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.

I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Finale

Ever since the creation of CGI, Hollywood showdowns have become more elaborate than ever before. Once limited by what could be accomplished in camera, we can now enjoy the spectacle of people flying, jumping, kicking, and beating the tar out of each other in elaborate environments, using feats that could only be accomplished with the aid of computers. However, bigger, better effects don’t always lead to better fights.

The Matrix trilogy, as a whole, mostly avoids the problem of emotionally hollow duels. When taken in as one continuous story, the Matrix saga (including ‘The Animatrix’ and ‘Enter the Matrix’) has a strong start and a strong ending: The stakes are high, the risks are high, and Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity are all in real danger when they fight. But it’s the second act, with ‘Reloaded,’ that things stumble. There’s plenty of fights and duels, but it often feels more like spectacle than a clash where anyone can die, or be seriously injured. The fight against Seraph, for example, feels like padding in a film that’s already taking an unusually long time to get going, and the Burly Brawl – while being a visual treat – adds little to the story beyond showing that Smith can clone himself, and foreshadowing Neo’s final line in the series.

In going through the Matrix series again for these articles, I realized that there was something else I didn’t pick up on until I had seen all the movies and games: Many of the duels and fights in ‘Reloaded’ could be trimmed or even cut out, and that’s because:

1. The duels mostly feel like action for the sake of action.

2. It doesn’t feel like the characters are in danger, or that or that terrible things will happen if they fail

The first and third film’s duels work because it’s clear that if Neo and his companions fail, the repercussions will be awful; when Neo fights Bane onboard the Logos, you can feel the desperation and urgency as he and Bane clobber each other. When Morpheus fights Smith in the first film, you know he’s in a losing battle. People get hurt, scuffed up, and bleed. In ‘Reloaded,’ however, that sense of danger is mostly gone, save for When Neo and Morpheus fight Smith in the hallway on the way to the Architect. Duels frequently end with people and programs walking away none the worse for wear. If both the protagonist and the antagonist are obviously going to walk away unscathed, then there’s no urgency or danger, and the audience won’t be as involved than if they knew that, say, Trinity could have her head cut off with a chainsaw if she fails to outrun Agent Smith.

So, what can we learn from the Matrix series when it comes to duels?

*Any duel works best when it has a strong reason to take place, and that there are repercussions if the protagonist fails.

*Make sure that your characters can get tired and suffer injuries, such as being cut, sliced, smashed, or having broken noses, busted lips, or even snapped limbs (it’s jarring how Neo can fight hundreds of Smiths without so much as a bruise, scrape, or broken glasses).

*Make sure the duel have a solid reason for existing. If it assists or impedes the antagonist and protagonist in reaching their goal and moves the story along, it will likely turn out well. If the duel is primarily to showcase an action scene, it might need to be revamped, or scrapped altogether.

Follow these three guidelines, and we can make duels that grip viewers and don’t let go, whether they’re simple fistfights in a room, or elaborate spectacles made by the best CGI Hollywood has to offer.

If you’d like to reread previous entries in this series (in chronological order), you can find them here:

The Matrix

The Animatrix

The Matrix Reloaded

Enter the Matrix

The Matrix Revolutions

The Matrix: Path of Neo

Three Fridays: A Comparison of ‘Friday the 13’ – Finale

For the past few decades, Hollywood has increasingly remade or rebooted its more famous stories at an ever-increasing rate. While this can be attributed to cashing in on brand-name recognition or nostalgia (or creative bankruptcy, as some might say), it does allow us to see how a story can be told in two different ways, for better or worse. Sometimes the remake is an almost straight-up copy, while the other goes for a radically different interpretation. Even rarer is the example of one story told more than twice, or even three times (how many Spider-Man origin stories do we have, now?). The original ‘Friday the 13th’ falls into that elusive category.

Over the past three weeks, we’ve taken a look at the three adaptions of Jason’s origin story. If, by chance you missed them, here’s some handy links:

The 1980 film

The 2009 remake

The 2019 comic

When comparing all three, one major factor keeps coming up: When you take away everything connecting the stories to the franchise at large, they are largely generic slasher tales: Everything else about them, the remote location, young adults being picked off one by one, a mysterious killer, the final girl, etc. can be found in any horror, slasher, or thriller. But what elevates the 1980 and 2019 versions is their killer, Ms. Voorhees. Unlike so many other slasher villains (including her son), she elevates herself not by being a bloodthirsty savage with an absurd body count, but by being a sympathetic killer, a mother consumed by grief and rage who wants both vengeance and to spare other children from the stupidity of horny camp counselors.

Thus, the ultimate takeaway from the original ‘Friday’ is the importance of giving our killers more motivation beyond, ‘kill, kill, KILL!’ Unless we’re writing inhuman monsters like a shark, an alien, or an elder god from a forgotten faith, it’s imperative to give them a relatable objective. Maybe they’re killing to avenge loved ones, or to get revenge on those who wronged them. They might kill because they’re mentally ill and believe they’re pleasing their overcontrolling parents. Maybe they’ve come from the future to kill all those who will one day be part of a dictatorship that rules the world. Perhaps they’re killing to prevent people from finding an ancient and dangerous artifact that could destroy the world. Or maybe they’re convinced they’re doing God’s will and killing people they think God hates.

Whatever the reason for embarking on a murder spree, giving killers a motivation we can understand helps us make them stand out, even if the story they’re in is typical and unremarkable. There will always be room for killers who are unknowable forces of pure evil (Michael Meyers comes to mind), but those who we can help our readers identify with will stay with them long after the killings end.