By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where it’s more or less safe to go back in the water.
THE FILM: Jaws 2
THE TIME: 1978. In 1975, Steven Spielberg had created a new genre with Jaws: the summer blockbuster. This film, along with 1977’s Star Wars, created a demand for bigger, louder summer fare and inadvertently began the slow death of American New Wave. This also contributed to the insatiable hunger for endless sequels, which began with the completely unnecessary Jaws 2.
RECOLLECTIONS: Universal was desperate for a follow up to Jaws. Many ideas were floated around, including main character Brody’s (Roy Scheider) sons hunting a shark and a prequel about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis starring a younger version of Quint, Robert Shaw’s scene-stealing character from the first film. Unfortunately, none of these interesting elements made it into the sequel.
From the start, the film seemed destined for failure. Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss passed, with Spielberg publicly disparaging the idea of a sequel (even though he would later offer to make it himself). Roy Scheider didn’t want to return, but due to a contract dispute, was forced to by the studio. Even though he was paid four times as much as his appearance in the first film, he hated the experience and despised the director.
The film is a forced retread, and it often feels like it. Considering the circumstances, how could it not? Seriously, how could this film — set in the same location, with (some) of the same cast, facing the same highly unlikely threat — not leave the audience feeling like they paid to see a cheaper knock-off?
There are beats that imply that the writers and director did make some attempt to approach the film differently from its 1975 predecessor. The shark was given gnarly scars for a more monstrous appearance, a subplot was developed that involved stranded teens, and perhaps most superficially, the monster was burned alive instead of being blown up. (Brody’s new one liner, “open wide”, was definitely less potent than “smile, you son-of-a-”) The shark also managed to bring down a helicopter, though for some reason a more suspenseful extended scene was cut in which the pilot tries to escape before the shark devours him.
The increased presence of a shark meant a greater understanding of the limits of late 70s Hollywood effects. And without a Quint or a Hooper — charismatic costars to work off of — Brody ended up carring the film alone. Despite the film’s flaws, for a year at least it was one of the highest grossing sequels of all time. Over time Jaws has ascended to classic status, while the host of problems with Jaws 2 have only become more apparent.
It’s no small wonder. Jaws is a unique creature feature. Part thriller, part horror, crafted by a brilliant filmmaker at the start of his career. Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge are ridiculous schlock that are incredibly fun to watch because of their glaring problems and poor special effects. Jaws 2 is… just there, neither atrocious nor innovative, languishing in basic cable marathons, unloved.
THE DIRECTOR: There were two directors that worked on this unbearably mediocre film. The first, John Hancock, was fired a month in because the studio hated his vision of a darker sequel set in a ruined Amity Island. However, other sources claim it was Hancock’s refusal to give the studio president’s wife, Lorraine Gray, a larger role. Universal then chose Jeannot Szwarc, but only after Spielberg, who suddenly expressed interest in returning and wrote his own screenplay, was unable to start immediately due to commitments to Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
He ditched the first film’s shrewd decision to keep the shark’s appearances to a minimum, which unarguably doubled its suspense (though that decision may have made mainly because the mechanical shark was so damn unreliable). Instead, Szwarc brought the shark to the forefront; he felt audiences would arrive to see more of the film’s marquee monster. Szwarc may have had a point, but even with a higher kill count and more creative deaths, the film never reached the heights of Jaws.
The director also constantly clashed with Roy Scheider, physically at times, over the direction of the film and is blamed, along with the screenwriters, for creating a largely forgettable film with boring subplots and logic issues no suspension of disbelief could overcome. He would go on to direct Somewhere in Time, Santa Claus: The Movie, and a handful of Smallville episodes.
THE CAST: Returning from the original film, Roy Scheider played a more shaken and paranoid version of his character, Chief Brody. Loraine Gray ultimately got her larger role as Ellen Brody, and would go on to enjoy an even bigger presence in Jaws: The Revenge. Murray Hamilton returned as Mayor Vaughan, once again ignoring the mountain of evidence that the island was in danger because it’s tourist season, damn it.
Joining the Mayor and shark as the film’s primary antagonist was Joseph Mascolo, as crooked developer Len Peterson. Brody’s children, Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) found themselves fleeing the monster, along with Tina (Ann Dunsenberry), and Marge (Martha Swatek). Martha Swatek’s character in particular was one of the more tragic and brutal deaths in the film.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Repressed nightmare. The film is not bad. Had this been a Roger Corman film we might even say it was pretty good. But following in the footsteps of the first great blockbuster, being mediocre and often boring is simply unforgivable.
RETROGRADE: 3 out of 10