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.

Why Haven’t All The Dinosaurs Been Killed Yet?: The Logistics Of A Cool – But Implausible – Inter-Species Conflict

A few weeks ago, I watched ‘Jurassic World: Battle at Big Rock,’ a short film that gives us a glimpse at how humans and dinosaurs are interacting in the wake of ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s ending.

Having been given a taste of what the third Jurassic World film might be like, I tried to imagine how things could get worse from this point out. Currently there are five concrete facts known about ‘Jurassic World 3’s story:

1. Claire, Owen, and Maisie will be back.

2. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcom are coming back as well.

3. The story will take place around the globe.

4. Dinosaurs being created, sold, and spread around the world.

5. It will not be about a world war between dinosaurs and humans.

Despite the last fact being confirmed, I’m guessing that there will still be a major conflict between humans and dinosaurs, and an inevitable battle to see which species will have the privilege of survival. There is, however, one huge problem with this plot: At the end of ‘Fallen Kingdom,’ approximately 67 dinosaurs escaped into the wild. ‘Battle at Big Rock’ tells us that:

*The dinosaurs have been in the wild for a year.

*Their presence is known to the public at large.

*People are willing to go camping with their families when giant carnivores are running around (?!).

With that in mind, there’s one important question that must be answered: Why haven’t the dinosaurs been killed yet? From a public safety standpoint, these dinosaurs are an invasive species and a massive menace to public health. It’s only logical that authorities would want to take these creatures out as quickly as possible to ensure public safety. But why haven’t they? Five possibilities come to mind:

1. Authorities have not gone after the dinosaurs.

2. Authorities are hunting them down, but are having a difficult time locating them.

3. The dinosaurs have been tagged and are allowed to roam free within a limited area.

4. Shady individuals are bribing/threatening government officials to let the dinosaurs run free.

5. The public wants the dinosaurs to run free.

The first option is highly unlikely: whenever a bear or other dangerous animal is loose near communities, it’s quickly hunted down. If there was, say, an allosaurus or a tyrannosaurus rex stomping around a national park or suburban community, they’d be hunted down as quickly as possible, and if the authorities were slow to do so, then mobs of armed civilians would take up the task, not wanting their children or loved ones to become Purina Dinosaur Chow.

The second option is more reasonable, but still unlikely. We have technology and weapons that not only allow us to kill any dinosaur we come across, but to also track them down; finding the heat signature of a T-Rex or Triceratops with infrared cameras on a helicopter would be a relatively simple matter (though it’d be more difficult to track smaller dinosaurs, like the compies, and finding that mosasaur and the pteradactals would be neigh-impossible considering they could be swimming and flying anywhere on Earth), and military-grade weapons would make short work of even the thickest dinosaur hide. An ankylosaurus might be among the most heavily armored dinosaurs, but I doubt it would survive a rocket to the face.

The third option is the most likely, but is not without its flaws: as noted earlier, dinosaurs are an invasive species, and while a plant eater might be allowed to walk about freely with a tracking beacon, a house-sized carnivore who needs to eat hundreds of pounds of meat a day would still be a massive public safety hazard, and would be tracked down as quickly as possible and shot.

The fourth option, as silly as it sounds, could be at play in some areas: In this day and age, corruption runs rampant in governments, and the thought of shady companies/organizations who want the dinosaurs to survive for whatever reason would deploy threats or bribes to force various officials to look the other way. The problem with this, though, is that the inevitable public backlash against prehistoric carnivores running free would eventually become too great for even bribed officials to ignore; history shows that, when the public demands something for long enough, and loudly enough, governments eventually cave, no matter how corrupt they are.

The fifth and final option has people wanting the dinosaurs to roam wild and free and sing songs in the sun all day long… which means it’s probably environmentalists, hippies, and children who would take this option. But the problem is that they’re likely to be a minority, with the majority of people wanting their families and children to stay safe from murdersauruses running about in the woods.

With all that said, which option is the most likely one? While we’ll have to wait until 2021 to find out, I’m guessing the answer is a mix of 3 and 4 with a sprinkle of 5 thrown in: The authorities are going after the dinosaurs, but because of public affection for the beasts, authorities have decided to tag and track the herbivores, allowing them to roam free while warning the public that they may encounter said beasts in the wild. But while the authorities go after carnivores, the beasts somehow manage to escape capture, thanks to people who want them to be free, such as Eco-terrorists who work to remove tracking chips, or threaten people who try to tag said carnivores.

Of course, this is all speculation. I could be wrong on all of these, or may have just correctly guessed how things are going in the ‘Jurassic’ universe. But this scenario does provide a valuable lesson for writers of speculative fiction where unusual animals are released into the present day: There needs to be a very good reason why they aren’t wiped out quickly by humanity and our drones, guns, helicopters, tanks, and the like. Perhaps the animals are shapeshifters, or perhaps they reproduce at an astonishing rate, or have hides that are almost impervious to our weaponry. Simply having them run free without a good explanation of how they survive won’t work in our modern era; going back to the 6osih dinosaurs now roaming the wild, we have to contend that they face 7 and a half billion people, billions of guns, and every military on earth. To survive, each dinosaur – including the compies – must kill approximately 124,758,064 people to win the inevitable dinosaur war. Coupled with the fact that we have helicopters, heat-seeking missiles, high-caliber weapons, and an unmatched talent for wiping out entire species when we put our hearts and minds to it, the logical outcome of such a war is that the dinosaurs are slaughtered within a week or two, with only the compies surviving and thriving due to their small size, speed, ability to hide almost anywhere, and (presumably) fast reproduction speed.

The bottom line? Before we release animals into the wider world in our stories, it’s always a good idea to sit down, take a few minutes, and figure why they’re not blown to kingdom come by the most bloodthirsty species on the planet – us.

Perfect Moments: A Shadow On The Wall

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.

***

The Movie

‘Signs.’

The Moment

Why it’s perfect

No matter the project, and no matter what medium, all storytellers face one problem when telling a story: How do you tell your audience everything they need to know about the main character within the first third of your story? There are countless ways to do so (Many, many, many, many, ways, actually), but I want to take a look at one of my favorite introductions, one that accomplishes so much despite showing so little.

2002’s ‘Signs’ opens with a man waking up in bed inside a house near a cornfield. He listens to see if someone else is awake, picks up some socks, brushes his teeth, and then hears a little girl scream. It sounds boring, but when he’s brushing his teeth, we initially don’t see Graham, just the door to the bathroom and the wall beside it. But on that wall is the faded outline of a vanished crucifix.

In an instant, that outline tells us that something terrible happened to this man, something that made him turn his back on his faith. We don’t know what that event is, but after seeing a family picture of him with a woman who doesn’t appear in the scene, it’s easy to guess. Coupled with the silence of the scene, the dim lighting, and the feeling of loneliness, we know this man has been through a lot, turning him into an underdog who’s trying to recover, but has seemingly given up and has resigned himself to just existing.

I’m still amazed how one tiny detail can tell so much about someone. When done correctly, such a trait can tell us the main problem the character is going to try and overcome, or tell us a lot about their history. Consider the following scenarios and what they tell us:

*We’re in a home. There’s a photo of a a woman and a young girl on the mantlepiece, but we can just faintly see the edges of someone’s pants on the edge of the photo, which looks like it was ripped.

*An old, out-of-shape man eats a microwavable meal for one in his tiny, filthy apartment. On a wall behind him are newspaper clippings and framed magazine covers about a star baseball player who was legendary in his day.

*A group of terrified explorers enters an enormous cave and finds it piled high with hundreds, if not thousands of bones of giant creatures, many covered in gashes. They hear something growling from deeper within the cave.

All three tell us something about characters: The first might revolve around a disgraced husband. The second, an old man who longs for the days when people cared about him, and the third, an unseen beast who has been around a long time, and clearly dangerous. When utilized properly, such small details can reveal so much about a character, even before they appear or talk. In my opinion, that cross in ‘Signs’ is one of the best examples on how to do it right – and in under a minute, no less!