‘Jaws’ is a near-perfect classic. The sequels, not so much (Movie reviews)

After watching “Jaws” on its 40th anniversary theatrical release in June, I was inspired to follow up with the three sequels. Indeed, the residual awesomeness of the first movie is no doubt how the sequels found an audience upon their initial releases over a 12-year span in the wake of the original.

“Jaws 2” (1978), “Jaws 3” (1983) and “Jaws: The Revenge” (1987) are a collective case study in the theory that sequels get worse as a series goes along. One might think each film would improve on the previous entry, as the filmmakers learn how to do it better. But in a series driven by commercial more so than creative concerns, the opposite can be the case, and indeed, each installment of the “Jaws” series is decidedly worse than the previous one.

For starters, though, “Jaws 2” (5.7 rating on IMDB, compared to 8.1 for the original) is decent. This is the only sequel I had seen before I picked up the recently released “Jaws 3-Movie Collection” (the three sequels) on DVD for about 10 bucks. For some reason, I had a soft spot for it, and that was enhanced when I realized it was filmed in Navarre, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island of the Florida Panhandle. For the past two years, I lived in Panama City, Fla., but I often designed newspaper pages for our sister paper up the coast, site of the “Jaws 2” filming locations. Also, I looked up the release date and learned the film came out the day I was born – June 16, 1978.

“Jaws 2” is “Jaws” meets “American Graffiti.” The characters aren’t as well-rounded as those in the George Lucas classic, probably because screenwriter Carl Gottlieb — who did such a nice job with Brody, Cooper and Quint on the original — had to do a rush-job on the script after filming was underway. The actors are good at acting scared, though, and we get a general feel for this cadre of bored Amity, Mass., teens who race their small sailboats to a barrier island (artificially created in the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico).

I agree with director Jeannot Szwarc’s decision to show the shark a lot. Suspense worked for the first entry, but it wouldn’t work for the sequel, so you might as well give filmgoers exciting attack scenes, especially since the puppeteers were now more comfortable working with Bruce (the shark). Memorable shots include a boy being grabbed by the shark and slammed into a boat, a waterskier being yanked down, the shark’s gaping maw sweeping along the side of boat and narrowly missing a kid, and of course the shark taking down an entire helicopter.

Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) repeats his character arc from the original: He’s scared of sharks, and he is seen by the townsfolk to be overreacting with his dire warnings. The older Brody kid, Michael (Mark Gruner), is oddly absent in the climactic final showdown, considering that he’ll be the main character of the next two entries. The younger kid, Sean (Marc Gilpin), narrowly escapes death, and his understandable fear of sharks is established.

“Jaws 2” has a cult following, with an active Facebook page. Although no sane person argues that “Jaws 2” is better than Steven Spielberg’s classic, many fans consider the novelization by Hank Searls, based on an early script of the film, to be better than Peter Benchley’s “Jaws.” Fittingly, the “Jaws 2” DVD has a bevy of bonus features and deleted scenes, whereas the other two sequels get nothing.

“Jaws 3” (3.5 on IMDB), released theatrically as “Jaws 3-D,” takes the next step down in quality for a surprising reason — the special effects. While the film is only available on home video in 2-D, a viewer can tell when the 3-D shots appear: The frame locks in and the camera lingers as a disembodied graphic of a fish head, a human arm or whatever floats toward the audience. In the worst shot, the shark moves toward the underwater control station’s protective glass, and it blatantly looks like a static model with no sense of being a living creature.

While the idea of an inside-the-shark view (think of the Millennium Falcon flying out of the space slug’s maw in “The Empire Strikes Back”) is clever, the execution is hilarious, as a victim gets lodged in the shark’s mouth throughout the final act, rather than being swallowed. Because the victim is holding a grenade, Michael (Dennis Quaid) is able to pull the pin to blow up the shark.

Gottlieb again co-writes the script, this time with legendary horror novelist Richard Matheson, and it’s not bad. While it doesn’t make sense that Florida’s Sea World seems to be located on the coast (in reality, it’s inland, in Orlando), I like the theme-park disaster concept, which worked for “Jurassic Park” 10 years after this. A memorable sequence finds a group of tourists trapped in a section of an underwater tunnel as the shark menaces them and the outside repair crew.

Set about a decade after the first film, “Jaws 3” — directed by Joe Alves, a second-unit helmer on the earlier films — builds the character of marine biologist Michael and his colleague/love interest Kay (Bess Armstrong, later the mom on “My So-Called Life”). Sean’s (John Putch) fear of the water returns, with Kelly (Lea Thompson) helping him overcome it, although the lovebirds are oddly dropped from the final act after Kelly goes to the hospital with a shark-bite injury. If you were to watch “Jurassic Park” with temporary animation in place of the finished effects shots, it would be similar to “Jaws 3”; Louis Gossett Jr. is the John Hammond equivalent here. The effects shots are atrocious, but the script is decent and the characters are likable (and Thompson is really cute).

Last and certainly least, “Jaws: The Revenge” (2.8 on IMDB) is bad in every way. While the shark effects aren’t the wild misfire of “Jaws 3,” they are cheesy, as director Joseph Sargent shows Bruce chomping down on victims in hilarious B-movie fashion. Making things sillier, almost every target of the shark — including Mario Van Peebles and a slumming Michael Caine — ends up inexplicably surviving, even though Bruce sinks an entire biplane at one point.

As always with this series, Michael (Lance Guest) and Sean (Mitchell Anderson) are recast. Making matters worse, “Jaws 3” girlfriends Kay and Kelly are dropped without explanation and Michael is now married to another woman, Carla (Karen Young), and has a young daughter. Shaun is now the police chief of Amity, with no explanation of how he overcame his water phobia. Presumably, these life changes happened immediately in the wake of “Jaws 3,” as Guest is a bit younger than Quaid, so Michael can’t be much older here. But it seems like there’s an entire “Jaws 3.5” that we didn’t get to see.

The return of Brody’s wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), and the mention that Scheider’s Police Chief Brody died of a heart attack vaguely related to his shark fear helps us sort-of feel like this is the same family from the previous films. But Michael de Guzman’s script does the actors no favors. After Shaun is killed in Amity, Ellen suspects a shark (apparently related to the one from the first movie) is actively hunting the Brodys, following them all the way to the Bahamas. That’s stupid, but even stupider is that she is correct. Michael, still a marine biologist (the only acknowledgement by de Guzman that “Jaws 3” exists), also has a shark phobia that comes and goes.

Some argue that “Jaws: The Revenge” (which, like “Jaws 2,” has a well-regarded Searls novelization that’s different from the finished film) is less bad than “Jaws 3” due to the less-bad effects and Gary providing more of a link to the first two movies. But the revenge plot (or “excuse for making the movie”) is much dumber than the teens-in-peril and theme-park setups of the previous sequels. Furthermore, I got no sense that Quaid’s and Guest’s characters are the same person, and I felt robbed by the absence of the Brody brothers’ “Jaws 3” love interests.

“Revenge” is the only film of the series that has no redeeming value, but since it’s only 80 minutes long, a curious viewer can get through it in a few sittings if you maintain a sense of humor (I chipped away at it over the course of a month, between two residences). Overall, I recommend picking up the DVD three-pack — “Jaws 2” is entertaining and “Jaws 3” is an interesting failure.