No franchise in history went downhill so completely, thoroughly and embarrassingly as that of Jaws. The seminal original entry – truly one of cinema’s indisputable classics – produced not one, not two, but three of the crappiest follow-ups of all time. Most studios quit after one bomb of a sequel. Universal kept plowing forward like the ubiquitous great white shark, even after all hope, sanity and belief in a loving God had fled. Most of us simply pretend that there were no sequels. Unfortunately, denial can only take you so far.
Things were well and truly lost by the time Jaws 3 arrived, a fact that even the movie itself seems to realize. Director Steven Spielberg had long since split the scene and series regular Roy Scheider was so fearful of getting roped this one that he signed on for Blue Thunder in part because it gave him an iron-clad commitment somewhere else. Instead, the producers had Louis Gossett, Jr. – fresh off his Oscar win and eager to cash a check – and the dubious hook of 3-D to make up for a lack of, well, anything else.
This time, the shark shows up at Sea World, ready to menace dolphin and man alike in an orgy of breathtakingly awful visual effects. With Scheider’s Martin Brody taking a powder, it’s up to his son Mike (Dennis Quaid) to carry on the family legacy of wantonly slaughtering every fanged fish he sees. He’s joined by his biologist girlfriend (Bess Armstrong), a British… um… guy of some sort (Simon MacCorkindale) and a bevvy of water-skiers, scuba divers, and men sporting mustaches that would do the Village People proud.
The story itself involves an imbecilic attempt to capture a young great white for study, though the characters doing so apparently can’t tell a real fish from a cheap rubber model. Neither does Brody who, despite working at the world’s most popular water park and growing up in a constant life-and-death battle with prehistoric monsters of the deep, still can’t parse the difference between fish and mammal. Jaws 3 spends an inordinate amount of time on their flat-as-a-pancake personalities, forcing us to wade through scene after ridiculous scene for the big sharktacular money shots we all presumably paid to see.
There’s a reason for this. You won’t see a cheaper looking monster in any film anywhere. And we’re including Ed Wood movies in that estimation. Apparently, director Joe Alves just plopped himself in the pond on the Universal Studios tour and snuck in shots of the mechanical beast in between busloads of tourists. He then threw in some stock footage of real animals and superimposed puppets before calling it a day. The 3-D effects are intended to be a balm for all of that, but even in the realm of drive-in quickies, this is pushing it.
The PG rating doesn’t help matters. Devoid of even the shabby thrills of a good gross-out, Alves basically throws up his hands and surrenders. You can almost hear him spackling one hastily-conceived shot up after another, stringing them together with the basics of continuity then releasing them unarmed to fend off our collective scorn. It doesn’t work. Nothing could survive such ineptitude, though Quaid recovered to have a fine career and a pre-star Lea Thompson escapes before being forced to take off her bikini top. The rest of the film is a bad joke, assembled with the skill of sugar-addled five-year-olds and somehow billed as a marketable summer release.
The worst part is… well, okay, there are a lot of worst parts. We can see how Spielberg did so much more with equally shoddy effects, and suspect a real filmmaker might have salvaged something from this. We spot the late Richard Matheson’s name at the top of the screenwriters’ credits and wonder whether his vision could have made a dent before the revisions started. We watch Gossett phone it in after his incredible turn in An Officer and a Gentleman and weep for the talent going to wanton waste before us.
But the worst part about Jaws 3 – the one that really puts the rest of it to shame – is that the franchise hadn’t yet touched bottom. As bad as this was, 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge took the train wreck even further, such that this living hell of a movie seems a heaven by comparison. A grim legacy for Spielberg’s masterpiece, one which clearly made too much money to ride into the sunset with any dignity. Jaws III stands as a living testament to how low a studio will stoop to generate a few bucks: one of the palpable nadirs of the summer of ’83 and indeed for moviemaking in general.