In Defense of Jaws 2
Before the summer movie season closes, I've decided to use a post to reminisce about one of my favorite summer monster movie sequels, Jaws 2.
There are some Jaws fans who consider ALL of the sequels--yes, even Jaws 2--to be unforgivable acts of cinematic sacrilege. (On the other hand, I only reserve that frustrated fan fury for Jaws: The Revenge.) Whatever its shortcomings are, Jaws 2 is actually a good ferocious fish tale. Sure, it was solely made to cash in on the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and it doesn't really do much to advance the story of Amity Island or any of its residents. Nevertheless, I will make this case in its favor: Jaws 2 captured the paranoid fears of the water that were instigated by the first Jaws movie. In other words, if Jaws made you paranoid that an enormous, toothy fish was waiting to devour you no matter what kind of body of water in which you were swimming, then Jaws 2 shamelessly exploited those fears by presenting several worst case scenarios of monster shark attacks. Read on ...
I love Jaws because it was one of those rare horror movies that genuinely frightened me. Some argue that Jaws is actually an action-adventure film, but they're wrong--action-adventure films don't scare people about simple things such as swimming in the water. I should know because I was one of those people who was scared silly by Jaws when I saw it as a kid, and that feeling followed me around for the next few years. If the movie scared you like it scared me, then the thought of becoming part of a monster shark's diet hounded you whenever there was a possibility of going swimming. It didn't matter if you were taking a dip in the ocean, a lake, or even a public swimming pool, the monster shark fear was there. Many paranoid kooks see black helicopters wherever they go, but paranoid kooks like me kept seeing large, shark-shaped shadows in the water after seeing Jaws. (Thank you, Mr. Spielberg.)
An artistic depiction of a Jaws-inspired fit of swimming paranoia.
This wildly irrational fear serves as a prime example of how effective Jaws was as a horror movie. Depending on how you look at it, the most potent kind of fear is one that is rooted in brazen, almost hallucinatory irrationality, which in turn gives nightmarish shapes to wildly disjointed and paranoid suspicions of what might be lurking in the shadows or just under the surface of the water. A good horror film makes you jump or gives you a slight case of the shivers, but a great horror film sticks with you and has you deeply fearing the most improbable scenarios during the most mundane situations.
So what do horror movie fans do when they find a movie that's actually scary and taps into their most unfounded and downright ridiculous fears? They go out and find other horror movies like the one that originally scared them in the hopes of getting a similar thrill. Plenty of filmmakers everywhere were willing to rip-off Jaws so that they could profit from horror fans who wanted more of the same. Of these rip-offs, only Jaws 2 was willing to invest in high production values that included another full-sized mechanical shark. For as fake as the shark looks in some of the scenes (mostly the ones where you see its stiff, slack-jawed head), it still works much, much better than all of the cheaper alternatives of its time.
To successfully build upon the fears Jaws created in the minds of its fans, the production of Jaws 2 was wise enough to stay faithful to many of Steven Spielberg’s creative decisions, regardless of how many headaches those decisions gave Spielberg during the production of his shark movie. The sequel returned to Martha’s Vineyard for production, shot the boating and shark attack scenes in the ocean instead of in a water tank, kept John Williams around to do the musical score, and got Roy Scheider to reprise his role as Amity Police Chief Martin Brody. All of these elements provided the necessary mixture to create new shark shocks for audiences, but I think that the most important element in this case was Scheider himself.
Spielberg cast Scheider as Brody because he felt that audiences could identify with him. He was right: Scheider's performance of Brody made him smart enough (but not as smart as Hooper, who was played by Richard Dreyfuss) and masculine enough (but not hyper-masculine as Quint, who was played by Robert Shaw) that viewers could see him as both as a thoughtful, family-oriented everyman who is not much different than themselves and as someone who could plausibly kill a monster shark. This further works to the advantage of Jaws 2. Think about it: If you reflexively think of monster sharks whenever you're near any large body of water thanks to Jaws, then you can readily identify with the main character in Jaws 2 (a character you already identify with anyway) who believes in the presence of another monster shark even though he can't convince anyone else to think the same way.
Some may see Brody's paranoia in Jaws 2 as an unimaginative way to give the sequel a plot, but for me it was like looking into a mirror with Brody's fears reflecting my own. Indeed, the scene where Brody hysterically yells at swimmers to get out of the water because he thinks he sees a shark in the water is the best scene in Jaws 2, because of Scheider's performance and it neatly sums up how many viewers felt about the beach after seeing the first Jaws.
If I had to psychoanalyze the Martin Brody character, I would say that his actions in Jaws 2 were not motivated by fear of the water or of sharks but by fear that he would lose more innocent people due to his inaction. While we never learn much about Brody's police career before he moved to Amity, it seems that his presence at the death of Alex Kintner in Jaws was the first time Brody witnessed the death of someone due to his inaction as a police officer (i.e., because he didn't close the beach after the first shark attack). Given the intensity and conviction of Scheider's performance, I would also say that Brody's guilt probably extends past Kintner to all of the other shark attack victims from the first movie, which would make him that much more determined to act against a new threat--even though he can't prove for much the sequel that the threat in question actually exists. Nevertheless, such a difference in motive didn't keep a skittish monster-shark-a-phobic like me from empathizing with Brody's behavior in Jaws 2.
Of course, where would a Jaws sequel be without another monster shark? While the technology behind the monster shark in Jaws 2 didn't differ too much from that used in the first movie, Universal upped the ante by having the second shark behave much more viciously and engaging in much more aggressive attacks than its predecessor. (Of the four Jaws movies, Jaws 2 has the highest body count.) It doesn't matter how implausible the new attacks might be; they were all scripted and staged to take what was scary about the monster shark in the first movie and push it to a higher level.
If you already had exaggerated fears about swimming after Jaws, then Jaws 2 eagerly exaggerated them even more by having the shark successfully attacking a water skier, two scuba divers, a killer whale, a few boats, and a helicopter. The cumulative effect of these attacks (which, for much of the movie, left behind no eye witnesses or conclusive evidence of a shark attack) made the shark seem elusive yet omnipresent, just waiting to lunge out of the water at a moment's notice and devour or destroy whatever was on the receiving end of the attack. Even though the story's pacing tended to lag in the later part of the film, what kept tension going during the shark's attacks against the sailing teenagers was that their boats--some of which were made out of little more than canvas and metal beams--could easily be torn to shreds (and were) by the monster that was treating them like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Being stranded out on the open sea on a tiny, frail boat while being stalked by a monster shark is one of the worst situations that terrified Jaws fan could imagine, so naturally Jaws 2 made it the centerpiece of the film's second act.
Could Jaws 2 have been a better sequel? Yes. Could John Hancock, the theatre director who was originally hired to direct the sequel, have done a better job than Jaws 2's director Jeannot Szwarc? Maybe, but we'll never know for sure. Regardless, such matters don't keep me from appreciating Jaws 2 for what it is. So thank you Jaws 2 for taking what scared me about Jaws and then shamelessly exploiting it over and over and over again. As a monster movie buff, I wouldn't have it any other way.
A 1989 picture of Bruce, the mechanical shark from the Jaws movies,
during a tour of Universal Studios in Hollywood, CA.