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.

What We Can Learn From The Jaws Series: A Summary

The year is 1975: ‘Jaws,’ the greatest shark movie ever made is released, a film with a perfect cast, expertly-crafted scares, an unforgettable soundtrack, and one of the most satisfying villain endings ever filmed. The film ushers in the age of the summer blockbuster, and propels Steven Spielberg into a career as one of the best filmmakers of his day.

Fast-forward to 1987. ‘Jaws the Revenge,’ one of the most reviled shark movies ever made, is released, a film starring Michael Caine as a man named after a sandwich, a shark who’s mechanical innards can frequently be seen as it lurches around the Bahamas seeking revenge on the Brody family, and an ending where a toy shark in a swimming pool explodes after being gently touched by a wooden bowsprit. The film ushers in the end of the Jaws franchise, and becomes a laughingstock among fans of cinema.

What on earth happened?

Lighting, as the old saying goes, never hits the same place twice. Although it only had three sequels, the Jaws series is one of the most infamous examples of a franchise that started out perfectly before ending with a dud. Although there are many lessons to be learned from the series on how not to handle sequels, one lesson stands above the rest:

When a story’s conflict has been resolved, it’s time for the story to end.

Perfect film that it is, ‘Jaws’ is not an epic that can be told as a trilogy in the vein of ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Lord of the Rings.’ It’s a small-scale, self-contained story centered around a single community with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It has a conflict (a shark terrorizing a coastal town) with a definitive ending (said shark is blown to pieces) in which Amity is saved, and the story has come to its logical end with no loose threads or ideas that could be explored in a sequel. ‘Jaws’ does not lend itself to further stories of Martin Brody fighting off shark after shark, year after year, and yet we got three more stories that now serve as poster children for unnecessary sequels.

Now, this is not to say that ‘Jaws 2,’ ‘3,’ and ‘The Revenge’ don’t have their merits. As previous installments in this series have shown, each one has moments, scenes, and ideas that are quite good.

But there’s a theme running through all the Jaws movies that I never noticed until re-watching them: coming to terms with trauma. The first film has Quint’s legendary recollection of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, ‘2’ has Martin dealing with the PTSD of going face to face with a shark, and ‘Revenge’ has Ellen dealing with losing both a son and her husband to the sharks. Much like Ellen Ripley in ‘Aliens,’ the original film, ‘2,’ and ‘Revenge’ are at their strongest when they focus on Quint, Martin and Ellen dealing with the trauma they’ve endured from the sharks, helping make them so much more memorable than cookie-cutter protagonists who exist to provide cheap thrills via their inevitable, bloody deaths.

But it’s not just trauma that was an unexpected find when re-watching the movies. I was surprised to find that, out of the three sequels, I actually enjoyed ‘Revenge’ the most. Not because it’s a good film (though it is a satisfying guilty pleasure), but because, out of all three sequels, it’s the one that tries the most to do something new while moving the story forward. ‘2’, while the best of the three, is still largely a copy of the first film, and ‘3’ has nothing in common with the rest of the series (aside from Sean, Michael, and a shark), but ‘Revenge’ doesn’t repeat the ‘shark attacks Amity’ plot. Though its new ideas weren’t that great (dooming it before a single shot was filmed), ‘Revenge’ at least tried to do its own thing and escape the shadow of its predecessor, and for that it deserves recognition.

While all four films offer many character moments, story ideas, and themes that are valuable to learn from, I believe that if we were to condense all those lessons down, these are the three most valuable:

1. When a story’s conflict has been resolved, it’s time for the story to end.

2. Having characters struggle to overcome traumatic events makes them more interesting to watch.

3. When writing a sequel to a self-contained story, try to follow the same spirit as the original, but avoid copying the story and conflict.

Valuable lessons, indeed, but ones that came at a high cost: Although it’s been over 30 years since ‘Revenge’ was released, it seems unlikely that we’ll see another Jaws film anytime soon, if ever. And you know what? Maybe that’s for the best (if nothing else, ‘Revenge’s poor showing prevented the series from eventually heading into outer space). If the Jaws series proves only one thing, it’s that if you really want to honor a story you love, leave it be. Let it stand on its own and not taint it with inferior and unnecessary followups. Let other stories in the same genre tell their tale without the burden of having to live up to a masterpiece.

Oh, and avoid having your sharks roar. That’s just silly.

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.

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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.

Favorite Moments: Shark Possessed by Owl

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

Quick: Imagine a favorite scene from a movie. Let’s go with… Darth Vader revealing to Luke that he’s his dad. Got it? Okay… now, visualize Vader and Luke replaced by toy sharks. The audio’s the same, the sets are the same, and Luke still gives the best ‘NO!’ face ever.

Now, with all that in mind, replace Luke and Vader with shark snapper toys. Suddenly, the scene becomes hilarious because of the sight of inanimate toys talking to each other in an otherwise serious scene, and evidence that replacing cast members with inanimate objects, but otherwise not changing the scene, is comedy gold, as the above video proves (even though it’s with a joke instead of a serious moment).

The Sharknado Series: An Analysis

The year is 2013. While browsing the internet, you come across a poster of an upcoming movie called ‘Sharknado’, showing… Well, sharks in a tornado. Try to remember your first reaction to seeing the poster. Shock? Confusion? A desire to drink copious amounts of alcohol and wonder if God weapt at seeing what His most beautiful creation had created? Or that the Sharknado series would last five years and cover six movies? The fact that the Sharknado franchise managed to keep most of the cast throughout, and end with a planned finale, could be seen as nothing short of a minor miracle.

But what about the quality?

Looking back, a case can be made that the Sharknado movies can be divided into two periods. The first, covering movies one through three, could be considered the serious half, in that there was an attempt at having a somewhat grounded story, while the second half (films four through six), embraces the goofiness, bringing in mech suits, evil shark gods, the Sydney Opera House being turned into a missile platform by Tony Hawk, and time travel. In my opinion, it’s the later three films that are the most memorable precisely because they embrace the silliness. However, craziness will only go so far. While I felt the Sharknado became more entertaining when it abandoned insanity, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movies went just a little too long.

Let’s try another mental exercise. Take a look at this photoshopped movie poster. What immediately comes to mind? Probably ridiculous scenes of, say, Samuel L. Jackson getting into a fistfight with a bear inside a flooding chamber inside a sinking nuclear submarine (Having typed that out, I now desperately want to watch it). Whatever you come up with is probably amusing, and would be great to see on the big screen.

Now imagine having to write six movies based on that concept. Could you? One movie, maybe. But six movies? Around a single joke? Not likely.

If there’s one common mistake with the Sharknado series, it’s that it goes on too long, spread out – in the words of Bilbo Baggins – like butter scraped over too much bread. In a single, concentrated dose, the joke is delicious and enjoyable, but when spread out, becomes thin and flavorless. If we take this idea and apply it to the six Sharknado movies, a pattern emerges: The latter three embrace cramming in as many ridiculous scenarios as possible, while the first three try to have scenes of character building and their lives away from the sharknado. While having these things is necessary, a balance must be found, one that favors the sharks and the mayhem they cause. If we were to go through the films and cut out all the fluff and non-sharknado related material, we could end up with something like this:

Movie One: The sharknado appears, destroys Los Angeles, then rampages across the country to destroy New York, with Fin and friends finally destroying it by heading into outer space.

Movie Two: The United States recovers from the devastation of the Sharknado. But then it suddenly comes back in new and twisted forms, and spreads across the globe. Finn and Friends embark on a globe-trotting quest to save humanity.

Movie Three: The sharknadoes return one last time, and kill everyone but Fin, who then embarks on a time traveling adventure to save humanity and everyone he loves.

Don’t those three movies sound compelling? Each one has high stakes, a high concept, and it’s easy to imagine them spending most of their time on the concept that we want to see.

This, I believe, is the ultimate lesson the Sharknado series can teach us: When doing a story based around a single joke or idea, the less time you spend away from that gag, the better. Avoid trying to make things realistic. Avoid trying to be grounded. Embrace the crazy and milk it for everything its worth, because you don’t know if you’re going to get a second go at it.

But while Sharknado may have overstayed its welcome just a little bit, it still provided plenty of laughs, jokes, chainsaws, and a cast of characters that stays and grows throughout the saga, complete with a surprisingly touching theme about the importance of family, and proved that any concept, no matter how silly, can entertain millions.

What we can learn from ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

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45 weeks ago, we took a look at ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’, and now, at long last, it’s time to take a look at the final film in the venerable series: ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’

After five long years of sharknados taking out cites, going into space, becoming radioactive, and destroying the world, the series finally comes to an end with ‘The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time!’ which, having exhausted all other possibilities, sends the title monster back through time (the only other sensible option would have it going to the afterlife), with surfer-rurned-barternder-turned-sharknado killer Fin Shepard on a journey to stop the sharknados for good. Let’s journey along to see what valuable story lessons we can learn by watching sharks terrorize people throughout history.

Avoid abandoning a greater-scope villain after establishing them

In the previous film, ‘Global Swarming,’ we learned that the sharknados were not just a freak of nature, but were created by a malevolent shark god that Fin and friends (I never get tired of writing that) set out to stop. While they did stop the sharknados at the end of the fifth film (at the cost of every other human alive), it’s odd that the shark god isn’t mentioned in ‘It’s About Time’.

When we introduce a supernatural threat – or any threat so big that it effectively becomes the main antagonist for a franchise – it’s imperative not to have that threat dropped so quickly, especially when it’s a supernatural one. It’s logical to think that Fin would have to take out the shark god to prevent any further sharknados from being made, but its nowhere to be found. If our own greater-scope villains need to be dropped, a good reason needs to be established instead of never mentioning them again, hoping that audiences won’t notice. They will.

Establish solid rules for time travel, lest audiences get hopelessly confused

While traveling through time offers nearly endless possibilities for exciting storytelling, it can quickly become a mess of intersecting timelines, cause and effect, and how actions in the past affect the future (and that’s without getting into the grandfather paradox). ‘It’s About Time’ tries to make things simple by stating that everyone can only travel back in time once, but then it has Gil continuously going through different eras. When it comes to time travel, it’s best to make things as simple as possible. Better to have our audiences focus on the fun shenanigans going on, then wondering how such things are possible.

When doing time travel, consider bringing back minor characters for big roles

One of the things that ‘It’s About Time’ does best is bringing back minor characters for bigger roles in the story, like Bryan and Skye. While they may have served as cannon fodder in their original appearances, or had a small role that didn’t affect the story all that much, we don’t expect much from them. They’re background characters, ones who don’t take the spotlight. Thus, when they come back as main characters, they become underdogs who have a chance to shine and help save the day. Even better is if they’re in a completely new time and location (like the prehistoric era), as not only do they have to contend with being in the spotlight, but now they also have to try and survive in an environment they’re not familiar with.

Consider having monsters and antagonists from the future battle people from the past

One of the most enjoyable aspects of time travel stories is seeing people and technologies from different eras interact with one another. How, for example, would a modern-day person fare in the Revolutionary War era? Or in Ancient Egypt? How do technologically disadvantaged people fight off opponents from a different era? ‘It’s About Time’ has medieval knights, Revolutionary War soldiers, and Cowboys fight off sharks, and those battles are easily the highlights of the movie.

The reason these fights are so interesting is that the people of the past are automatically the underdog and have to fight harder to win. Cowboys have the advantage of guns when fighting sharks, but revolutionary war soldiers only have muskets, while knights are stuck with swords and bows, which makes audiences wonder how on earth they’re going to win. An even cleverer version of this trope is to have the people of the past take advantage of futuristic tech: When sharknados attack Revolutionary America, the British use a sharknado to gain an advantage in their war, almost changing the course of history in their favor.

When writing historical characters in time travel stories, the more authentic they are, the funnier they are

Another draw of time travel stories is being able to use famous people throughout history and put them in exciting fights and teamups with monsters and people from other times in history. Part of this draw is seeing how someone from one era coping with another, and how they would react to, say, modern weapons and technology. However, for this trope to be most useful, it’s important to make historical characters as accurate as possible; much of the humor/awesome factor in their appearances is that they take things seriously. While comedic or light-hearted time travel stories can make famous people goofballs (Think ‘Bill and Ted’), it is possible to go too far: When Finn and his friends go to the Revolutionary War era, I was excited at the thought of seeing George Washington fighting a sharknado. Instead, we get a man who’s more interested in taking a nap and cracking jokes instead of fighting or taking the situation seriously.

Consider having someone alter history in a time travel story, even when they know it’ll hurt them

While ‘It’s About Time’ engages in all the standard time-travel tropes (meeting famous figures, having historical characters and groups fight monsters from other eras, etc.) and get into debates about changing the future to avert a personal catastrophe (Nova trying to save his grandfather), the film smartly changes things up by giving Finn an impossible choice: He has a chance to stop sharknados forever by traveling through time, but at the cost of losing his son, who will never be born, and even be erased from Finn’s memory.

So often, time travel stories are about changing the future for the better, or preserving it, but rarely do we see stories where travelers doing the right thing know they will suffer greatly, even if its for the greater good. By having our characters lose something important to them, whether it’s a loved one, a job, or a dream, and being willing to let them go to save so many others, we give them an unparalleled chance to shine and show how brave and heroic they can be.

If it fits the theme of a series, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending

It’s a classic trope: The characters of a story manage to succeed in their fight. They achieve their goals, get what they want, and live happily ever after. It’s so overused that it’s a scenario that could easily turn into a parody, and many stories try to subvert it by using a darker, or more bittersweet ending where not everything is right or well. But there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, especially if it’s well-earned, and the end of the Sharknado series has a very well-earned one indeed: Fin manages to restart history and create a timeline where sharknados don’t exist, saving all his friends and acquaintances, and even Gil, with the very last shot of the series has Al Roker declaring that it’s going to be a beautiful day with nothing unusual going on. It’s a satisfying conclusion that ties everything up, and gives everyone a happy ending without any tease or hint of further adventures, giving the characters – and us – closure.

And so, after a year, we finally finish our marathon of all the Sharknado films. Turn in next week, when we’ll do an analysis of the series as a whole.

What we can learn from ‘Deep Blue Sea’

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Outside of ‘Jaws,’ it’s difficult to find good killer shark movies. There are dozens, if not hundreds of B-grade shark films, which makes finding the A-listers a real treat. In my opinion, ‘Deep Blue Sea,’ a 1999 horror/thriller that finds the staff of a research facility fighting for their lives against super-intelligent mako sharks, is one of those treats. While the premise is B-grade material, the high production values, humor, and willingness to embrace its R rating makes this one of Hollywood’s better shark films.

With all that said, let’s take a look and see (haha) what we can learn from this tale of genetic experimentation gone wrong.

1. Consider throwing the standard ‘who’s going to die’ rules out the window

Much like George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ saga, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ throws the conventional rules for who lives and dies out the window and spares those we thought would die, and spares those we thought would live. Some examples:

The horny young adults in the opening all survive:

 

The most famous actor becomes shark food less than halfway through the film:

 

 

 

All three ladies die (though only one in this clip):

 

 

 

 

And even the cute animal gets eaten!

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I saw the film, I was shocked at how everyone I thought was going to live, died, and was on the edge of my seat wondering who was going to get out alive or not.

In our own stories, defying the conventions of who’s going to die is a fantastic way of getting people’s attention. Instead of having the hyper-sexual, booze drinking teen die first in a slasher movie, have him survive all the way through. Have the intelligent, smart, resourceful character be the first to bite the dust. When your audience realizes that there really is no guarantees on who’s going to live and die, they’ll want to keep going to find out who makes it or not.

2. Consider putting your characters inside an isolated environment that’s failing

Like any good horror film, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ puts its characters inside a location that’s constantly unsafe and makes their escape to safety that much harder. In this instance, it’s a partially-submerged research facility that begins to sink once the chaos begins, letting the sharks swim inside to make escape even more difficult.

The advantage of having your main location falling apart in stages is that the characters never have much time to rest. They always need to stay on the move, with any safe place offering only temporary refuge, which helps keep them – and the audience – on their toes.

3. Consider making someone do the worst thing for the most righteous of reasons

While most shark films have a human villain corrupted by greed, a desire for power, or any other human failing, Dr. Susan McAlester is a refreshing chance of pace: she’s not motivated by greed or selfishness, but from wanting to cure Alzheimers. Considering that she finally has that cure within reach, it’s not surprising that she’s willing to bend the rules of what’s ethically and legally acceptable, but unlike so many other villains, she doesn’t set out to hurt anyone, which makes her the most interesting and multi-faced character of the film.

In our own stories, well-intended extremists, if handled well, can be the most interesting characters because they make us wonder what we’d be willing to do to accomplish a noble goal. Would we be willing to harm others? Would we be willing to break the law? And on top of that, would we be willing to sacrifice lives to accomplish that goal? Or would we still try to avoid hurting others as much as possible? Having seen the devastating effects of Alzheimers myself, I can understand why Susan did what she did, and I imagine many other viewers would feel the same way, which makes her ultimate failure in getting that cure to the surface all the more devastating.

4. Consider making the monsters more intelligent than we initially realize

The sharks of ‘Deep Blue Sea’ demonstrate their intelligence early on by using a stretcher as a weapon to break the underwater window of the main lab on the station, but it isn’t until near the end of the film that we learn that they’ve been secretly herding our protagonists where they want to ensure the station keeps flooding and sinking, so they can break out of the facility and into the open ocean.

In our own stories, gradually revealing a monster’s intelligence is a great way to make the audience realize that whatever our protagonists are messing with is more than just another dumb monster. It’s also a great opportunity for the audience to have an ‘oh crap!’ moment when we realize that the monster has had an ulterior motive all along that we weren’t aware of (but will subsequently catch on rewatches/re-reads).

5. Consider having your comedic relief be a competent fighter

It’s distressingly common for comic relief characters to be bumbling fools who are only good at cracking jokes, shrieking, and being burdens to the main characters. ‘Deep Blue Sea’ bucks that trend by having Preacher, the religious cook, be both amusing and a surprisingly good fighter: he manages to take out two of the three sharks in the film, survives being mauled by a shark (by using his crucifix to stab a shark in the eye), and saves the day by blowing up the last shark despite being badly hurt, thus keeping the sharks from breeding in the wild.

In our own stories, comedic relief characters need not be walking joke machines that everyone else would gladly leave behind: By making them competent (or at least willing to fight instead of trying to run away), and even come to rescue other characters, you can help make them the most likeable characters in your story.

6. Consider having the monster recognize its maker

 

 

What would you do if you came face-to-face with God? Would you shake His/Her/Its hand? Slap His/Her/Its face and scream about how unfair your life has been? In ‘Deep Blue Sea’ we get a moment where the last shark comes face to face with Susan and stops, clearly recognizing her… before chomping her into so many bite-sized pieces.

In our own stories, having a monster meet its maker offers an opportunity to get a glimpse of the monster’s inner workings. While killing its maker is the standard response, consider having the monster be awed, confused, puzzled, intrigued, or even worshipful; this gives us, the author, a chance to have the beast dispatched in a unique way (perhaps by having its maker lure it into a hydraulic press), or by persuading it to stop killing.

The Takeaway:

When doing a monster movie, consider having your characters be trapped in a location that’s failing, and killing off people we expect to see live, and vice versa, while having a competent comedic relief who’s not a burden to others, and having the main human antagonist be a genuinely good person who did something awful for the best possible reasons and create a monster that we come to realize is far smarter than we first imagined, and then having that monster encounter their maker and having it do something other than just treating them like any other victim they’ve met.