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.

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.

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.

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.

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