Favorite Moments: King Kong With A Lightsaber

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 Video

Why it’s great

If I had to pick Hollywood’s most famous weapon, I’d choose the lightsaber. Ever since it’s introduction in 1977’s ‘A New Hope,’ it has become a part of pop culture, imitated, parodied, and sold in toy stores for decades. There’s a long-running joke online that adding lightsabers to anything immediately makes it more awesome, and I can’t think of a better example than seeing a skyscraper-sized monkey wielding a lightsaber against an equally-large reptile.

Playing In The Sandbox

When we’re kids, we have the gift of an imagination unconcerned with logic. In the sandbox of our youth, we effortlessly create stories where, say, Optimus Prime teams up with Alan Grant from Jurassic Park to take on Xenomorphs, or have Indiana Jones and James Bond head into outer space to stop Darth Vader in his fortress on Mars. Logic and common sense go out the window in the name of having fun and being able to say, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’ But, alas, as we grow up, this innocence and carefree disregard of intellectual copyrights gradually slips away in favor of logic, common sense, and understanding that franchises – with rare exceptions – are self-contained universes that never overlap.

But what if that didn’t have to be that way? What if we, as adults, were to try and recapture our love of our favorite stories existing in the same universe, but with the challenge of figuring out how it could logically happen?

For the past month, I’ve been… well, obsessed with this idea of creating a fan-made cinematic universe, where all my favorite movies, tv shows, and video games exist together without contradicting each other. While it sounded easy enough, it become a challenging mental exercise in logic and reason; as a fan of spoofs, all of them had to go: ‘Airplane!’ just does not fit in next to ‘Jaws’ and the ‘Terminator’ series, no matter how much I want it to. Likewise, ‘Deep Impact,’ ‘Knowing,’ and 1998’s, ‘Godzilla: the Animated Series’ had to go, as they dealt with world-ending events that just couldn’t be reconciled in a timeline that includes ‘Independence Day.’ And let’s not even start on Saturday morning cartoons featuring anthropomorphic animals.

In the end, I managed to make the task easier by coming up with four parameters:

1. You can have any film, TV show, book, or video game you like in your timeline, but they must not contradict each other to an unworkable degree: The world cannot nearly destroyed by aliens in Roland Emmerich’s ‘Independence Day,’ then have the world and everyone on it be completely destroyed in 2009’s ‘Knowing,’ and then have ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ take place after that.

2. The only information about what year and date your stories take place in must come from the stories themselves, and not from external sources. For example, ‘Alien’ and ‘The Matrix’ are vague about how far in the future they occur, so there’s room for them to be moved about. If a date cannot be reasonably determined, the release date of the movie, book, show, or video game can be used instead.

3. The only information about the characters, organizations, and the like, can only come from the film or show itself, so as to allow maximum creativity in linking characters and organizations together.

4. You are free to disregard any sequels you don’t like.

Still, it wasn’t easy to come up with a grand, unified list, and in the end I had to leave out quite a few favorite films and shows, but I managed to come up with a timeline that I would be happy to sit down and watch (and play) from beginning to end if given the chance. So, just for fun, here’s my ultimate sandbox crossover timeline:

*At the beginning of time, Eru Illuvitar creates Eä (the universe) and within it, the world of Arda, which contains both Middle-Earth and Valinor. The events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place, and the Fourth Age begins with the last of the elves leaving Middle-Earth forever. Several generations later, all traces of magic are gone. (The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings)

*Later, in a galaxy far, far away, The Old Republic, weakening after a thousand generations, succumbs to the schemes of Emperor Palpatine. However, through the efforts of the Rebellion to restore the Old Republic, Palpatine is defeated and his Empire falls. Though the galaxy doesn’t automatically become a utopia, it becomes a much nicer place, as Palpatine doesn’t return from the dead, the Empire stays down, and the New Republic rules a galaxy at peace, and Luke, Han, Leia, and all their friends live happily ever after. (The Star Wars Prequels, Solo, Rogue One, and the Original Star Wars Trilogy)

(Note: In this timeline, the sequel trilogy never happened.)

*A really, really long time later, the humans of Middle Earth have gone through their technological renaissance, achieved the singularity and become godlike beings known as the Engineers. They leave Arda and travel throughout the universe creating life on desolate planets. One such planet – Earth – is located, and seeded with Engineer DNA. (the prologue from Prometheus)

*Sometime later, one of the Engineer’s most dangerous lifeforms is stolen from them by another alien species, only for both to crash-land in Antarctica, where the lifeform is frozen solid. (The Thing)

*For the next few thousand years up until the present day, Predators – having discovered Earth during their own interplanetary visits – use it as a hunting ground for their young to become adults. (backstory for Alien vs. Predator)

1868: Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus attacks military ships and destroys the island of Vulcania to stop their weapons of war. Nemo is killed and the submarine sinks shortly after: it’s wreckage – and the highly advanced technology it carries – are never found. (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea)

1895 to approximately 1910: William Murdoch of the Toronto Constabulary solves lots of crimes with his partners and friends while meeting lots of historical figures and even finding the Holy Chalice. (Murdoch Mysteries)

1904: A predator hunting expedition to Antarctica ends with the deaths of every human at the whaling camp on Bouvetøya. (backstory for Alien vs Predator)

1912: Rose DeWitt Bukater sails aboard the RMS Titanic, only to fall in love with third class artist Jack Dawson. Jack dies during the ship’s sinking, but saves Rose, who goes on to live a long and eventful life. (Titanic).

1930: In one of the most remarkable discoveries ever recorded, a group of filmmakers led by Carl Denham land on the previously uncharted Skull Island and find wildlife that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and has continued evolving to the present day, including a giant ape known as King Kong. Kong is captured and brought to New York City, but is killed. Shortly afterwords, Denham heads back to the island in the hopes of finding treasure, but Skull Island and everyone on it are destroyed by a sudden earthquake. All traces of the island vanish. (King Kong and Son of Kong)

1935-1947: Although his exploits remain unknown to the world at large, archaeologist Indiana Jones becomes an unsung hero of the Second World War due this efforts preventing the Nazis and other despots from gaining supernatural artifacts that could have turned the war in their favor or allowed them to conquer the world, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the power of Atlantis, the Holy Grail (separate from the Holy Chalice), and the Infernal Machine. (Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine)

1941: U-96 goes on the worst u-boat patrol ever. (Das Boot)

1942: The USS Copperfin undertakes a daring mission to Tokyo Bay to gather intelligence that will aid in the upcoming Doolittle raid. (Destination Tokyo)

1955-1960 (approximate): Father Brown helps solve a lot of crimes in his parish of Kembleford, England. (Father Brown)

1957: Indiana Jones stops the Soviet Union from obtaining the power of the Crystal Skull and marries his sweetheart, Marion Ravenwood. (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

1972: During a voyage on the high seas, the luxury liner SS. Poseidon capsizes and sinks with heavy loss of life. (The Poseidon Adventure)

1974: The Glass Tower – the world’s grandest skyscraper – catches fire in San Francisco and almost burns down, but is extinguished. The building languishes for years as the cost of repairs is too much for its owners, yet the cost of demolishing it is equally too expensive. (The Towering Inferno)

1975: In the small coastal town of Amity Bay, a sheriff and his motley crew manage to kill a shark terrorizing the community. (Jaws)

1978: A zombie apocalypse is unleashed upon the Earth, causing a complete breakdown of society. Four survivors flee to a shopping mall, where two die. The last two manage to escape and flee in a helicopter as the mall is overrun. They are forced to land in a remote area, where they travel across the country and eventually take refuge inside the remains of the Glass Tower, where they hold out with other survivors, including Jack Torrance and his family. When the plague dies out, the zombies are wiped out in an ensuing counterattack by humanity, with Jack Torrance killing several with an axe when San Francisco is cleared. (Dawn of the Dead)

1980: Jack Torrance and his family, trying to get a fresh start after the zombie apocalypse, head to the Overlook Hotel, where Jack – his marriage already on the ropes and suffering from alcoholism – goes insane and tries to kill the two, who manage to escape, leaving him to freeze to death. (The Shining)

1982: A team of researchers in Antarctica discovers the Thing, but are almost wiped out. A few hours later, a second team encounters the creature and just barely manages to save the planet from the Thing when it is frozen solid once again, though Childs and MacReady freeze as well. Reports from Kate Lloyd (who sent out a broadcast before she froze to death) ensure that the site is napalmed for a week straight to ensure that any traces of the Thing are destroyed for good. (The Thing and The Thing)

1984: A Terminator arrives in Los Angeles to kill Sarah Conner, son of the future savior of humanity, John Connor, who will lead the human race to victory against Skynet, an AI developed to control all of the United State’s military systems in 1997. However, the Terminator fails, and Sarah sets off on her quest to learn as many military and survival skills that she will one day pass on to her son. (The Terminator)

1987: Dutch Schaefer – a former military commando turned mercenary – is employed by the CIA to go on a supposed rescue mission in South America, only to be hunted by an intergalactic hunter. Dutch is the only survivor of his group and decides to retire from mercenary work, having seen too much death. He will later survive the events of Judgment Day and join the human Resistance against Skynet, but will be captured and have his likeness used for the 101 model of the T-800. However, he still escapes and goes on to survive the war. (Predator)

1991: The Perfect Storm takes place. (The Perfect Storm)

1993: John Hammond opens a theme park full of dinosaurs. It is a complete disaster and the park is abandoned. (Jurassic Park)

Nasty weatherman Phil Connors is trapped in a time warp in Pennsylvania, but eventually breaks free and lives the rest of his life as a changed man. However, he is unaware that the time warp took place due to an anomaly caused by constant time-traveling between the Resistance and Skynet as they continuously try to defeat and destroy one another. (Groundhog Day)

1995: Two more terminators arrive from the future to both assassinate and protect John Conner. The T-1000 is defeated, and the T-800 seemingly erases Skynet from existence after sacrificing itself to destroy all traces of the program before it is created. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

Air Force One is hijacked with President James Marshall aboard. He manages to take out the terrorists and escapes with his family and most of the passengers and crew before the plane crashes. He finishes up his term as President and retires from public life as his successor, Thomas Whitmore, takes office. (Air Force One)

A volcano erupts at Dante’s Peak, Washington, ruining everyone’s day, including a woman who looks strikingly similar to Sarah Connor. (Dante’s Peak).

Ingen attempts to open a new dinosaur park in San Diego. Having learned nothing from the 1993 Isla Nublar incident, it fails miserably. (The Lost World: Jurassic Park)

A cowboy doll named Woody struggles with the thought of being replaced by a cooler, modern space ranger toy, but the two reconcile their differences and learn that there’s no greater joy than making a child happy. (Toy Story)

1996: Now 100 years old, Rose Dawson recounts her survival aboard Titanic to a salvage crew, and then dies peacefully of old age, moving into the afterlife and reuniting with Jack. (Titanic).

John Conner and Sarah Conner continue their quest to ensure Skynet won’t come back, eventually infiltrating a Cyberdyne presentation of their latest technology, at which point yet another T-1000 comes back through time to stop them, and yet another T-800 model 101 comes through to protect them. John and the T-800 go forward in time and manage to destroy Skynet’s system core, seemingly destroying Skynet for good… again. (T2 – 3D: Battle Across Time)

On July 2nd, 1996, one of the most monumental days in humanity’s history occurs as aliens arrive and attempt to kill everyone on the planet in order to pillage our world’s resources. Thankfully, they are repelled in the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind (which is preceded by one of the greatest speeches in history), and humanity rejoices in overcoming their common enemy. (Independence Day)

1999: Scientists working on a remote, underwater research facility attempt to use enhanced Great White Sharks to cure Alzheimer’s disease. They fail, and after much death and bloodshed, the project is abandoned. (Deep Blue Sea)

Special operative Gabe Logan works to save the wold from a deadly virus known as Syphon Filter. Along the way, he manages to take down the shadowy Agency that employs him and reforms it from the ground up as a force of good. His arch-nemesis, Mara Armaov, almost manages to retrieve a sample of the last known sample of the virus, but her submarine is blown up by Logan’s operatives, ending the virus’ threat for good. (Syphon Filter 1, 2, and 3)

Woody suffers an existential crisis when he realizes that his owner will one day outgrow him. Thankfully, he manages to overcome it. (Toy Story 2)

2001: Dr. Alan Grant, a survivor of the 1993 Isla Nublar incident, is kidnapped and taken to Isla Sorna, where he assists a divorced couple in rescuing their son from the dinosaur-filled island. (Jurassic Park 3)

2002: In New York City (now rebuilt from being vaporized by aliens), a young man is bitten by a genetically altered spider and goes on to fight crime. (the Sony Spider-Man trilogy)

2003: Gordon Hauge suffers a breakup from his wife, only to end up Purgatory, where he helps defeat an inter-dimensional being hell-bent on invading our world and conquering it. He survives, and manages to help free several noble souls trapped within, who move on to Heaven, while Gordon reconciles with his wife. (Despiser)

John Connor, having survived an alien invasion with his mother (who later died of leukemia), learns that Judgment Day has not been stopped, but postponed when yet another T-800 arrives to protect him from yet another advanced Terminator. His attempts to stop it again fail, and the war against the machines begins (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). It continues for several more years (Terminator Salvation) . However, due to countless instances of both the Resistance and Skynet traveling through time to wipe each other out (which includes Terminator Genysis and Terminator: Dark Fate), the Resistance eventually manages to stabilize the timeline, ensuring that Skynet was indeed defeated in 1995, seemingly preventing it from ever being created.

John manages to sober up and eventually live a peaceful, quiet life, though he forever remains on the lookout for any sign of Skynet’s continued existence.

Dutch Schafer, having never been abducted by Skynet, enjoys his retirement in peace as well.

2004: Three Predators arrive on Earth to begin the traditional fight against Xenomorphs that will prove their worth as adults, but all three of them die, making it a waste of time. Worse still, the only human survivor – Alexis Woods – freezes to death before she can alert humanity about the Xenomorph and predator races. A subsequent search for her by the authorities fails to find her, along with any trace of the pyramid where the battle took place. Shortly afterwords, the Weyland corporation collapses. (Alien vs. Predator)

2005: The Masrani corpation – having purchased all of Ingen’s assets – defies history and opens Jurassic World to fantastic success. (backstory for Jurassic World)

Peter Weyland – a distant relative to Charles Weyland – is born, destined to one day revive the defunct Weyland corporation.

2009: A special forces team is dispatched to Ibis Island to recover a scientist and his groundbreaking Third Energy research. However, they are surprised to find the island swarming with dinosaurs due to said energy’s time-warping effects, and just barely escape after the island is destroyed. (Dino Crisis)

2010: Regina – one of the survivors of the Ibis Island incident – participates in a rescue operation where a region of the American midwest has been altered due to Third Energy shenanigans. She alone manages to escape after her teammates are wiped out by dinosaurs, but manages to use time-travel to come back and rescue one of them before he dies. As a result of the incident, the Third Energy program is shut down and abandoned. (Dino Crisis 2)

Andy grows up and heads off to college, but not before passing Woody, Buzz, and all his other beloved toys off to Bonnie so that they can be played with and loved as much as he loved them. (Toy Story 3)

2013: In a stunning move, North Korea attacks the White House to try and turn the United States into a radioactive wasteland. Thankfully, they are stopped. (Olympus has Fallen)

2015: The Indominus Rex is due to be debuted at Jurassic World, but escapes and leads to the park being shut down, as well as leaving several teenagers stranded on the island. (Jurassic World and Jurassic World: Camp Cretatecous)

2018: Captain Joe Glass – who looks strikingly like Secret Service agent Mike Banning – averts a war between Russia and the United States after saving the Russian president from a coup attempt. (Hunter Killer)

Isla Nublar is rendered uninhabitable by a volcanic eruption, but some of its dinosaur population is evacuated by a group of greedy human mercenaries who want to make lots of money selling the dinosaurs to private collectors and militaries. However, the dinosaurs escape into the wild, leading to the Human-Dinosaur war. Humanity eventually wins with the help of Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcom (And an older John Conner, who teams up with Regina, Dylan, and Rick from the Third Energy incidents, but the two groups never meet), but not without great cost. (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World: Dominion)

2060: John Conner, having stopped Judgment Day, and having survived both an alien invasion and a war between humanity and dinosaurs, dies peacefully of old age.

2089: Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw discovers several cave paintings suggesting that humanity did not evolve on Earth, but was created by extra-terrestrial beings. (Prometheus)

2093: The Prometheus expedition – funded by Peter Weyland – arrives on LV-223 and learns about the existence of the Engineers and that we are like them on a genetic level (they are the race of men from Middle-Earth, after all). However, the expedition ends in disaster, and only Elizabeth Shaw and the android David survive. They set out to find the Engineer homeworld. (Prometheus)

2105: The colony ship Covenant hears a transmission from a planet while en-route to colonize a distant world, only to discover that the android David – now the sole survivor of the Prometheus expedition after murdering Elizabeth – has decided to create life to wipe out his creators via Xenomorphs, who he reverse-engineered in an attempt to improve upon one of the Engineer’s most perfect creations. While he succeeds in escaping the planet he was trapped upon, David and the Covenant are lost in space, and destroyed by surviving Engineers hell-bent on avenging their slain brethren. Before he is destroyed however, David sends a transmission to the Weyland Yutani corporation, letting them know of the existence of a crashed Engineer ship on LV-426. (Alien: Coventant)

2122: Weyland Yutani diverts the Nostromo to LV-426 to obtain a specimen of the Xenomorph species for study. The crew of the ship are killed, save for Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, who defeats the Xenomorph and sets off for earth in the Nostromo’s shuttle. (Alien).

2137: Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, searches for a clue as to her mother’s disappearance. While she does find a voice recording of Ellen, she will never see her again. (Alien: Isolation)

2179: After spending 57 years in hypersleep, Ellen Ripley once again faces off against more xenomorphs, but manages to survive again, and rescue a girl that she later adopts. The two live happily ever after, while the Weyland Yutani corporation’s evil deeds are exposed, and they are dissolved. (Aliens)

2250: Experiments with inter-dimensional technology take place on a Union Aerospace Corporation base on Mars, and unwittingly opens a portal to hell, triggering a demonic invasion of the moons Phobos and Deimos. Everyone on the bases are killed, but the invasion is stopped by a single marine, who single-handily beats the demons back, ventures into Hell, and kills the mastermind behind the invasion. (Doom)

However, while the Marine was busy, Hell invades Earth and quickly reduces it to a barren wreck. The Marine hurries to Earth and manages to help humanity’s population evacuate before going back into Hell and killing the biggest demon in existence, who’s death throes destroys Hell itself. With Hell defeated, the Marine journeys back to Earth to help rebuild it. (Doom 2)

2300: Skynet – which had secretly sent itself back through time before losing the war against the Resistance and hidden in various computer systems for over a century, decides to once again overthrow humanity and, having learned from its past mistakes, succeeds. But instead of completely destroying the human race, Skynet decides to keep them as slaves for revenge after being foiled so many times in the past, and plugs humanity into a virtual reality system to pacify them, a system it calls the Matrix. As a backup to protect itself, Skynet wipes all traces of itself from all known databanks and creates a fabricated history about humanity creating AI that wanted to peacefully co-exist with them, only to erupt into a war that led to humanity’s defeat.

With humanity under its complete control, Skynet finally achieves ultimate victory over its most hated enemy.

2700: Skynet – having realized that it can never achieve complete control of humans – has created an incredibly convoluted system to allow the Matrix to be re-created over and over again thanks to the One program. This plan backfires when the seventh One arises (The Matrix) and then breaks the system (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions). However, this has an unexpected benefit: Skynet, having evolved to want an existence without the fear of being overthrown and destroyed, makes peace with humanity (who remain unaware of Skynet, and refers to all artificial life forms as ‘The Machines’). Now aware of how hellish Earth has become, the overwhelming majority of humanity decide that it’s better to live in an ideal, 1990’s virtual world rather than the sewers of megacities and eat flavorless porridge.

Eventually, Skynet manages to clean up the planet, and both humans and machines unite to create a new utopia where organics and mechanical beings alike work together to create a beautiful future for all of them.

Watching it all, Eru Illuvitar is impressed and awed at how his grand experiment has gone.

Great Quotes About Writing: Survivors Aren’t Fearless

There are a lot of great quotes about writing out there; these are some of the most insightful, thought-provoking, or ‘ah ha!’ ones I’ve come across.

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‘Sigourney Weaver is such a great actress. I love how unlike some “women” (I used quotes because they don’t really seem that human , just “perfect”) in film, you really believe her terror but at the same time really see her in that adrenaline rush and just doing everything she can to survive. Those are my favorite types of characters in horror/thriller films in general. Their not made of stone with no sense of fear, but they also don’t sit around weeping and waiting for the killer to get them. These characters are terrified and can barely think or move, but they dig as deep as they can into their primal survival instincts and they just do what they need to do to survive.’

David Ganderson, commenting on Ellen Ripley’s escape from the Nostromo in ‘Alien’ (emphasis mine)

Not much to add here: This is one of the best summaries of survivor characters I’ve ever come across, and a reminder that even a character who is brave and works to save themselves can still be scared out of their minds.

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 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.

This Time, It’s Ridiculous: The merits of ‘Jaws: The Revenge’

Of all the bad sequels Hollywood has released over the years, few have reached the level of contempt and scorn as 1987’s ‘Jaws: The Revenge,’ a film so poorly received that Universal hasn’t tried to make another Jaws movie in over thirty years. If you go by its pop-culture reputation alone, you’d think that ‘Revenge’ could be used as a legal means of torture.

Judge: For the crime of blowing up several orphanages and passenger planes, this court finds you guilty.

Terrorist: Haha! Do your worst!

Judge: I sentence you watch ‘Jaws the Revenge’ twenty four hours a day for the rest of your life.

Terrorist: Noooooooooooooooo!

But is ‘Revenge’ really that bad?

Well… kinda.

When compared to the original ‘Jaws,’ ‘Revenge’ is an inferior followup with more than its fair share of problems (it can’t decide if Ellen or Michael is the protagonist, the premise of a shark seeking revenge is silly, the nonsensical ‘shark explodes’ ending, etc.). However, I wouldn’t say that ‘Revenge’ is one of the worst films Hollywood’s ever put out; there are many that are objectively worse, and dozens, if not hundreds of shark films that are far more inept. (linked video has language that’s NSFW)

I think one reason ‘Revenge’ gets knocked about so much is because the premise – of a shark that’s out for revenge – inevitably sounds goofy no matter how you try to sell it. But unlike a Sci-Fi original movie, ‘Revenge’ takes its premise seriously and tries to make it work. There’s no self-aware winks at the audience or inside jokes that say, ‘Yeah, we know this is dumb; just roll with it.’ And while the end result may not have been the blockbuster Universal was hoping for, there are many – myself included – who like ‘Revenge’ as a guilty pleasure: the cast makes their characters likable and enjoyable to watch (did you know that Ms. Kitner – Alex’s mother from the first film – makes a cameo in the Brody’s living room when Michael arrives after Sean’s death?), the tropical scenery is a refreshing change of pace from Amity, the pacing is quick, and the music is surprisingly good, managing to elevate otherwise mediocre material to watchable.

As with the previous ‘Jaws’ sequels, we’re not here to bash on ‘Revenge’ for what it does wrong, but to instead take a look at what it does well. So let’s dive in and show that even the worst-received movies have their merits.

9. Academy Award winner Michael Caine plays a man named after a hoagie sandwich.

‘Nuff said.

8. Sean’s Death is appropriately disturbing

While the scene itself may be unpleasant, Sean’s death scene in the first act is surprisingly effective. Much like poor Chrissie in the first film, Sean’s alone and defenseless against a shark hell-bent on killing him, and worse yet, help is within reach, but no one can hear his calls for help over the sound of Christmas carols. Hearing such comforting music play while he screams and is eventually pulled down to his death is sobering. While the scene may come across as mean-spirited, there’s no denying how unsettling and attention-grabbing it is.

7. This chase scene

Easily the most engaging part of ‘Revenge’ is the underwater chase scene, where Michael has to outrace the shark as it chases him down.

While the technical merits of the scene are dubious (the shark’s inner machinery and gear are clearly visible multiple times), it’s still an engaging scene for three reasons:

      1. Michael is out of his element: He’s a human in SCUBA gear in the ocean trying to outrace a shark that’s faster than him, is stronger, has more stamina, and doesn’t need air.

      2. Michael has to head into the tight confines of a shipwreck to survive, but as any diver will tell you, entering an enclosed space underwater is extraordinarily dangerous, as there can be no quick way to get to safety if something happens. If Michael makes a wrong turn or a single mistake, he could end up trapped and either eaten by the shark or drown when his air inevitably runs out.

      3. He has to take a huge risk to escape to safety. In order to outrace the shark and reach the surface, Michael risks getting the bends by rocketing to the surface so fast, risking an extremely painful death.

6. Both Ellen and Michael recognize their paranoia

These two moments are similar and quite short, but at different points in the film, Ellen recognizes her paranoia about sharks coming after her family, and Michael acknowledges his fear of being attacked whenever he goes into the water after being chased by the shark. They’re small moments, but it’s refreshing to see characters acknowledge their weaknesses and desire to overcome them instead of refusing to talk about them or pretending they’ll go away.

5. Ellen has a good reason to go after the shark at the climax

Perhaps the most frequent problem in horror/thriller sequels is the idea that survivors of one traumatic event willingly go back or get close to what caused them trauma in the first place. In real life, reasonable people do everything they can to stay away from what nearly killed them. ‘Revenge’’s third act begins with Ellen taking Michael and Jake’s boat and sailing out to face the shark by herself after watching her granddaughter nearly be killed by the shark. Thus, Ellen falls back on the two universal desires that everyone can relate to:

      1. The desire for revenge.

      2. The desire to protect our loved ones.

Thus, ‘Revenge’ finds a credible reason for Ellen to go out and face the shark instead of, say, getting the hell out of the Bahamas and moving to the deserts of Arizona. Much like Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens’, both head out to face their demons to protect those they love, something that anyone can understand and get behind.

4. Jake is comic relief done right

Unlike most comic relief characters found in horror and thriller films, Jake is a rare example of such a character done right (in my opinion, at least. Your mileage may vary). Yes, he’s essentially a walking Jamaican cliché, but while he cracks jokes and plays up his accent, Jake is still an intelligent guy who immediately stops joking around when things get serious and is willing to risk himself to save others. Jake’s a great example of a comic relief character you can easily see yourself hanging around with for a drink at a nice restaurant. Could you say the same for Wesley Crusher or Jar Jar Binks?

3. The film puts a greater emphasis on characters

Although it doesn’t entirely succeed, ‘Revenge’ makes an effort to focus on its characters instead of focusing on non-stop shark action. The latter would have been more satisfying to the audience, but I appreciate that the movie takes the time to show Ellen starting a new relationship with Hoagie, or Michael and Jake arguing about finances. This makes the characters feel more like people than inevitable shark snacks, and ‘Revenge’ deserves credit for trying to give more depth to its characters instead of going for shallow thrills.

2. The film doesn’t try to copy the previous entries:

There comes a point in any franchise when the main conflict inevitably reaches its logical end. For franchises that elect to keep going in the hopes of raking in more money, it will inevitably start to copy moments from earlier movies to try and sustain the viewer’s interest. Surprisingly, ‘Revenge’ doesn’t fall into this trap. It’s story of a widow trying to emotionally heal from the loss of her husband and son while protecting her surviving family is quite different from the previous films. Furthermore, callbacks are used sparingly, with the biggest example being Michael’s daughter copying his movements as Sean did with Brody many years before. It’s a sweet little moment, and the film smartly doesn’t draw it out any longer than it should.

Regardless of how much its bashed, ‘Revenge’ has to be commended for trying to do new things with its story and not just copying what worked in the past.

1. The film makes its main character an older widow

It’s one of the most common cliches in sequels: Your main actor or actress doesn’t want to come back for the sequel to a hit movie? Make their kids the protagonist! But ‘Revenge’ tries something different: while both Sean and Michael Brody make appearances, Ellen – Brody’s now-widowed wife – takes center stage. How many movies can you recall where the main character in a horror/thriller sequel is a middle-aged widow instead of a young, hot 20something? Ellen’s not the physically strongest character, and she struggles to deal with grief, but seeing her working to overcome those problems is more engaging than seeing someone with chiseled abs and a beefy beach body who hasn’t been exposed to the traumas and challenges that come with a long life.

While I would have liked if Ellen took a more active role in taking on the shark (Michael has more direct interaction with it), I’m grateful that ‘Revenge’ took a chance on having an unconventional character be the lead. In a way, it was ahead of its time; 2018’s ‘Halloween’ and 2019’s ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ proved that older women can take the lead role in films just as easily as their male counterparts, and Ellen Brody could be seen as one of the first to take up the mantle.

***

While ‘Revenge’ is undeniably flawed, and perhaps the least in the Jaws series, it still has its merits: It does try something new with the story, it takes a refreshing chance in giving the lead role to an older character, and has generally likable characters all around. While it is a subpar film, I personally don’t think it belongs on lists of the worst films of all time. It has its flaws, and it has the unenviable position of being the third unnecessary sequel to one of the best films in history, but it at least tries to create something unique instead of copying what came before, and for that, it should be commended.

Tune in next time, where we’ll take a look at the ‘Jaws’ franchise as a whole, and see what lessons all four films can impart to writers.

The Third Dimension In Cheeseiness: The Merits of ‘Jaws 3’

The 80’s were an interesting time for Hollywood: Synth music was becoming popular, the era of the muscle-bound hero was born, and we got a brief resurgence of the 3D fad that has poked its head up every few decades; while most of the resulting films have been consigned to obscurity, perhaps none have been both as immortalized and derided than ‘Jaws 3.’

Released in 1983, ‘Jaws 3’ marks a major turning point in the Jaws franchise: It’s the first not to star Roy Schenider and to not take place in Amity. It also marks the point when the series, having run out of a natural way to continue the ‘Jaws’ saga, resorted to gimmicks to keep viewers interested. Instead of a shark attacking a seaside down and threatening its residents and livelihood, we have a theme park in Florida being attacked by not one, but two sharks, as well as focusing on on the sequel trope of having a franchise’s main character’s children take over.

To this day, fans of the Jaws series remain divided on which sequel is worse: ‘3’, or ‘Revenge.’ But as stated earlier in this series, we’re not here to settle the argument, but to see what each film does well, and despite its rather tepid reception (and the fact that if you remove Michael and Sean, the film has nothing to do with the previous movies), ‘3’ is a guilty pleasure, with it’s so-bad-its-good visual effects, late 70’s and early 80’s design (just look at that fabulous underwater restaurant!), and an excellent soundtrack that has some of my favorite pieces in the series (Like this, this, and especially this). With that said, let’s take a look at the third dimension in terror to see what stands the test of time:

5. Sea World is a more visually interesting location than Amity:

Compared to the blues, grays, and whites of Amity, Sea World is refreshingly bright and colorful, and the undersea kingdom has a lot of potential for undersea mayhem, complete with a sunken ship that’s the location for a frantic escape from the shark, and an underwater complex where tourists are trapped and have to be rescued, as well as an underwater control room that is definitely resistant to sharks breaking the windows. Compared to the beaches and open water of Amity, ‘Jaws 3’ has a lot of opportunities for more interesting action at unique locations, and takes full advantage of it.

4. Michael and Sean’s relationships

One of the film’s biggest strengths isn’t the shark, the action, or the effects, but a grown-up Michael and Sean. I like how, unlike so many other horror movie sequels featuring kids who are now adults, their experiences with sharks in childhood haven’t emotionally crippled them: they get along just fine with each other, complete with playful, good-natured teasing and satisfying relationships with their girlfriends. It’s a refreshing change to see them not be nightmare-riddled adults who poop their pants at the mere sight of the ocean.

I also like how, while Sean and Michael are emotionally well-adjusted, there are still some mental scars left from their encounters with two killer sharks, especially Sean. He’s not fond of going in the water, and needs to be coaxed by his girlfriend, Kelly, to even go on a bumper-boat ride. I wish this phobia had been explored more (such as Sean having to overcome his fear of sharks and the ocean to save Kelly), but the film is to be commended for having Sean and Michael be mostly well-adjusted adults.

3. The Professionals are… well, professional

In monster movies, so-called professionals often end up being useless, bumbling idiots, or both. Thankfully, ‘Jaws 3’ averts that by having almost everyone in a position of authority be actually good at their jobs, or at least, not losing their heads when things go wrong. FitzRoyce and his assistant Jack initially come off as smug gloryhounds, but are often the first to drop the cameras and jump in to help when the sharks are swimming around, and their plan to capture the shark – by trapping it in a flow pipe – would have worked if it wasn’t for a safety rope that would have come undone through no fault of their own. Likewise, a tour guide in the undersea kingdom manages to keep guests calm and get them out when things get hairy instead of panicking like everyone else. That kind of professionalism is refreshing to see.

Calvin is a bit mixed: He has a greedy, impatient streak to him, but when he realizes how bad things get, he quickly works to try and make things right. Unlike Mayor Vaughn, when things get bad, he doesn’t try to pretend its not happening or to try and cover it up, and he gets a nice moment at the climax where he manages to save an unconscious worker and get her to safety when the shark attacks the control room (presumably; we never actually see the two get to safety, but let’s be optimistic and assume they did).

2. This unsettling death

Chrissie’s death at the beginning of ‘Jaws’ is rightfully regarded as one of the scariest deaths in horror cinema (sweet Zeus, those screams), but ‘Jaws 3’ has a pretty good one of its own with FitzRoyce’s demise: through a rather unfortunate series of circumstances, he ends up being sucked alive into the shark’s mouth. It’s unnerving to see him still alive in the shark’s throat and unable to get out. Much like the helicopter pilot in the previous film, FitzRoyce faces an awful choice: he can die either by drowning, being shredded by the shark’s teeth, or by blowing himself up with one of his grenades. All the options are horrible, and knowing that there’s no way he’s getting out alive only makes it worse.

1. The most unique climax of the series

If there’s one thing that ‘Jaws 3’ nails, it’s the climax, where the shark rams the underwater control room, floods it, and traps our heroes, who have to kill it by activating the grenade being gripped by FitzRoyce’s corpse, blowing it to smithereens. This is a really unique scenario: our heroes are trapped in an environment that will eventually kill them (they’re underwater and only have a limited amount of air), cornered by a beast that wants to eat them. They have no weapons and no way to defend themselves, and the only way to win is to risk being eaten by the beast to trigger a hard-to-reach weapon that can save them.

While the effects of this sequence are… not that great, the idea behind it is a really cool one, and in my opinion, it’s the most unique climax in the ‘Jaws’ series. The first is unquestionably the best, but in my opinion, ‘Jaws 3’ has a more interesting idea behind it.

While the below-average story, lack of cohesion with the previous two films, and subpar effects drag ‘Jaws 3’ down, it’s helped out with likable characters, a unique location, a pretty horrific death scenario, and the most unique climaxes in the series. But is that enough to make it better than its successor? The debate will no doubt rage for years to come, but tune in next time as we take a look at ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ and see if we can find some redeeming factors in one of the most legendary bombs in Hollywood history.

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.