Jaws 3-D/Jaws III/Jaws 3 (1983) -***
The first time I saw Jaws, it blew me away like few movies ever have. That was partly because it really is just that good, naturally, but there was a second reason for my astonishment in the face of that opening chapter in the saga of the Brody family and their ongoing difficulties with the fearsome Carchardon carcharias that might have been even more significant: the first film was not my introduction to the Jaws series. No, my first Jaws movie was Jaws 3-D, Universal’s bid to bring the franchise into the 80’s in every unflattering sense of that phrase. The mighty may have fallen pretty hard with Jaws 2, but Part 3 brought the series down to the level of Claws and Tentacles. It was initially conceived as a parody of its predecessors (to be called Jaws 3, People 0), but a vituperative protest from Steven Spielberg launched it off on a staggering transformation into a seriously-intended sequel that was nevertheless funnier than anything the original plan could possibly have produced. I dare say you, too, would have found it nearly impossible to imagine a good Jaws movie (let alone a great one) if Jaws 3-D were your only basis for assessment.
The film begins by establishing its credentials as one of the era’s notorious 3-D Part 3’s. The now-classic undersea POV cam prowls through a teeming coral reef until it collides with a huge black grouper. (And when I say “huge,” I mean that the composition of the shot results in an image that wouldn’t make sense though the eyes of the shark whose point of view this is supposed to be unless the grouper were at least 40 feet long.) There is a great, wet chomping sound, and the screen erupts into a vast cloud of blood. When the water begins to clear, we are confronted with the fish’s severed head floating right at us!!!! in that characteristic dumb 3-D movie way. It’s both grosser and sillier than nearly any of the depth effects in Friday the 13th, Part 3, which I guess might count as something to be proud of.
The shark’s next stop is Sea World, which has just undergone a massive and commensurately expensive renovation courtesy of entrepreneur Calvin Bourchard (Louis Gossett Jr., from Enemy Mine and Legend of the Mummy). The fish trails the theme park’s water-skiing exhibition team at a suitably menacing distance as they pass from the open sea into the newly completed man-made lagoon, right on time to knock the lagoon gates off of their tracks as construction crew foreman Shelby Overman (Harry Grant) checks the completeness of the repairs he and his men just got finished making to the closing mechanism. Word that the gates still aren’t working this close to opening day is not at all what Overman’s direct boss, Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid, of Are You in the House Alone? and Dreamscape), wants to hear, especially with all the overtime hours Overman and his team have already clocked. And yes, that’s the same Mike Brody we last saw narrowly escaping from a shark attack on the motley flotilla of sailboats he and his pals had taken out past the lighthouse off Amity Island. Mike’s an engineer now, the mastermind behind the Undersea Kingdom, that complex of new underwater attractions that were added to Sea World on Bourchard’s dime. Brody happens also to be dating Dr. Kate Morgan (Jekyll and Hyde… Together Again’s Bess Armstrong), Sea World’s chief biologist and top trainer of toothed whales, so he definitely falls into the “local boy makes good” category whenever he goes home to visit his parents back on the island. And while we’re on the subject of family, Brody is expecting a visit from his little brother, Sean (John Putch, from Something Is Out There and Skeeter), whose most recent semester of college has just drawn to a close. Sean (understandably, considering what happened right in front of his face the last time we saw him out on a boat) has taken after his father when it comes to attitudes toward the water, and the school he attends is sited as close to the center of the continental landmass as he could arrange. So naturally, the first thing Sean does when he arrives in Florida is to fall in love with Kelly (Lea Thompson, of Howard the Duck and Back to the Future), one of those water-skiers the shark was shadowing earlier.
Sean Brody and the shark aren’t the only new arrivals in Sea World’s neighborhood, either. Also on the way are Philip Fitz-Royce (Simon MacCorkindale, from The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Quatermass Conclusion)— internationally famous adventurer, photographer, publicity hound, smug jerk-ass, and sixteenth Earl of Haddonfield as if all those other credentials weren’t enough— and his loyal sidekick, Jake Tate (P. H. Moriarty). Nobody ever quite gets around to explaining just what Fitz-Royce is supposed to be doing at Sea World, but the ladies and gentlemen of the press sure are impressed when he shows up. In fact, they’re so impressed that not one of them notices either the mysterious disappearance of Shelby Overman during a just-after-quitting-time attempt to get those gates to the lagoon up and running again or the equally mysterious malfunctioning of the machinery that circulates the water between the lagoon and sea outside, the latter apparently caused by some huge obstruction in one of the vent pipes. They also don’t notice the two coral poachers who disappear a bit later.
Mike and Kate do notice when Overman doesn’t show up for work the next day, however, and after an irate visit from the foreman’s girlfriend establishes that he isn’t at home either, they fire up Sea World’s crappy little submersible (the bluescreen effects attendant upon which are even crappier than the submersible itself— I thought they solved that transparency problem back in the 60’s!) to make certain that nothing happened to him in the lagoon. There’s no sign of Overman in any of the places where you’d expect the currents to carry his body, so Mike and Kate disembark to have a look inside the faux sunken galleon attraction. They don’t find Overman, but they do find a ten-foot great white shark that makes every effort to gobble them up, and would probably have succeeded were it not for the intervention of Dr. Morgan’s trained dolphins, Cindy and Sandy. The news that a great white has set up shop in the lagoon touches off a sharp argument between Morgan and Fitz-Royce on the subject of how the intruding predator should be handled. The Earl of Haddonfield wants to kill it— with hand grenades no less!— and to film the whole process as a publicity stunt for the park. Kate, on the other hand, wants to capture the shark, so as to incorporate it into the Sea World menagerie. No one has ever been able to keep a great white alive in captivity, and Kate contends that her efforts to do so will, in the long run, garner far more publicity than even the most adroitly stage-managed hunting expedition; Bourchard eventually comes around to her way of thinking. (Incidentally, the debate between Morgan and Fitz-Royce, with each of them framing their arguments in terms of the media appeal that seems to be the only thing Bourchard cares about, is the one halfway-smart piece of writing in this whole risibly inept script.) There are some pretty close calls when Philip, Jake, and Kate go down to effect the capture the following night, but the effort ultimately succeeds. Now it’s just a matter of keeping the big fish from dying.
Actually, that’s not true at all. Those of you who’ve seen the preceding two films will surely have taken considerable surprise at the altogether unexceptional size of that shark the Sea World folks just caught. The shark in the original Jaws would have had a shot at the world record (the largest verifiably measured great white ever caught was 21 feet long and weighed over 7000 pounds, while various observers estimate Bruce’s length at anywhere from 20 to 25 feet), and while nobody ever addresses the matter directly in Jaws 2, the dimensions of the bites on the dead killer whale suggest a comparably huge fish in the sequel. It seems rather unlike Hollywood to scale back to a great white of somewhat less than average size for Part 3, wouldn’t you say? Well fear not, dear readers— the makers of Jaws 3-D are pulling a Gorgo on us. Kate Morgan’s newest pet is but an infant, and Mama is an utterly absurd 35 feet long. She’s also that large obstruction in the vent pipe, and when Cal Bourchard’s excessive eagerness to see some returns on the recent fishing trip leads to the baby’s very public death on opening day, she’s going to come on out for the most ridiculously ineffectual monster rampage since The Beast of Yucca Flats.
I sure hope you like stunt water-skiing, ‘cause you’re going to see a hell of a lot more of that than you will of shark attacks in Jaws 3-D. Lyz Kingsley, one of my dearest colleagues in the amateur crap-movie criticism business, has a theory that Jaws 3-D’s mama-shark is bulimic, and I defy anybody to disagree after an attentive viewing. The shark kills Shelby Overman, but she clearly doesn’t eat much of him, as his nearly intact corpse eventually turns up under the most inconvenient circumstances imaginable. She never makes a serious move on the Sea World water-skiing team, despite any number of perfect opportunities to slaughter the lot of them. When she “attacks” Sean and Kelly in the bumper-boat pond, she leaves Sean completely unmolested and does no more than to nick Kelly in the thigh with the tip of a tooth. In fact, even when the current in the vent pipe carries Philip Fitz-Royce into her fucking mouth during his endgame bid to eliminate her, the shark makes no attempt actually to eat him, merely squishing him to death in what looks for all the world like a failed effort to cough him out! And even then, she doesn’t swallow him, but rather spends the rest of the movie cruising around with 180 pounds of compressed dickweed nobleman plugging up her esophagus! I thought the shark in the last movie was lying down on the job with all those boating teenagers it let slip by, but this is just fucking pathetic.
Of course, these sharks are pretty pathetic all around, so Mama’s steadfast refusal to eat anybody is merely one little piece of the problem. Let’s start with the models, of which I believe I detect at least three. Far and away the worst of the bunch is the full-scale fiberglass job that normally represents the baby. This sad contrivance is the chondrichthian equivalent of Rock ’n’ Roll Nightmare’s Satan— totally immobile and resembling nothing so much as a massively scaled-up version of the rubber creepy-crawlies they used to sell in quarter vending machines in the foyers of K-Marts back in the early 80’s. Keep an eye on Bess Armstrong whenever you see her in the holding tank with the thing; notice how much effort she has to put into keeping it from floating to the surface and turning upside down at about 40 degrees from the horizontal. Hell, notice how much effort she has to put into keeping it floating at the correct attitude to represent death! That model gets its real star-turn at the end, though, when it is inexplicably pressed into service for Mama’s kamikaze attack on Sea World’s underwater nerve center. Considering that the giant fish is supposed to be swimming at full power into the control room’s picture window, you have to wonder why the effects guys selected the model that was completely incapable of moving any part of its body for the shot. Then there’s the telescoping shark, the slightly more lifelike rubber-skinned model that takes center stage for the initial battle between Junior and the Sea World staff. The high point of its service to Jaws 3-D comes when it crashes maw-first into the gate separating the dolphin pen from the lagoon, causing the foremost section of its body to retract visibly into the part abaft its pectoral fins. With this epidemic of suck going around, it’s honestly rather surprising how comparatively decent the main puppet representing Mama is. It certainly isn’t very convincing in the absolute sense, but it’s easily the best animatronic shark of the whole series. Its proportions are close to correct, the tail has approximately the right cross section, and its jaws hinge separately from its lips, giving it at least some ability to mimic the distinctive two-stroke chomp of a real great white. On the other hand, it has eyebrows (which are as rare among sharks as they are among scorpions), the coloring is completely wrong, and when the camera is at close range, it’s just a little too easy to see the machinery driving the tail working beneath the skin. Meanwhile, if you’re the sort of person who tends to get hung up on incidental scientific stupidities (and you all know by now that I am), the shark behavior in Jaws 3-D is going to drive you up the fucking wall. Think back for a moment to any film footage of sharks in action that you might ever have seen— can you recall even a single instance in which you saw a shark swimming backwards? No, you can’t. This is because fish tails are capable of generating only forward thrust; in order to swim backwards, a fish needs to use its pectoral fins, and shark pectoral fins are nothing but inflexible cartilaginous hydrofoils. Consequently, sharks are unable to swim in reverse— so of course the sharks in Jaws 3-D seem to spend more of their time swimming backwards than they do swimming forwards! Also, a great white shark would not hide in a pipe like a plus-size moray eel (even if it could escape by backing out), simply because a stationary great white is a dead great white. Only by swimming can a white shark move water over its gills, so they suffocate fairly quickly if forced to remain motionless. And finally, even in the highly unlikely event that a pregnant great white would seek confined waters to give birth, the result of her doing so would not be a single ten-foot pup, but rather up to a dozen of roughly one third that size. In the scenario presented here, Sea World ought to be facing a veritable infestation of hungry baby sharks— which, now that I think about it, would have made for a significantly more interesting movie than the one we actually got.
Ah, but let’s not forget the human element. This is the sort of film in which you can just about count upon each and every character to take the very dumbest course of action available to them at each and every turn. Shelby Overman waits until the sun has set and all of his coworkers have disbanded for the day before he goes down to work on the gate. Philip Fitz-Royce plans each of his forays against the shark to entail the maximum possible risk to his own ass, and he thinks it’s a brilliant idea to use hand grenades as his weapon of choice in confined spaces underwater. (I remind you that pressure waves travel faster through water than through air, making underwater explosions correspondingly more deadly and destructive.) Kate Morgan, who knows damn well that you can’t keep a great white alive in an aquarium, is nevertheless thrilled at the chance to try doing so. Supposed engineering genius Mike Brody has designed the habitable section of the Undersea Kingdom with watertight doors that have to be closed manually and en masse from the central control room in the event of a serious leak, and he never thought to install pumping machinery (such as can be found aboard all but the simplest of boats) to clear water out of partially flooded compartments. Putative business mastermind Calvin Bourchard unveils Jaws Junior— which he has embraced as the publicity coup of the decade, remember— in such a half-assed and ill-prepared manner that it’s no wonder the crowd on hand to witness the shark’s ignominious demise numbers perhaps two dozen people at the outside. (A hand-scrawled sign and an announcement over the park PA? Really, Calvin? Is that honestly the best you can do?!) And the intensely water-phobic Sean Brody sets foot in a place called “Sea World” in the first fucking place. This is an amassment of idiotism that you can’t find just anywhere, and I’m tempted to suspect an army of uncredited script-doctors, as it seems completely outside the realm of possibility for credited screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Richard Matheson (no, seriously— Richard Matheson!!!!) to have mustered it all by themselves.