The Best Background Characters: Floppy Hat Guy

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

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The Movie:

‘Jaws’

The Character:

A guy in a white hat who’s way too happy during a shark attack.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:15 at the bottom of the screen, and at 2:18 on the far left)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

Humans are weird creatures. When faced with catastrophe, disaster, or the wrath of a man-eating shark, you’d expect people to be frozen in fear, frozen in shock, or being one of the few brave souls who charges in to save others.

What you don’t expect is for someone to be having the time of their lives, as one beachgoer does in 1975’s classic, ‘Jaws’.

The fellow in question, a mustached man with a white floppy hat, charges into the water with other adults when the shark attacks poor Alex. But unlike the adults who are trying to get the kids out of the water, Floppy Hat Guy just frolics about with the biggest, dopiest grin, nonplussed at the terrors of the deep turning him into Purina shark chow.

Naturally, one wonders what this man’s story is. Is he high on drugs? Mentally challenged? Secretly in love with the idea of flaunting danger? Getting a thrill out of seeing kids get eaten? Of course, the real answer is that he’s played by an extra who was probably just really happy to be in a movie, but that’s nowhere near as much fun as watching a guy having fun when surrounded by death and sharks.

The Murderer Made It In?!: The Importance of Avoiding an Afterlife Only For The Elites

If you were like most kids who watched Star Wars growing up, you fantasized about going on adventures with Luke, Han and Leia, exploring the galaxy’s many worlds, and chilling out in Han and Chewie’s sky house (or was that just me?). And at the end of your days, you would pass from the physical world and become a force spirit, where you could hang out with your best friends forever and become super sparkly!

But would you, really?

While kids (and many adults) fantasize about living in the Star Wars universe, a strong case can be made that it’s a terrible place to live, especially since it’s in a state of constant warfare, ensuring that you have a high chance of dying a terrible death, but there’s one aspect that’s rarely discussed:

The afterlife in Star Wars is unfair.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a thought experiment and pretend that you’ve a typical person in the Star Wars galaxy who has just died:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but then you hear the Force itself telling you that your ultimate fate is to enter and become one with it… but in the process, you will lose your personality, your memories, your sentience, and essentially cease to exist.

Wait a minute! You say, That’s not fair!

The Force doesn’t care. You’re just one being out of untold trillions. Tens of trillions of beings have entered the Force before you, and tens of trillions more will come after you. It’s a fate that has already affected your parents, your deceased relatives, friends, and your beloved childhood pets. By becoming one with the Force, they no longer exist.

You scream that it isn’t fair! Isn’t there any chance of not being dissolved?

Yes, the Force says. About ten beings have died but preserved their consciousness and become immortal.

TEN?! You yell.

Yep. And all of them were members of a religious order that was barely known by the galaxy at large… Oh, wait. Another one has just arrived!

You turn around to see someone at the edge of the ocean, but they’re being embraced by a beautiful, glorious light shining down from above. But who is it? You squint, trying to see who had earned immortality when you didn’t. And then you see that person’s face, and all your faith in justice and mercy is shattered forever, for it’s Kylo Ren, leader of the First Order, the monster who killed your parents and family when he raided a planet two years ago.

Why does he get to be immortal and not me?! You scream.

Because I made him force sensitive, the Force says, and he was very sorry at the end of his life that he murdered billions of beings.

Before you can say anything more, the Force suddenly drags you into itself, where you dissolve into cosmic goo and are erased forever.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren high-fives Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and the other lucky immortals.

None of them pay you any heed.

Harsh? Yes, but what you’ve just read is an accurate summary of how the afterlife in Star Wars works. If we only go by what we see in the movies, everyone who dies in the Star Wars universe becomes one with the Force. Exactly what happens to the individual themselves is not specified, but they apparently become part of a larger whole, like a drop of water entering an ocean, losing their personality, their memories, and everything that makes them, ‘them.’ However, there is one way to avoid that fate, and not get turned into non-sentient cosmic go. How does that happen?

1. Be born force-sensitive.

2. Be fortunate enough to join the Jedi Order.

3. Be fortunate enough to learn secret teachings that only a few Jedi know.

4. Spend the rest of your life not turning to the Dark Side.

4B. If you do turn to the Dark Side, repent at the very last minute.

5. Become a Force spirit when you die.

6. ???

7. Profit!

That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But there’s just one problem:

If you’re not born with the ability to use the Force, you’re screwed.

It doesn’t matter how you live your life. It doesn’t matter if you were devoted to destroying evil, helping space-orphans, or blowing up space-orphans in space-orphanages with their space-doggies mookas; you’ll be absorbed into the Force upon your death and cease to exist. And it’s not just you who suffers this fate, but all of your loved ones, and everyone who wasn’t chosen by the force to have the ability to sense it. Think being eaten by a sarlacc was bad? Imagine spending a thousand years being digested alive in unimaginable agony before finally dying, only to immediately be erased from existence instead of being reunited with your loved ones who have passed on before you, meaning that being tortured every moment of every day for a thousand years was all for nothing.

The longer you think about the implications of this, the more horrifying it becomes: Luke, Leia, and Anakin may have achieved immortality after their deaths, but they will never see their non-force sensitive friends or relatives again. Shmi Skywalker, Padme, Han, Lando, Chewie, Bail Organa, Uncle Owen, and Aunt Beru are doomed to be dissolved, or have already been dissolved. It’s amazing that Leia and Luke didn’t have a complete mental breakdown upon realizing that Han had died, and it’s no wonder Anakin was so desperate to save his wife after losing his mother.

And then, to twist the knife even further, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ ends with Ben Solo, the leader of a fascist empire, a mass murderer, emotional abuser, and willing follower of the Dark Side, gain immortality. In a truly rage-inducing moment for everyone who believes in decency and justice, the official novelization of the film has a line where Ben feels the Force reaching for him in welcome as he dies, all because he felt sorry for being the worst human in the galaxy since Palpatine and Anakin. The Force will happily grant a mass murderer immortality while consigning everyone he slaughtered to oblivion. It’s a disgusting perversion of justice and turns the Star Wars universe into a hellhole where only a chosen few who were gifted at birth have any chance at immortality, and everyone else have no chance of achieving the same thing, no matter how hard they try. And this isn’t wishful thinking; according to the Star Wars wiki, only force-sensitive individuals can become spirits:

“Not only was preserving one’s consciousness reserved for the Jedi, but also for users of the light side not affiliated with the Order.”

Damn.

When you realize how horrifying and unfair the Star Wars afterlife is, it becomes obvious that writers shouldn’t make their fictional afterlives favor elites and those with advantages they didn’t earn, condemning everyday people to oblivion or worse, all through no fault of their own. It’s cruel, sadistic, and once your audience realizes that, their view of your fictional universe will forever be tainted. After all, who would want to lose themselves in such a place, much less read about it? (though to be fair, an exception could be made for the purpose of social commentary, but that still won’t be enjoyable reading).

We must be fair when creating our fictional hereafters; If they must be grim, where the possibility of being dissolved or erased exists, then make sure that everyone has an equal chance of avoiding such a fate. If our characters have to earn their eternal existence, have them all know what must be done, make that information readily available, or make it so that the process is fair and applies to everyone (such as making immortality available to the compassionate and kind, but not the cruel and sadistic). Someone’s social standing or membership in an obscure organization with only a few hundred members should have no bearing on if they get to have a happy afterlife or not.

If writers make our afterlives fair, our audiences will be more willing to endure the trials and tribulations our characters will go through if there’s a chance they will make it to the great beyond, than if that possibility is denied to them. And to that end, let’s take another look at what the afterlife of the Star Wars universe might be like if it were fair:

Opening your eyes, you realize that you’re dead. That sucks, but you were prepared for it; after all, you lived a nice, long life. While it wasn’t exemplary and didn’t have any impact on the galaxy at large, or even the planet you lived on, you were still a good person who tried not to hurt anyone, admitted when you made mistakes and tried to make amends, and were generally someone who enriched the lives of the beings that knew you.

Now you find yourself standing before a great, multi-colored ocean. Without anyone telling you, you realize that this is a physical manifestation of the Force, a place where everyone goes after death. That sounds pretty fair… but what comes next?

That’s up to you, a voice tells you. It’s a voice you recognize as the Force itself. You may become one with me, or you may remain an individual as long as you wish.

What happens then? You ask.

You’ll become a force spirit and can visit the physical realm, you’re told. You can interact with your loved ones, as well as go anywhere and see everything. Nothing can harm you, and if you ever tire of such an existence, you may join with me and become part of a greater whole. And if you tire of that, you may live again.

Sweet! You say. I think I’ll become a force spirit for now.

As you wish, the Force says.

Good choice, someone tells you. Turning, you find yourself face to face with the legendary Anakin Skywalker. And not only him, but his son and daughter, his mother, and many others you’ve heard about: Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and so many others, all welcoming you to your new existence as a force spirit.

Hey guys, can I join?

You turn and scowl. Kylo Ren, the murderous tyrant and leader of the First Order, walks up, having recently died. But before he can say another word, he’s suddenly yanked into the ocean and dissolved; while he was sorry for being a genocidal egomaniac with self-esteem issues, and did bring one girl back to life, that wasn’t enough to grant him the right to choose how he wants to spend his afterlife. Thus, he becomes one with the Force, much to the relief and satisfaction of his billions of victims, all of whom are now spirits who go spend time with their families in the world of the living.

Glad to see that little twerp get what’s coming to him, you head off back to the physical world to see how things are going. Watching the sunrise on Coruscant seems like a good place to start. And as you materialize on the top of the planet’s tallest skyscraper, a nice spirit named Beru appears beside you, offering you a glass of spectral blue milk to welcome the day.

As we can see, this scenario seems much more fair and just. Death is supposed to be the great equalizer, which pays no heed to one’s wealth, social class, or beliefs. We shouldn’t be afraid to make that true when it’s time for our characters to head to their final rest.

‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘Underwater,’ and the power of Expanded Universes To Enrich Your Story

Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’

The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:

*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?

*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?

*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?

*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?

These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.

Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.

A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.

Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.

For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.

However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.

Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.

Yikes.

What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.

Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.

Perfect Moments: One Of The Freakiest Endings I’ve Ever Seen

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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Please note that this is the ending to the 2013 film, ‘Enemy,’ and will spoil it if you haven’t seen the film, even though it’s… well, I really can’t talk about this scene without giving anything away.

The Scene:

Why it’s Perfect

Has your heart slowed down? Good.

As an arachnophobe, seeing a room-sized spider made me jump back when I first saw this. Making it so photo-realistic didn’t help, and neither does the fact that this thing screeches. It’s a fear-based screech, yes, but it’s still a giant spider screeching and scrunching up like its about to pounce and staring at you with soulless eyes AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGG.

Okay… Well, giant-freaking spider aside, what I admire about this ending is that it’s a perfect jump scare. There’s no hints, none whatsoever, that Jake Gyllenhaal is about to encounter a room-sized tarantula that used to be his wife. There’s no creepy music, there’s no sudden silence, only a normal scene building up to what you think is going to be a tense conversation between Adam and his wife, and then BOOM BIG FREAKING SPIDER THAT’S ABOUT TO EAT YOU RUN RUN RUN SUPERMAN SAVE ME.

While jump scares don’t age well after you see them, the first time you watch them are some of the most intense and memorable moments of cinema. This spider certainly counts as one of the best.

 

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water: The Merits Of Jaws 2

Throughout Hollywood history, there have been many classic films have been spared from getting unnecessary sequels: ‘Gone with the Wind’; ‘Ben Hur’; ‘Schindler’s List’, and ‘The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.’ But while they were all spared from subpar followups, ‘Jaws’ was not.

The biggest problem with doing a sequel to ‘Jaws’ is that the film’s ending was about as conclusive as you could get: the shark was killed and Amity was safe to collect tourist money once more. The conflict was wrapped up. The story’s reason for existence had been dealt with. There was no logical way to continue Brody’s adventures without feeling contrived and tackled-on. Yet, the lure of more box office cash was too strong, and the world was given ‘Jaws 2’, one of the most unnecessary sequels ever made.

While it can’t stand on the same level of the original film (which, in all fairness, no sequel could) ‘Jaws 2’ is actually not that bad. Compared with most shark films released in the last twenty years, it’s a markedly better than most, with a number of good scares, some good performances, the ever-stellar music of John Williams, and Roy Scheider’s excellent performance as Chief Brody. And while it’s best remembered as a mediocre sequel to the film that invented the modern blockbuster, it’s not without its merits. Let’s take a look at five things it does well.

6. It doesn’t copy the first film

It would have been easy for ‘Jaws 2’ to copy the same plot of the original: have a shark attack Amity, have the people in charge refuse to shut the town down because money is important, and have Brody head out once again to kill the shark and save the day. And while ‘2’ does follow the same basic plot, it makes some substantial changes. Among them are:

*Instead of the shark attacking beaches in full view of the public, it mainly focuses on individuals and groups far out at sea, away from the public eye, making the disaster more ‘undercover’ so to speak.

*There’s greater variety in the film’s attack sequences: Where the shark in ‘Jaws’ attacked swimmers, a dock, and some boats, this film features attacks on a water skier, scuba divers, teenagers on sailing craft, a killer whale, and even a helicopter.

*Most of the story is set around Brody trying to deal with his own paranoia/post traumatic stress disorder and the shark after he loses his job.

*Brody has a bigger personal stake in the story. Previously, one of his sons had a close call with the shark, but was otherwise unharmed. Here, both of them are out at sea and attacked by the shark, giving him a good reason to head out and face it.

5. A strong sense of isolation

The first ‘Jaws’ excelled at its sense of isolation, and ‘Jaws 2’ continues that tradition by having all the victims and attacks take place where help is too far away to come in time, or where it’s impossible to even call for help in the first place, such as the teenagers on their boats, or the driver of the watersking boat. Her demise is particularly awful, as her boat is easily broken up the shark, and she’s too far away from shore to swim to safety. It’s no wonder she’s desperate enough to try burning the shark, because, no matter how dangerous it is, it’s the only chance she’s got to survive.

And while she dies, another teenager is left alone in her sailboat after her boyfriend is munched to death with no idea how to get back to shore, and with only the flimsy walls of her craft standing between her and bloody death. It’s no wonder her pleas to God to make the shark go away feel so genuine: I’d be praying like mad as well.

One twist I particularly like is that the movie plays around with this isolation: even when the teenagers are helped by a helicopter, the shark destroys it and shreds their sails with the ruined blades, leaving the teens worse off than before.

4. A shark that’s suitably different from the previous one

How do you distinguish one Great White shark from the next? Aside from its size and intelligence, it’s a difficult task. ‘Jaws 2’ distinguishes itself from most shark movies by giving its beast an enormous burn mark on its head. It may be a bit cheesy (an evil shark with an evil scar!), but in a crowded field of killer shark movies, it makes the beast stand out.

3. This fantastic jump scare

If there’s one scene that ‘Jaws 2’ is remembered for, it’s the infamous helicopter scene, where the shark takes on a helicopter (albeit, one that’s floating on the water instead of hovering in the air) and manages to destroy it. What makes it work is that the attack is so unexpected. Logically, we know that the kids can’t be rescued at this point in the story, and that something is going to happen, but we imagine that the boats are going to be attacked, not the helicopter. Even better, the film has the shark’s sudden appearance filmed from inside the cockpit instead of a wide shot outside the craft. That gives it a more intimate feel, and helps make it more frightening because we see the shark from the pilot’s perspective.

One other part of this scene is also its effectiveness in not showing what happens to the pilot after the helicopter is turned over. It’s obvious that he’s killed, but not showing how it happens makes his demise more frightening, as we have to imagine the poor guy trapped in that tiny cockpit, drowning and unable to get out while the shark munches him. Interestingly, there was some footage shot of the pilot trying to get out, which was later deleted from the film. Personally, I think leaving it out and letting our imaginations run wild was a wise choice.

2. Vaughn’s Vote

Compared to his substantial role in the original film, Mayor Vaughn’s presence in ‘Jaws 2’ is noticeably smaller and roughly the same as the original (a politician who wants to keep the town open no matter how dangerous an attacking monster may be because money is great), but there’s a new depth to the relationship between him and Brody, best shown in scenes that aren’t even in the movie. Two deleted scenes show the town’s leaders wanting to remove Brody as chief of police, culminating in a vote. Out of all those present, Vaughn is the only one who votes to keep Brody on.

(the scenes begin at 5:32)

It’s a great moment that humanizes Vaughn beyond the cliché of ‘leader of a community forsakes safety over profits’: he’s still Brody’s friend and respects him even when the two don’t agree. Compared to so many other unreasonably mayor figures we’ve gotten in pop culture, that little moment gives him a depth that his contemporaries lack.

1. It focuses on Brody coping with the events of the previous film

In my opinion, the one thing that makes ‘Jaws 2’ work isn’t the shark, the attacks, or its scares. No, what elevates ‘Jaws 2’ above its successors is Brody. In the first film, he was a competent, well-meaning, and rational man who was out of his element when it came to shark hunting, but who nevertheless stepped up to the challenge. But unlike so many sequel heroes, he isn’t a confident person who leaps back into action at the first sing of trouble. He’s a man who’s still competent, but struggling to deal with the stress of what happened to him, and the fears he’s gained of the ocean. That fear manifests itself best in an early scene where he has to get the wreckage of a boating accident.

Without any words, we see just how badly being attacked by a killer shark has affected Brody and made him so reluctant to go into waist-deep water. Watching Brody deal with that paranoia and fear throughout the movie gives him a vulnerable edge that so many other characters lack: He’s still a good man who wants to keep his community safe, but his PTSD drives Brody to do things he normally wouldn’t do, such as his famous beach scene, which is arguably the best moment in the film:

This all comes to a head after Brody is fired from his job. After all he’s gone through, he could just walk away and let someone else deal with the shark, but he still chooses to go out and face the beast to save his sons, and the lives of innocent teenagers, showing that, even when battling his inner demons, Brody is a good man, and will still do what’s right.

In a way, Brody can be seen as a predecessor to Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens’: He fought a monster, survived, and made it back to safety, but suffers psychologically and has to face the monster again to conquer his fears for good. And once he does, he comes out stronger than before, more capable, and worthy of praise. Martin Brody is the heart and soul of ‘Jaws 2’, and he single-handily elevates what could have been a bad sequel into a watchable one that’s nowhere near deserving of the scorn it or its successors have gotten over the years.

‘Jaws 2’ may be an acceptable sequel to the original, but the arrival of the next sequel sent the franchise began down the road to silliness, terrible visual effects, and roaring sharks. Tune in next week when we’ll take a look at the third entry in the Jaws saga, ‘Jaws 3D’

Du-duh Duh -duh: The Genius Of ‘Jaws,’ And The Merits Of Its Sequels

Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg made a little movie called ‘Jaws’, creating not only the era of the summer blockbuster, but also the best shark movie of all time. Even after 45 years, no other shark film has managed to surpass it, and Hollywood, recognizing what a gem they had on their hands, wisely and respectfully allowed the franchise to end with just one movie.

Just kidding. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, so we got three sequels of increasingly lower quality, ending with one so reviled that Universal hasn’t tried to make a new ‘Jaws’ sequel in over thirty years. Perhaps no other film franchise in history has suffered so badly from the law of diminishing returns, going from one of the greatest horror/thrillers ever made to one of the most mocked. Yet, are ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘3D,’ and ‘The Revenge’ really that bad? Are they actually better than pop culture would have us remember?

No. No, they’re not. But the greatest learning comes from the greatest failures, and what better way to learn how to do unnecessary sequels than to study the mistakes and missteps of Jaws’ unloved children? Thus, throughout January, we’ll be taking a look at all four Jaws films to see what lessons they can offer writers on how to do sequels. But unlike my Sharknado series, or the Friday the 13th comparisons, I’ll be doing something differently this time around: Instead of focusing on what the films did wrong (too many characters, bad visual effects, roaring sharks who want revenge on the Brodys, etc.), I’ll instead be focusing on what each film does well, because, despite their reputation, the three Jaws sequels do have their merits. Today, we’ll kick things off with the one that started it all: 1975’s, ‘Jaws’

Do I really need to describe just how good ‘Jaws’ is? It succeeds at every aspect, from characters, story, suspension, and casting, to cinematography and visual effects. So, in order to avoid a Stephen King-length analysis of what the film does right, I’ll stick with the four things I think it does best. (If you’re looking for a much more in-depth look at how good the film’s story and characters are, I suggest reading this excellent article by Jabootu.net).

4. The Story Is Self Contained

It seems like every movie made these days is written as the start of a trilogy, with studios hoping to create franchise after franchise they can come back to time and time again for decades to come. But despite being followed by three sequels, ‘Jaws’ is refreshingly self-contained with no loose ends or hints of a sequel. By the end of the film, the shark has been blown up, the threat to Amity Island is ended, and Brody and Hooper are free to pick daisies, frolic through the meadows, and live happily ever after. It’s the logical end to the story, one that doesn’t need any follow-ups or sequels, and doesn’t leave us feeling like we’ve only seen a full-length ad for the next installment.

3. The Isolation

Isolation is a critical part of the horror genre: What’s more frightening then being far from civilization and cut off from help while facing something wants to kill you, or worse? It might not be obvious at first, but ‘Jaws’ thrives on this isolation, taking place entirely on an island and a boat at sea. Yet, there are still multiple examples of characters being isolated and alone when attacked:

The opening attack, where poor Chrissie is alone and helpless in the water, her friends too far away (or too drunk) to hear her screaming for help as she dies.

The two guys on the pier have no time to call for help when the shark goes after their bait, and then comes after them.

Ben Gardner and his mate were alone when he was attacked, and Brody and Hooper are equally isolated when they come across his boat in the dead of night.

Brody, Hooper, and Quint are isolated on a slowly-sinking boat and unable to call for help or get to shore without being eaten, and their only chance is to build a shark cage in a last-chance attempt to kill the beast.

The common thread in all these moments is that the characters are in the ocean with few to no tools or weapons they can use to fight back. The shark has all the advantages (speed, killing power, size, etc.), while the humans have only their wits and intelligence.

2. Everything In The Film Revolves Around The Shark

One thing that I admire about ‘Jaws’ is something that sounds so simple, yet is so hard for so many movies to get right: Everything in the film (with the exception of Brody’s introduction) revolves around the shark. Even when it’s not on-screen or killing anyone, everything the characters do revolve around the shark: A town hall meeting is held because of the shark’s attack on Chrissie; Brody and Hooper have dinner to discuss cutting open the caught tiger shark, despite Hooper believing that the real shark is still out there; Quint talking about the Indianapolis on his boat that he, Brody, and Hooper are on because the want to kill the shark, and so on.

Virtually every scene in the film happens because of the shark, or is influenced by its actions. It’s holding the entire island hostage, and the story and the characters react accordingly. So many other monster movies have scenes or subplots that don’t revolve around their respective beasts that they take away from the film, but ‘Jaws’ wisely avoids such a mistake.

1. The Unseen Is Scarier Than What’s Seen

If there’s one thing ‘Jaws’ does perfectly, it’s that it relies on not seeing the shark so much, forcing our imaginations fill in the blanks every time its presence is felt, making inanimate objects like a broken pier, a stick in the surf, or a splintered piece of wood on Ben Gardner’s boat, bone-chilling. Not seeing the monster makes it so much more horrifying, and this extends to the first time we get a glimpse of it without seeing its whole body. But even better, the film doesn’t go overboard once the shark fully appears when Brody and Co. are hunting it; there are still plenty of times it’s hidden, and uses those moments to imply its intelligence and cunning, before finally having it take center stage at the climax.

Like salt, ‘Jaws’ masterfully uses the shark sparingly, letting it appear just enough to satisfy out curiosity, but letting it stay hidden most of the time, marinating our fear and making its inevitable appearances all the more satisfying.

Tune in next week, where we’ll take a look at Jaws 2, one of the most unnecessary sequels of all time, but not necessarily a bad one.

Hotels and Dinosaurs: What we can learn about Legacy Sequels from ‘Doctor Sleep’ and ‘Jurassic World’

NOTE: My apologies for the lack of recent updates. Living near wildfire areas means that, eventually, you’ll have to face said fires.

NOTE 2: This post spoils the plots of ‘Doctor Sleep,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ and ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

I went to see ‘Doctor Sleep’ last week, despite being skeptical of a sequel to the 1980 classic, ‘The Shining,’ especially one that comes out almost 40 (!) years after the original. But to my surprise, it was a great sequel that doesn’t rely on the power of nostalgia to tell a story that not only feels like a logical continuation of the original film, but also enriches explores and enriches the mythology of Stephen King’s world.

Since seeing ‘Sleep,’ I’ve been musing about why it works so well as a legacy sequel (loosely defined as a sequel to a work that comes out a decade or so after the original) when so many other similar film sequels haven’t done as well at the box office, and realized that the 2015 juggernaut, ‘Jurassic World,’ shared quite a bit of similarities in its storytelling. And while there’s no guaranteed formula for creating a successful legacy sequel, I think ‘World’ and ‘Sleep’ does four things right that writers should keep in mind when doing their own legacy sequels:

1. They take place quite a while after the original.

While the stories of most sequels typically take place a year or two after the original (so the actors don’t age too much), ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ occur decades after their predecessors and largely feature new cast members with only one or two familiar faces returning. While this may seem like a disadvantage, it can be a blessing in disguise: When audiences return to a fictional world where twenty or thirty years have passed, they’re naturally curious about how both the world and the people in it have changed. Best of all, having the story set so long after the original subtly tells the audience that the writer/s have taken their time to create an interesting story instead of hastily throwing something together so that a studio and publisher can get into theaters or stores to make a quick buck while the anvil is hot.

2. They don’t copy the first story.

When given a choice, the entertainment industry likes to play things safe: If a movie or book is a critical and financial success, why change the formula for the sequel? Have the same characters, have roughly the same plot, and make the spectacle bigger and better. Imagine if ‘Sleep’ was about a grown-up Danny being forced to take a caretaker job at the Overlook to support his family, or if ‘World’ was about Ingen building Jurassic Park 2.0, only to have an insider shut down the power to try and get rich in the process. Aside from a few differences, it’d be the same story we’ve seen before, and leave audiences disappointed.

Thankfully, ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ they build off what came before; where ‘The Shining’ is about an alcoholic dad being driven insane by ghosts and subsequently trying to murder his family. ‘Doctor Sleep’ is about his grown-up son struggling with his own alcoholism while battling psychic vampires who gorge themselves on the screams of dying children (Wut). And while ‘World’ has the same basic premise of ‘Jurassic Park’ (humanity creates a theme park full of living dinosaurs and something goes catastrophically wrong), this version of the park is a resounding success. So much so, in fact, that the park’s operators create genetically-modified murdersauruses to recapture people’s interest, which leads to the inevitable breakout of said murdersaurus.

In both instances, ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ borrow elements of their predecessor’s story, but don’t copy it, instead trying to create something that feels like a logical extension.

3. They don’t invalidate what came before.

‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ billed itself as the true continuation of the ‘Terminator’ story by ignoring all the other three sequels that had come after ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day.’ Considering how ‘Judgment Day’ is one of the best sci-fi sequels of all time, I was excited to see what would happen… and then John Connor is killed in the first five minutes, followed by a race to save the person destined to save humanity from a new evil AI called Legion. ‘Dark Fate’ retroactively sours the first two Terminator films because we now know that everything that Sarah, Kyle, John, and Uncle Bob fought for amounts to nothing. Humanity is still almost wiped out by an evil AI, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it.

‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ smartly avert this problem by not invalidating everything their predecessors went through. ‘Sleep’ shows that Danny and Wendy’s struggle to survive being chased by Jack Nicholson at a spooky hotel brought them another decade together, and that Danny eventually overcomes the trauma he endured. ‘World’ shows that the operators of Jurassic World learned from the mistakes of the first film, and made John Hammond’s dream of a family-friendly park filled with dinosaurs come true. Granted, it inevitably falls apart, but for ten years the park brought joy and happiness to millions. Both stories show that the suffering and struggles of the previous stories ultimately amounted to something good, where ‘Dark Fate’ made it so that the suffering and struggles of the previous stories ultimately amounted to nothing.

4. They save nostalgia for the third act

There are few forces as powerful as nostalgia, and indulging fans by giving them the return of a favorite character, the big battle that’s been teased for decades, or hearing a familiar catchphrase from an older actor reprising a role he had twenty years ago can bring about a squeal of joy for any audience. ‘Sleep’ and ‘World’ both know the importance of nostalgia, and follow the classic advice of saving the best for last. Or, in storytelling jargon, saving their biggest, most crowd-pleasing moments for the third act.

Most of ‘Sleep’ features Danny and his new companion, Abra, using their shining abilities to battle psychic vampires in New Hampshire. But in the third act, Danny and Abra drive to the now-rotting Overlook hotel for the final showdown with the last surviving vampire, where Danny goes back through all the old rooms we saw back in 1980, eventually confronts the spectral form of his father, and then does battle with Rose by unleashing all the Overlook’s ghosts before destroying the hotel for good.

‘World’ takes a different approach: Instead of indulging in nostalgia in the third act, it sprinkles little bits throughout the film, including a visit to the original visitor’s center in the beginning of the second act. But the biggest nostalgia moment comes in the climax: Having exhausted all other options to stop the Murdersaurus Rex Indominus Rex, park operator Claire releases the park’s T-rex to fight the Indominous. And this isn’t just any T-rex: this is Rexy, the same T-rex from the original 1993 movie, the one that terrorized Alan Grant and the kids outside its paddock, the one who chased Malcom, Sattler, and Muldon in the jungle, and who saved the day in the visitors center. Now, over twenty years later, Rexy returns to save the day once again in the most spectacular climax of the series to date (and one of my personal favorite final fights in years).

What’s so great about both these climaxes is that returning to the Overlook and releasing the T-rex to fight the villain (sadly, not in the same story) isn’t just done for fanservice, but as important parts of the story to resolve the conflict: The Overlook is the only place where Danny and Abra can possibly defeat Rose the Hat, and Rexy is the only chance Claire has to try and stop the Indominus Rex after every other containment option has failed.

As stated earlier, there’s no guaranteed formula for creating a popular legacy sequel. Said sequels can tell new stories without relying on the original and having just the right amount of nostalgia, but still fail. But if writers follow the four points outlined above, we have a much stronger chance of creating a worthy follow-up to delight audiences both new and old.

What We Can Learn From ‘Henkei Shojo’

NOTE: This post contains material that is not safe to view at work. Specifically, numerous panty and bra shorts from a Japanese miniseries featuring girls who are clearly underage because GOSH DANGIT JAPAN WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

A popular urban legend says that famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki once said that anime was a mistake. Considering how the most popular stereotype of anime depicts of being crammed full with underage girls whose panties and bras are frequently visible, that quote might be on to something. If nothing else, it gives the impression that Japan is full of sexual deviants who are desperate to find any excuse to feature schoolgirls in morally questionable outfits, and that’s before all the tentacles show up.

This short miniseries does nothing to dispel that stereotype:

Well, that’s… something. Let’s break it down and see what writers can learn from girls who turn into vehicles.

What the video does well:

*It does an excellent job with random humor

The best thing about this miniseries is that it masterfully uses a random joke so well: the idea of girls turning into cars, fighter jets, and ships for the flimsiest of reasons, complete with over-the top transformation scenes, leaving a non-transforming onlooker to stare on in stunned silence. While humor relying on sudden, over-the-top elements at random times doesn’t always work, it can provide some great laughs, especially if it’s so ridiculous it has no chance of being taken seriously.

*It does a great job portraying laughably ineffective powers

My favorite video in the series features one girl transforming into a battleship to save another girl on a sinking life raft, complete with the music, the elaborate changing sequence, and falling into the ocean… only to reveal that the battleship is only two feet long, making it all-but-useless when it comes to actually rescuing girls stuck on sinking life rafts in the middle of the ocean, ensuring that she’ll die a miserable, watery death.

This use of a giant buildup with a pitifully weak payoff is one of my favorite comedic acts, because when we think something is going to be awesome, intentionally subverting it for comedic effect can almost always get a belly laugh, like superpowers that turn someone into popcorn.

What doesn’t work as well:

*It sexualizes underage girls, complete with numerous shots of their underwear.

Excuse me for a moment.

*Goes off and drinks bleach*

Okay… let’s do this.

If the girls in the videos above wore normal clothes, like jeans or long-sleeved shirts, and we didn’t see their undergarments when they changed, it would be a lot less creepy. It wouldn’t leave me feeling like this guy. Unless you’re willing to risk being labeled a closeted pedophile, don’t have any underage characters do anything that could even be remotely considered sexual. Tight clothes, bra shots, panty shots, ridiculously tiny skirts that no one would or should wear in real life – including all these things in your work is only asking for trouble and possible visits from your friendly neighborhood police officers.

The Bottom Line:

NEVER, EVER FEATURE UNDERAGE CHARACTERS IN ANYTHING REMOTELY SEXUAL ARG.

Favorite Moments: A Monk and an Imam

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Van Helsing’

The Scene

Why it’s great

2004’s, ‘Van Helsing’, a fun, actionized adaptation of Universal’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Werewolf mythos, has it’s protagonist, Gabriel Van Helsing, being an agent of the Knights of the Holy Order, a fictional organization devoted to fighting supernatural evils. Early on in the film, he goes to the Vatican to get his next assignment, which sets him down a path that will lead to a (rather awesome) showdown against Count Dracula.

As you might expect from a secret religious organization that’s set in the Vatican, the Order features a strong Christian bent, with priests, monks, and the like rushing about. But in a nice touch, it’s shown that the organization is composed of people from different faiths, including a Buddhist monk and an Islamic Imam (specifically, at 1:37 in the video). The movie doesn’t draw extra attention to these characters – they’re just in the background, doing their thing – but to see people of different faiths working together for a common cause is something we don’t see much in stories, and I wish it was far more common – in today’s divided world, such signs of solidarity and cooperation are badly needed, even if only in fiction.

Perfect Moments: Ellen Ripley’s Message

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Game

‘Alien Isolation’

The Moment

Why it’s perfect

Earlier this week, I suggested a new way of watching the Alien series in order to give it – and Ellen – a more hopeful ending instead of the bittersweet one in both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’. Part of that new trilogy was the videogame, ‘Alien: Isolation’ because of the strength of its core concept: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, has spent 15 years searching for any clue about her mother’s fate after she disappeared aboard the Nostromo, and after fighting her way through a decaying space station while hiding from the cosmos’ most terrifying alien, she finally finds a message for her that was recorded by her mother.

When I first played through ‘Isolation’, I almost teared up at this moment. Not only does Sigourney Weaver perfectly play Ellen once more, but bringing an emotional, tragic side of her we almost never see, but the meaning behind this moment is so tragic: This is the first time Amanda has heard her mother in 15 years, and can give her both closure and hope; the novelization of the game reveals that she believes her mother is still alive, and the story ends with her vowing to survive at all costs so she will one day reunite with Ellen. For the first time in over a decade, she has a reason to live, to survive against all odds.

Sadly, it’s not to be:

While Amanda did get closure, and presumably died hoping that her mother was still alive, knowing that the two would never see each other again makes Ellen’s message so perfectly bittersweet.