Re-Fear: Jaws 2 (1978) by Jeannot Szwarc
Retro Review by Zach Dennis
In each entry of this Re-Fear series, we have explored the inner workings of what not only constituted a sequel or remake to a widely beloved horror movie, but also what ambition the said film had as its own entity. The general assumption is the sequel is never as good as the original and much like the even more narrowing statement that the book is always better than the movie, this assumption is bred not necessarily solely from the quality of the movie, but in our undevoted affection for the source material.
Some of this may be derived from nostalgia. This overpowering force has an almost guerilla-style tactic of clouding our perception and judgement of a piece of media — whether TV, movie, book or music — and seemingly cuts the head off the debate before it started.
The sequel or remake is bad because it isn’t the first one. It isn’t as good because it isn’t the one that I love, the one that I know. It’s this bastardization of our affection.
To make it more difficult, add the financial component. Successful products garner multiple follow-up returns — desire withstanding. Quality is secondary to the dollar, not only Hollywood, but in the capitalistic structure since day one.
You don’t stop after one.
It’s a little burdening to measure these two elements together when making sense of a work of popular culture, much less what we would want to constitute as “art,” as that thrill of just enjoying is sucked away from it. The majority of people entering the theater aren’t parsing through the cultural ramifications or narrative injustices occurring when a sequel to a popular movie begins playing — they’re just here to enjoy themselves — handing the studio a victory whether we, the fan, are on board or not.
At the end of the day, the conglomerate at large — this item of pop culture or media — owes us nothing. We just take from it what we want and that’s the transaction.
To this point, we all sit in a much better position than Roy Scheider did when he was “forced” into Jaws 2 due to his jettisoning The Deer Hunter over creative differences. We have the ability to ignore the sequel altogether instead of “pleading insanity and going crazy in the Beverly Hills Hotel” as his biographer noted.
In many ways, Jaws 2 has a harder time than most of the examples given in the series as its predecessor set a precedent, whether good or bad, with the blockbuster and its inception into the lexicon. The clout around Jaws began to make it less of a movie and more of a historical marker. Even today, discussion of the film focuses less on the craftsmanship or effectiveness of the narrative and more on its production turmoils and its importance in the history of movies as this creation of the summer blockbuster.
On top of just reviving the property, Jaws 2 was also placed amongst that esteem. It couldn’t just be some sequel, it had to respond to a kairotic moment in movies.
The sequel opens up in immediate dialogue with its former as two divers survey the underwater wreckage of the Orca — the ship captained by Quint in the first movie and scene of the film’s climax — where they happen upon yet another massive shark lurking on the outskirts of Amity Island and meet their doom.
We then move to the island where Martin Brody (Scheider, again, begrudgingly, though you wouldn’t know it) is still the police chief. Since the events of years earlier, life has simmered on Amity. Summer is in full swing and sailing is in vogue. Brody is late as he makes his way hurriedly to the opening of a new hotel where his wife and kids await his appearance.
Welcoming the hotel to the fabric of Amity Island is Murray Hamilton as Mayor Vaughn, who inexpeciliedly is still running the town even after the events of the first movie — showing more than anything, the lengths that the American political system is irrevocably broken. But a digression…
The year isn’t 1975 anymore; we are in 1978. In 1975, American troops are evacuating Saigon and the facade of U.S. invulnerability was waning. Echoes of this national insecurity crop up in Jaws where terror attacks the shores of an “Anywhere, U.S.A” and causes panic with no immediate recourse from elected officials and no clear cut answer on how to solve the problem.
Now, it is 1978 and those events are in the past. They couldn’t happen again because the beast was defeated. It’s over.
Where Jaws 2 pivots (slightly) from the original is in the town’s approach to ignoring Brody’s warnings. Brody isn’t ignored because he’s crazy — they’ve all seen what has happened — he’s ignored because they’ve done it once and it would be too much to do it again.
Scheider poignantly illustrates this multiple times in his attempts to sway the decision-making body into conceding to his point. Most notably, in a beach scene reminiscent to the famous zoom shot and attack on a child, Brody peers from a newly installed shark tower where he watches the water as families enjoy the beach below him. The mayor and other local officials sneer at him, fearing he will awaken dread and anxieties they’ve worked so tirelessly to dispel from the community.
Brody thinks he has noticed the emergence of the beast, only to be duped by a school of fish — leading to his embarrassment and a chain of false claims that end in his termination.
Here, Jaws 2 veers back into a carbon copied version of the original — replacing Brody, Hooper and Quint on the Orca challenging the shark for a group of teenagers sailing out to a nearby lighthouse with Brody chugging behind in a police boat. Several chomps lower the teenager body count, and Brody saves the day by, once again, challenging the shark one-on-one and incinerating it.
It’s unfortunate that it made the transition so quickly back to the established formula because until this point, there is a degree of interest in following the psychology of Brody, and to the extent this town, as fearing not the unknown but the known returning — where the greatest fear in Jaws was this impenetrable beasts lurking in the haven for happiness in this small town, this fear comes from knowing the villain, believing it was finally gone and then having to come to terms with its return.
This amalgamation of fear in a known evil is almost more palpable and chilling than the former’s approach.
Who knows what should have happened in a second Jaws movie rather than re-treading on past beats. While it was rumored that Spielberg cooked up a prequel centered around the USS Indianapolis and Quint’s tale from the first movie, it’s difficult to believe anything would have done the first any justice in audience’s minds.
But maybe, in the end, that’s the issue. The subjectivity that comes into play when developing a continued story for a narrative so complete and satisfying the first time has nowhere to go but backwards and replay. The best sequels feel less like continuations of the original story and more of legs to what happened before — following less with a literature approach of adding more on top of what was already developed and choosing instead to expand.
Jaws 2 does neither and as a follow-up to Jaws feels out of its depths and floundering, but I’m not sure it ever had a chance to swim.