets in. And, as such, post-9/11, America stopped looking to the ocean.

Killer shark movies have since been relegated to direct-to-DVD shlock from Roger Corman and The Asylum.  However, just a few decades earlier, they were franchise-bait.

When Steven Spielberg was approached to direct a sequel to his first major success Jaws, he didn’t even bother responding. He would later describe the entire idea of sequels as “a cheap carny trick.” The resulting sequel, directed by Jeannot Swarc, is generally considered a reasonable follow-up if one’s expectations are adjusted accordingly. It’s a serviceable action-horror ride, hewing more closely to the popular slasher films of its era than that of its predecessor, as cookie-cutter teen archetypes are picked off one by one. Jaws 2 was the most expensive film Universal had produced at the time.

If Jaws 2 was a slasher flick, then Jaws 3D hearkened back a decade – a misguided tribute to the films of Irwin Allen. Allen, known as a hit writer and creator of such shows and films as “Lost In Space” and Voyage To The Bottom Of the Sea, turned into a much more capable pre-Roland Emmerich in the 70s, producing disaster films as opposed to outright disasters such as The Poseidon AdventureEarthquake, and The Towering Inferno. One wonders how his influence indirectly came upon Jaws 3D. It may feel like apples and oranges, but its goofy, boozy, bizarre history might shed some light on the matter.

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Originally planned by producers David E. Brown and Richard Zanuck as a spoof entitled Jaws 3, People 0, they set about hiring National Lampoon writers to work on the script. Brown decided early on that spoofing it would be “fouling in your own nest” and hired notoriously drunk science-fiction novelist and screenwriter (I Am Legend) Richard Matheson to do a draft. One must wonder, after a viewing of the film, just how much of the spoof-script was left intact. Matheson said he was unhappy with the finished film, claiming he wrote a good treatment and script. Then he went on to write Loose Cannons – a buddy cop movie involving a gay Hitler sex tape starring Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman.

Jaws 3D is set at Sea World (which, by the way, was oddly cooperative with a killer shark movie), where Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheiider of the first two Jaws films) sons are both working. On the verge of opening an underwater haunted tunnel, a great white makes it through a gate while someone closes it, leaving nothing but a hand to float at the screen. And float at the screen.And float at the screen still.  If you have no 3D glasses (the DVD doesn’t provide any), you’re just staring at a poorly integrated severed hand for a long, lingering period of time. With 80s 3D, perhaps this may have been vaguely neat (although those who saw it in 3D would say otherwise).

Dennis Quaid is obsessed, after an encounter in a yellow submarine (shut up) with the shark, to catch it. A great white had never survived in captivity. So it dies.  Fast. And then, like all Jaws films, defying all marine biological data we have, the shark’s mother comes in to fuck shit up, just as the haunted tunnel of the deep makes its grand opening.  Despite Quaid’s Richard Dreyfuss-ness at his boss/mogul Louis Gossett Jr., that attraction will remain open – even after a minor shark attack during a ski demonstration.

And herein we enter Irwin Allen-territory, the phoniest of phony monsters and all. The shark rams the underwater tunnel, slowly flooding it and trapping tourists in a seemingly inescapable situation. It is up to Quaid, Quaid’s brother, a young Lea Thompson, and Manimal to destroy the beast.

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3D is a gimmick that won’t die as films advance technologically, but of its iterations, the 80s seemed to have the least fun with it. Filmmakers always felt it necessary to somehow work it into the plot, as opposed to something like 1953’s House of Wax, which included an arbitrary paddle ball coming at the screen.  3D of the 80s also managed to look worse than the 1950s or even the post-production digital 3D of today. The shark is ridiculously awkward, floating toward the screen in dry-for-wet shots without so much as flinching a fin. It’s not just laughable, it’s hypnotic.

It’s a shame that Jaws 3D isn’t hilariously bad, given that all the elements to make it so are in place – including a grenade-wielding corpse in a shark’s mouth, life-saving dolphins, evil coral robbers (the worst kind of thieves) and some of the worst effects in a big-budget film of its time. Unfortunately, director Joe Alves (art director on the first two pictures) keeps the tone so dire and serious that there’s not a whole lot to laugh about.  What could have been so-bad-it’s-good comes off as dull.

Though this was at the time considered to be the worst film in a series that had already exhausted its premise by the second sequel, no one was prepared for the notion that the series could get any worse. But, as the irritatingly famous and well-spoofed tagline of Jaws 2 begins,  Just when you thought it was safe…

— Kenny Hedges

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