Jaws January: ‘Jaws’

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.

Perfect Moments: ‘Independence Day: A Star Wars Story’

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 Video:

Why it’s Perfect

While the Star Wars movies have been a part of my life since I was a child, complete with toy X-wings, TIE fighters, and action figures of Luke and Vader, ‘Independence Day’ is a film that’s much closer to my heart, having watched it at an impressionable young boy and being blown away by the terror of alien death rays, the exhilaration of humanity’s triumph, the heart-pounding score, and the incredible visual effects. So, naturally, seeing both sagas tied together years later is a dream come true.

Everything about this crossover is flawless. The editing is perfect, the visual effects of the Harvester fighter is masterfully spliced in, and the humor between Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith is even funnier than before, and having them be the only fighters assaulting the Death Star makes them underdogs fighting impossible odds, and their victory all the sweeter.

Favorite Moments: Star Wars, but with Tommy Wiseau

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 Videos

Why they’re great

What happens when you take a character from one movie, and transplant them into another? The results can be amazing, and in this instance, we get Tommy Wiseau from ‘The Room’ interacting with the Star Wars universe, to astonishing effect (no, seriously, the rotoscoping in these videos is breathtakingly good!).

Favorite Moments: Darth Vader, but with child Anakin’s voice

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

When it comes to pop culture villains, Darth Vader is one of the best. He has it all: Magic powers, an intimidating outfit, entire armies under his command, a mythical destiny, and James Earl Jones’ imposing voice.

But what happened if that voice was replaced with young Jake Lloyd? Suddenly, the second most dangerous being in the galaxy becomes a wide-eyed, fun loving guy who just wants to free slaves, show off his droids, and have fun blowing up rebel pilots. It’s… bizarre, to say the least, but also a funny and interesting look at a Dark Lord who mainly just wants to have fun while enslaving the galaxy.

Favorite Moments: Greedo’s Incompetence

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

Outside of, ‘Did balrogs have wings?’, no nerd debate has gotten as much infamy as if Han shot first, or Greedo. In light of the news that the scene was changed yet again, I thought I’d go looking for the most ridiculous version of this infamous scene, and found one where Greedo’s incompetence at shooting someone three feet away is hilarious.

This little short also serves as an example of incompetence becoming funny:

Someone who thinks they’re the best + charging into a dangerous situation =  Comedy

It’s important to note that this formula works best if the situation is played for laughs, and the character is a villain deserving some good, old fashioned karma: watching a good-natured but incompetent soldier in a wartime drama charge into a battle only to be blown apart seconds later isn’t funny. Having racist, smug Nazi commandos wearing full body armor charge into battle against kids throwing snowballs, only to be beaten to a pulp (or be blown up when a snowball hits them) is much more amusing and satisfying because it feels deserved.

What we can learn from the many deaths of Jar Jar Binks

NOTE: This post contains videos that feature Jar Jar getting parts of his body ripped off, and depictions of blood.

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ comes out in 17 days, and ends a storyline that’s been going for over 40 years. While much of that story has been embraced by fans of the saga, there are a few elements that most would like to forget, like Ewoks, the holiday special (if you value your sanity, don’t click that link) and Jar Jar Binks, infamous comic relief (and possible Sith lord). With the advent of computer editing, some fans take it upon themselves to rid the galaxy of the infamous gungan; one such video is ‘Han Solo VS Jar Jar Binks’ by Darren Wallace on Youtube:

For many fans out there, this is the catharsis they’ve dreamed of since 1999 (doesn’t hurt that the CGI is impressive, and the rotoscoping on Harrison Ford is top-notch), but at the risk of incurring the wrath of the Star Wars Fandom, I think this video is a good example of how not to kill off an annoying character. Yes, Jar Jar is smashed into paste, thus fulfilling the dreams of millions, but in the process, Han Solo is turned into a cold-blooded murderer.

Consider what happens: Jar Jar lands on the Millenium Falcon while searching for Anakin, briefly struggles with Han (who attacks him first) before having an ear ripped off, and is then thrown into the void of space before being smashed into bloody paste on the Falcon’s windshield. He’s not attacking Han, he’s not trying to hurt anyone, and he doesn’t dance, goof around, or do any of his usual antics; heck, he even surrenders before being killed! Your mileage may vary on how annoying Jar Jar was in ‘The Phantom Menace,’ (personally, I don’t find him annoying), but in this situation, Jar Jar doesn’t do anything to merit such a painful death. It feels heartless and senselessly cruel, like Zara’s death in ‘Jurassic World’

For the crime of being annoyed at having to babysit a teenager and her younger brother, Zara is eaten alive and drowns in the lightless void of a mosassaur’s stomach. It’s cruel, ghastly, and grotesque, feeling completely unearned for someone who isn’t the main antagonist. Jar Jar’s death here feels the same way: He may be despised by many in the Star Wars fandom, but does he deserve to have such a cruel death? In my opinion, no.

Now, let’s look at another example of a fan-made Jar Jar demise:

This version, while not as cruel as the first, still features Jar Jar being killed despite not doing anything offensive. However, in this version, his tone of voice at the beginning can be interpreted as being sarcastic, so in this video, he at least antagonizes the main character, making his death feel a little more earned, for who doesn’t like to see bullies and sarcastic thugs get their comeuppance?

Here’s a third death, edited together from a deleted scene from ‘The Phantom Menace’

This one features Jar Jar being smashed to pieces against rocks while doing his best impersonation of the Hamburglar. Here, Jar Jar doesn’t die from the actions of others (who, in their defense, try to save him), but from his own mistakes. Thus, this is a neutral death: He dies by own faults, not from being murdered.

And now, a fourth and final death:

This version of Jar Jar’s death goes for comedy and succeds admirably. Here, Jar Jar irritates Vader to no end, refusing to listen to his orders to leave him alone. It’s easy to imagine ourselves being annoyed by someone who’s as bothersome and pestering as Jar Jar, so it’s easy to side with Vader when Jar Jar is ejected into space… only to come back as an even more-annoying force ghost. Yet, despite Jar Jar being murdered, having it played for laughs and with no long-term consequences makes it easy to accept and fun to watch.

When comparing all four of these deaths, a common thread appears: The ones where the Jar Jar is annoying or antagonizing someone else makes his deaths feel more justified. The ones where he’s not trying to harm or do anything evil make his deaths feel less justified. Therein lies the an important lesson:

If an annoying character is going to be killed off, make their death be earned by being annoying, antagonistic, or playing it for comedy.

While it may be cathartic to see a reviled character bite the dust in a bloody manner, and tempting to write such a demise, doing so risks making those deaths feel sadistic. The most satisfying deaths are the ones that are deserved, not the ones that are cruel.

BONUS DEATH SCENE: Minutes after posting this article, I found out that Jar Jar has actually been blown up in an official Disney cartoon! (he gets better, but good grief, the poor guy just can’t catch a break).

The Best Background Characters: Don’t Bring A Stick To A Swordfight

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:

‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’

The Character:

A Rohan swordsman who chose a strange weapon when fighting for his life.

The Scene:

(The swordsman in question appears at 4:28 in the upper left corner)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

The climactic battle at the Black Gates is a gripping scene, filled with tension, drama, and the fate of all Middle-Earth hanging in the balance. Victory here means that Sauron will be defeated forever, and failure will mean not only death for the combatants, but the enslavement of Middle-Earth until the end of time. All the soldiers and warriors who volunteered to go on this dangerous mission no doubt took their time to carefully select the best weapons they could find to protect themselves… including the guy who thought that bringing along a stick was a good idea.

What distinguishes this background character from all the other swordsmen and warriors in the battle is that he’s wielding a stick. A stick! I’m not versed in the art of armed combat, but I doubt a long, thin, piece of wood is going to do you any good when facing swords, axes, clubs, arrows, and spears, which makes me wonder about the story behind such an odd choice for a weapon; did the warrior want two weapons for the upcoming battle, but he was too late getting to the armory, and just grabbed a stick for lack of anything else?

In any case, aside from wielding a stick in the most important battle of Middle-Earth’s history, Stick Guy’s only other distinction is that he’s the sole spectator to Aragorn’s battle with the troll. Judging from how he jitters in place, it’s amusing to imagine him thinking if he should help Aragorn, only to realize that while his sword might help, his beloved stick wouldn’t do a thing against steel armor and troll hide.

The takeaway from Stick Guy is that, when doing battle scenes, it’s logical for the participants to have lots of weapons, but when someone brings along an oddball weapon, it’s an opportunity to show how desperate the situation is by having characters resort to fighting with anything they can get their hands on, no matter how ludicrous they might be. Not only is it funny, but the audience will find themselves rooting for them, whether they wield a stick, an old sword, or a cactus.