Jaws: The Revenge Production Analysis, Part 3: Sequel Envy
Sigourney Weaver’s return to the role of Ellen Ripley in Aliens, James Cameron’s sequel to Alien, proved to be a big hit in the summer of 1986. Not only was Aliens one of the top ten highest-grossing films of 1986, it was also the only one of the ten that was a monster movie sequel which featured a female lead. It was such a hit that Weaver scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Weaver’s first nomination). It’s not a matter of whether Weaver deserved the nomination or not; what the nomination did prove is that an actress could earn significant critical acclaim from within the industry for reprising a role in a monster movie sequel—particularly a female, maternally-oriented role such as Ellen Ripley.
While the profitability of a monster movie sequel like Aliens probably spurred the quick production of Jaws: The Revenge, I don’t think that Revenge was intended to be a rip-off of Aliens in terms of plot. (That said, the beeping homing beacon that’s attached to the shark in Revenge serves as similar dramatic purpose as the beeping motion detectors in Aliens.) Yet because the aforementioned trade announcement in Part 2 of this analysis places the completion of the initial script as late as December of 1986 and a production deadline of July 1987, it appears to me that Sid Sheinberg pushed hard for an Ellen Brody-centric Jaws sequel after industry buzz began to build around Weaver’s performance in Aliens and the possibility of an Oscar nomination. If anything, it clearly convinced Sheinberg and his wife Lorraine Gary that a Jaws movie could be made featuring a “violent episode of woman versus nature” as its climax while Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Amity Island, and even the titular shark itself were relegated to secondary roles. Read on ...
(To be fair, some actors have looked to the horror genre as a way of continuing their careers. For example, Chuck Connors appeared in many horror movies and TV shows during the 70s and 80s after having an early career based heavily on the action/adventure and western genres. Given how Revenge fails as a horror movie, it’s my guess that such a career move was never part of Gary’s plans.)
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens,
kicking alien butt and taking complicated,
hard-to-pronounce alien names.
The Revenge script had Gary in the role of Ellen Brody do all sorts of melodramatic, matronly things: mourn the death of a son, overcome personal trauma, dote over her granddaughter, argue with her other son over his career choice, and find love again in the shadows of her deceased husband and child. All of these plot elements would be worthy of strong critical acclaim in almost any other film. However, Jaws: The Revenge wasn’t Sophie’s Choice or Terms of Endearment; it was a Jaws sequel and a monster movie and as long as it failed at being both of those things (no matter how “human” the story was intended to be), no one could expect much more to be accomplished—let alone anything that would earn an Oscar nomination. In contrast, Aliens was a great sequel to Alien and a great monster movie in its own right, and it was within that context that Weaver was able to earn critical praise and an industry award nomination. Whatever character development and acting challenges there were in Aliens, they fit smoothly into the plot of the movie without compromising its entertainment value. The same cannot be said for Revenge. (It’s also worthy to note that Aliens was cheaper to make than Revenge, with an estimated budget of $18,500,000.)
In a further ironic twist, Sigourney Weaver’s nomination for Aliens did not result in an Oscar win for her in 1987 after all. However, Michael Caine, who was in Revenge, did win an Oscar for his work in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters but he could not receive the award in person because he was still shooting the Jaws sequel. In other words, Caine couldn’t pick up his acting award because he was stuck in a picture designed to help another actor get a critical boost to her career. While Oscar nominations eluded Gary and the Revenge cast and crew, they did get nominated for seven Razzie awards. Interestingly, both Weaver and Gary were nominated for Best Actress for the Saturn Awards (for Aliens and Revenge, respectively) but only Weaver won.
Michael Caine at sea, desperately searching for
the 1987 Academy Awards ceremony.
It’s a stretch in the absence of hard evidence to connect the critical and financial accomplishments of one genre film to the production of another. Yet looking at the time frame presented—the release of Aliens in summer of 1986, Revenge’s absurd creative choices, its tight production schedule, and its struggle to meet the July 1987 release date—it appears that Revenge was intended to capitalize on the popularity and critical favor of another previously released film.
You could blame Revenge’s failure on its director, or its scriptwriter, or its special effects crew, or even Universal itself, but all evidence points directly to Sheinberg (and by extension Gary) for getting Revenge made the way it was. Unfortunately, I can’t confirm anything specific; I can only infer on the basis of the available evidence. I doubt that Sheinberg or Gary will ever fully reveal what went on behind the scenes during Revenge which led it to become the disaster that it was—how many directors Sheinberg approached to do Revenge before getting Sargent, if anyone at Universal voiced disapproval at the high-priced, quickly-produced sequel that had no script, etc.—so speculation is all that’s left. Then again, it gives a rather prophetic tinge to Jaws 3, People 0, an unproduced 1979 comedy script which depicted the incompetent, disaster-ridden production of a Jaws sequel, including a shark that slowly eats its way through the film crew. (Imagine Mel Brooks’ The Producers with the Springtime for Hitler musical replaced by a Jaws sequel, and you have the plot for Jaws 3, People 0.) If the full story behind the production of Revenge ever came out, it would probably one of those cases where truth is much, much stranger than fiction.
As for whether Sigourney Weaver or James Cameron ever considered a connection between their movie and Revenge, it’s probably unlikely. However, there’s this to ponder: one of the tag lines for Aliens was “This time, it’s war.” The tag line for Revenge the following summer was “This time, it’s personal.” When Cameron’s Terminator 2 came out in 1991, one of its tag lines was “It’s nothing personal.” Considering that the overall plot of the Terminator saga involves the assassination of a specific individual, John Connor, it’s a bit out of place to say that a Terminator film is not “personal”, don’t you think?
Still, I can’t help but to wonder what the fallout was within entertainment industry circles for Sheinberg when Revenge flopped at the box office after he forced it through such a haphazard production. Gary stopped acting altogether after Revenge; the role that made her a name among film buffs also ended up putting her career permanently to rest. Sheinberg has often been credited with ‘discovering’ Steven Spielberg, so I can only wonder what Spielberg thought of Sheinberg’s attempt to use a sequel to Spielberg’s first hit movie as an abruptly produced star vehicle for Gary.
Anyone can make a film that’s mediocre and forgettable. What Revenge proves (much like Ed Wood’s filmmaking career before it) is that it requires an unwavering commitment to grandiose self-delusion, along with all of its inherent unreasonable demands and expectations, to make a true cinematic spectacle of incompetence and absurdity. In conclusion of this autopsy of the exhumed celluloid body of a notorious franchise killer, this Titans, Terrors & Toys CSI has ruled that the death of Jaws: The Revenge was caused by a lethal combination of reckless studio leadership and nepotism in the first degree.