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JAWS 2 (1978)

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"I’m telling you – and I’m telling everybody at this table – that that’s a shark! And I know what a shark looks like, because I’ve seen one up close!"
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jaws2Director: Jeannot Szwarc

Starring: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo, Jeffrey Kramer, Collin Wilcox Paxton, Mark Gruner, Marc Gilpin, Ann Dusenberry, Gigi Vorgan, Donna Wilkes, Gary Dubin, Gary Springer, Keith Gordon

Screenplay: Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler

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Synopsis: Two divers find the wreck of the Orca. As they pose in front of the boat, photographing each other, something glides through the water towards them…. Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) arrives late at a function for the Amity Shores development, with which his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), is involved. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) introduces developer Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo) to the guests, then invites Miss Amity, Tina Wilcox (Ann Dusenberry), to cut the ribbon on the project. The next morning, Brody receives a report of an unmanned boat, and sends his deputy, Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), out to investigate. Later, Hendricks shows Brody a camera found beneath the deserted boat. Out on the water, a fin breaks the surface behind a waterskier. Suddenly, the girl is dragged beneath the waves. The driver of the boat, the girl’s mother, sees only that her daughter has fallen off, and circles around to find her. There is no sign of the girl beyond her floating ski. At that moment, the woman’s boat is rammed by a gigantic shark. Screaming in terror, the woman tries to drive the animal away, first by throwing a fuel-drum at it, then by firing a flare gun. The flare ignites some spilled fuel, and the woman, the shark and the boat go up in flames. The boat then explodes. While he questions the witnesses, Brody has his subordinates drag the water in the vicinity of the accident, but they only succeed in snagging an electrical cable. The teenaged Mike Brody (Mark Gruner) and his friends sail out to a lighthouse, which stands on a small sandy island. As Tina and her boyfriend, Ed (Gary Dubin), run through the dunes, they are horrified to stumble over the mutilated remains of a killer whale. Dr Elkins (Collin Wilcox Paxton) is called in to examine the animal. Brody points out the large bite mark on the whale, but Elkins refuses to concede that a great white killed it – or that a shark killed it at all. The worried Brody embarrasses Mike by ordering him off the water in front of his friends. Brody then tracks down Mayor Vaughn at the town hall, and tells him of his fear that another great white shark is in the waters off Amity, but Vaughn refuses to listen. Brody drives along the shoreline, and stops when he sees some floating debris. Overcoming his fear of the water, he wades in to grab the debris – only to recoil in horror as a badly burned body also lurches towards him. It is the woman from the boat. That night, Brody prepares a batch of cyanide-tipped bullets. He also tries to put through a call to shark expert Matt Hooper, but learns that he is incommunicado in the Antarctic. The next day, Vaughn, Peterson and Ellen take some potential investors in Amity Shores to the beach, where they are dismayed to find Brody in the shark tower. Even as the three try to convince their clients that there is nothing out of the ordinary in the police chief’s presence, Brody sees a dark shape in the water offshore and rings the alarm bell. Then, shouting for the panicked beach-goers to get out of the water, he runs towards the water, pulls his gun and fires….

Comments: Jaws 2 is, to me, a "blah" movie: not good enough to really enjoy, but not bad enough to really get stuck into. However, since I want, in time, to move onto the far more rarefied stupidity of Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge, anality (is that a word?) dictates that I deal with their predecessor first.

After the monumental success of Jaws, the makers of the sequel were, in many ways, on a hiding to nothing here. There was no way that they were ever going to duplicate the effectiveness of the original (particularly not in the absence of Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss, both busy at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming); but there was money to be made, and so naturally they took a shot at it. Jaws 2 suffers from a very obvious case of sequelitis, being both far too similar to its model, and not similar enough: too similar, in that it duplicates much of the original’s story in way that is wholly unbelievable; and not similar enough, in that it jettisons nearly everything else that made Jaws itself work so well.

But there is some good stuff here, although it tends to come only in patches, instead of in long sequences. The one consistently enjoyable thing about Jaws 2 is Roy Scheider’s reprise of the character of Martin Brody, which anchors the film and gives it an intensity and a focus that it sorely needs. From the instant the dead whale is discovered, Scheider’s eyes take on a wonderfully panicky oh-dear-God-not-again expression. This is rapidly followed by Brody’s discovery of the floating debris – and its appendage – which is prefaced by a nicely executed reminder of Brody’s hydrophobia, as he takes endless minutes to psyche himself into going into the water to grab the debris, even as the tide drags it ever further from the shore. (As the mutilated body lurched towards the horrified Brody – and the camera - I found myself editorialising, "I can’t imagine why he hates the water.") This in turn leads to the film’s one truly effective and imaginative scene, the debacle at the beach when what Brody thinks is the shark turns out to be nothing more threatening than a school of blue-fish. The viewer can only wince as the humiliated Brody is deserted, one by one, and left alone on the beach, by the people who should be supporting him – including his own wife, painfully caught between her husband and her employer, and his eldest son. This scene has a particularly sweet and poignant coda. The one person who does not desert Brody is his younger son, Sean – from whom Brody implored a therapeutic kiss in Jaws – who joins his father and kneels silently beside him, helping him collect the spent cartridges from his gun. The only other scene in this film I’d classify as clever is the showing of the photograph to Vaughn, Peterson, and the select committee. Of course, we, like Brody, know that it’s a picture of a shark – but for all that, it’s truly not that clear. The photo is rather like one of those "Can you find Jesus in this picture?" cards: once you see Him, you can never un-see Him; but until then…. When the female committee member says apologetically, "I just don’t see it", we cannot blame her, even though we know she’s fatally wrong.

Interestingly, the only other sequence in the film that matches the beach scene for emotional credibility also involves Sean Brody. Late in the story, as a group of stranded teenagers fight for their lives against the marauding shark, Sean becomes separated from the others. Terrified into immobility after witnessing a fatal shark attack, he does nothing to help his companions help him; until finally, one of the teenaged boys becomes so consumed by fear for the child that it turns into rage, and he bellows furiously, "GODDAMMIT, SEAN, YOU GET OVER HERE NOW!!" – only, when the boy obeys, to envelop him in a smothering hug and break down into tears of relief. Another believable touch follows the first fatal shark attack upon the teens, when Tina Wilcox sees her boyfriend dragged to his death. After a few frozen moments of inexpressible horror, Tina’s first thoughts are, unromantically but perfectly naturally, for herself; and she sinks back into the boat, whispering over and over the mantra, "Make it go away, make it go away, make it go away…."

And what’s bad about Jaws 2? Well, unfortunately, that’s pretty much a case of "Where do I start?" Perhaps at the top, with director Jeannot Szwarc. Now, of course, criticising Szwarc for not being Steven Spielberg makes about as much sense as criticising a cat for not being a dog. The problem is not so much that Szwarc is a lesser director, but what kind of director he is. While he has helmed a number of cinema releases (including William Castle’s final film as producer, Bug, and the classic campfest, Supergirl), the bulk of Szwarc’s career has been spent directing made-for-TV movies, and endless episodes of television drama (including JAG Down Under. For mercy’s sake, someone keep this man away from the water!). And in a sense, that’s one of the major problems with Jaws 2: it looks like it was shot for television. There’s a flatness about it, a lack of imagination in the camera set-ups and the establishing shots; and this, along with an over-reliance on travelogue-y fun-on-the-water inserts, robs this film of much of its potential visual interest. (In fairness to Szwarc, he was brought into the project late after the original director, John Hancock, was sacked; so quite a few of the film’s shortcomings might have been beyond his control.) A second, and still bigger, problem is Bruce II. As you might recall, in my review of Jaws I speculated about what kind of movie that might have been if Bruce The Mechanical Shark had worked better. Well, in Jaws 2, we find out. Far from the slow build-up and climactic revelation of the shark that made Jaws so effective, here, from the twentieth minute onwards, we are given a series of long, loving close-ups of this patently fake animal (proving, if nothing else, that familiarity truly does breed contempt); enough to let us contemplate its plasticky nature, the way its teeth bend and wobble, and (again) its inability to pull back its lips when it attacks, as a real great white would. But obviously, none of this was enough for Szwarc who, during one of the shark’s assaults on the teenagers late in the film, gives us one shot straight down its throat – allowing us all a nice long look at the mechanisms that make it go. If this is clear and obvious in a crappy TV print, I can only shudder at the thought of what it must have looked like on the big screen.

Jaws 2 might have overcome many of these deficiencies, however, or at least been a better film, had it put more effort into its characterisations. Although it kicked off the ever-increasingly dumbed-down "summer blockbuster" phenomenon, Jaws was a film for and about adults. Three years later, sadly, things had clearly changed; and its sequel simply swarms with teenagers, none of them the slightest bit interesting. Now, since Jaws 2 was also released in 1978, I guess we can’t blame this (as we are wont to blame so much) upon the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Still, this was an ominous sign of things to come in the American movie industry, presaging the increasing – and today, overwhelming – tendency to pitch almost everything at the lucrative youth market.

During the climactic scenes of Jaws, the viewer is bound heart and soul to the three men aboard the Orca; during the climactic scenes of Jaws 2, the viewer doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether any of the kids survives or not. In fact, speaking of Halloween, what Jaws 2 most resembles is a slasher movie (to the extent that in some quarters it’s been dubbed "Jaws the 13th"): lots of boring teenagers, few of whom are ever properly identified, none of whom has anything resembling a personality, some of whom die. (In this respect, Jaws 2 pales beside a genuine slasher, where at least we’re assured that 95% of the obnoxious teens will die.) And sure, when the shark makes its assaults on the flimsy, tied-together boats on which the kids are stranded, it is horrifying, in a primitive, common-humanity sort of way; but there’s no real emotion involved; we don’t truly care.

(Just as an aside, is really there anyone out there, of any age, who particularly enjoys watching films about teenagers? I’m not all that fond of people of that demographic now, but when I was a teenager, I hated them [and myself] with a passion. The very last thing I wanted to see in a film was more teenagers. Yet clearly, somewhere along the line, someone must have decided that the only way to attract their target cash cow---uh, I mean, audience into the cinema, was to focus films almost exclusively upon that age group. I wonder who it was…? [Probably the same person who decided that twenty-something Noo Yorkers were endlessly fascinating and funny.])

And things are little better back on land. One of the most annoying things about this film is the contrived repetition of the we-can’t-close the-beaches plot thread from the original, as personified by His Weaselness, Mayor Larry Vaughn. (He’s still in office!? Whoo, Diamond Joe Quimby’s got nothing on this guy! [It’s good to see, by the way, that Vaughn is still supporting the local economy by shopping at the same clothing store as always – "Bad Taste Is Us".]) Vaughn’s mixture of scepticism and greed worked in Jaws, where no-one had any real reason to think there might be a shark around; and even here, it’s acceptable in the developer, Peterson, who is, we infer, new in town. However, this attitude is farcical in anyone who lived through Amity’s previous nightmare summer - and even more so in a man whose son (inevitably named "Larry Jr") spends all of his free time out on the water. (Apropos, not content with trotting out Vaughn’s refusal to listen to Brody, the screenplay also has him dismiss the deaths of the mother and daughter with, "That was just a boating accident." Heh!) If, before, the townsfolk worried that the word "shark" would start a panic amongst the summer visitors, wouldn’t they now be just as paranoid as Brody, and ready to head the panic themselves? But "conflict" was required, and so a very familiar "conflict" we have, culminating in Brody’s sacking as Chief of Police. (This subplot would have been more interesting if Peterson had threatened to sack Ellen, and forced Brody to choose between keeping his mouth shut, or wrecking his wife’s career.) Naturally, in next to no time, Brody is proved right and is tearing to the rescue once again, making this plot detour all the more frustratingly pointless.

What else is wrong with Jaws 2? Well, apart from the shark’s behaviour, which is like that of no other shark that ever graced the face of the planet (I’m particularly fond of the moment when the animal drags one victim through the water and deliberately slams him into the side of a boat, presumably to "tenderise" him), there’s the fact that we’ve seen well-built vessels smashed effortlessly by this animal – yet it can’t seem to penetrate the pathetic safety raft the kids construct for themselves from their capsized boats. How convenient. Still, the kids obligingly serve themselves up as victims, being unable to grasp one simple principle that might have saved their lives: when under siege by a killer shark, do not stand up in the boat! On a technical level, aside from the over-use of Bruce, there are an incredible number of continuity errors---oh, Lord, those endless, endless continuity errors! Most obvious in this department, is the way boats tend to put themselves back together following – or in one case, during - shark attacks (this is also true, as it happens, of the Orca itself, which is in much better condition at the bottom of the sea that it was on top of it); but there’s also the mysterious way that clothing – shoes, jackets – tends to come and go between shots. On top of this, there’s the strange inclusion of at least two scenes where the shot has been reversed – as with Brody’s sprint to the dock, when the signs on the buildings behind him are clearly backwards. And there’s something else about Jaws 2 that really gets up my nose--- Now, I have to be fair here, and concede that this is not the film’s fault; but as with the Spring-Loaded Cat© in Alien, and the One-Smashed-Radio© in Jaws itself, there’s something in Jaws 2 that has subsequently been copied and re-copied so many times, it makes me want to scream – the helicopter crash, ever since an unshakeable fixture of seemingly every killer-animal-in-the-water film, right through to Lake Placid and Deep Blue Sea, more than twenty years later. (Although it does occur to me that the destruction-of-a-helicopter cliché may actually have been instigated by Grizzly, two years earlier, and copied by Jaws 2 in the first place – a copy copying a copy.)

Hmm….in retrospect, there was even more to complain about in this film than I realised when I was actually watching it. So, to balance things, can I find some other positive things to say about it? Well, there’s Lorraine Gary’s performance. She doesn’t get much to do, beyond being "supportive", but she and Roy Scheider have a couple of nice moments. The relationship between the Brodys is lightly but appealingly drawn at the beginning of the film, when Martin arrives very late for Ellen’s big night, the Amity Shores development celebration. "Try to look like you’ve been here all along," whispers Ellen to her errant husband. "Look bored." Later, as the two dance, Martin suggests they "get outta here". Ellen’s response is a receptive smile and a murmured, "Wanna fool around?" And "get outta there" they do – except they have to stop and collect the dozing Sean, whom we see cradled in his father’s arms as Martin and Ellen leave. As a brief sketch of a long-married but still-loving couple, these scenes are quite charming. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film focuses upon the town teens, and there’s not much to be said for the remainder of the cast, beyond the recognition of a few familiar faces. Ann Dusenberry, "Tina", is a perfectly believable small town beauty queen, pretty without being anything extraordinary; however, her character’s ability to be on the spot whenever anything dramatic happens grows increasingly gigglesome. Another of the kids, "Doug" (I think) is played by Keith Gordon, future star of Dressed To Kill and Christine, here making his film debut. I also recognised Donna Wilkes (aka She Who Screams Incessantly), although I couldn’t immediately place her. Then, about halfway through the film, I remembered: she was "Angel", wasn’t she? (Or one of the Angels, anyway - the one that didn’t have a head-on collision with a Max Factor truck….) Speaking of familiar faces, Dr Elkins, the expert called in to inspect the dead orca, is played by Collin Wilcox, who was Mayella Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird. Wilcox’s brief, matter-of-fact performance is nice, but they stick her with the silly movie convention that insists that biologists only ever refer to animals by their Latin names – as in, "I’m having trouble finishing this review, because my Felis domesticus keeps trying to sleep on the keyboard". (There is also a line of dialogue in Wilcox’s scene that, in later years, would come back to haunt this series of films. Brody, his fear taking over, brokenly questions Dr Elkins about sharks "sensing things", only to be cut short with an abrupt, "Sharks don’t take things personally, Chief." Oh, yeah? Try telling that to the makers of Jaws: The Revenge….) John Williams is back on board in Jaws 2, and while his score isn’t as effective as the original, that darn da-dah chord can still send shivers down your spine. And finally – and yes, I am rather clutching at straws – Jaws 2 has one of the all-time great movie taglines – "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…." – although it is not, naturally, as good as the tagline for - Blood Beach….

Footnote: Reality check: the Sun-Herald, Sunday September 15th, carried a report of an encounter between some Sydney fisherman and a great white shark off Long Reef, up on the northern beaches. Sounding more aggrieved than terrified, the fisherman were quoted as complaining that the shark "grabbed the biggest schnapper they had fought all day". And as further proof that we know how to keep things in perspective here, this story was a throwaway paragraph at the end of a story entitled "Breakthrough In Preservation Of Slimy Mackerel".

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