“This time, it’s personal.” So reads the tagline for the ill-fated Jaws: The Revenge. Never mind that in each of the three previous films the sharks died. Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D may have foisted hopelessly contrived plots on viewers, but neither went as far as to imply that their respective sharks were exacting revenge on Chief Brody and his family for past crimes. We weren’t led to think that the sharks were in the same family or part of a hive-mind network. But here is a premise that—while no more implausible than the other films in the series—actually seems to acknowledge the folly of a franchise chronicling one family’s long saga of encounters with great whites. That’s why I give the writers (or the marketing team?) of Jaws: The Revenge credit for understanding at least one thing: If you’re going to serve up the absurd, don’t hold back. In fact, pour it on. Both the title and tagline of Joseph Sargent’s film more than meet this standard. The movie itself is another story.
In this final entry in the gray people-eater series, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) carries on at Amity Island without her husband, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who has died of a heart attack. Ellen lives with her youngest son Sean (Mitchell Anderson), who undertakes his father’s legacy as an Amity Police Deputy. But a shark still lurks in the waters of Amity and makes Sean its first meal. Already scarred by a deep family history of shark attacks, Ellen follows the advice of her eldest son Michael (Lance Guest) and travels to the Bahamas to gain reprieve from heartbreak. “There are no great whites in the Bahamas, Mom. They don’t like warm water,” Michael assures her. Once there, Ellen finds a budding new romance with an eccentric pilot and family friend named Hoagie (Michael Caine), but she remains haunted by visions of a shark. Meanwhile, as Michael studies shells on the sea floor with his friend Jake (Mario Van Peebles), he learns that a great white is prowling the waters but decides not to tell his mother. (The shark’s introduction in the Bahamas portion of the film is priceless. The beast just kind of shows up, bumping up against Jake’s underwater vehicle. No tension. No excitement.) Once she discovers that a great white is terrorizing the community (Banana boat!), Ellen becomes convinced that it wants to devour her family and complete the cycle.
The problem with Jaws: The Revenge isn’t that the shark wants vengeance, or that it somehow travels from the oceans north of New York all the way down to the Bahamas in such a short time. It’s that the movie doesn’t follow through on its own central conceit. The notion of Ellen’s obsession and fear of sharks is actually rather nice, but why does this shark—and why do sharks in general—have a problem with the Brodys? The film serves up all the horror tricks of the time (including A Nightmare on Elm Street-esque music for every shot of Ellen looking mysteriously out to the ocean), but is so half-assed about executing its premise that it opts for paltry drama instead of delivering red-hot shark revenge action.
To her credit, Gary comes across about as earnest as she can given the material, while Caine and Van Peebles also do their best to spice things up. But let’s face it: this movie is dead in the water, and look no further than the shark for your reason why. One thing to keep in mind about killer shark movies is that they come with a built-in forgiveness for bad storytelling/filmmaking. But Jaws: The Revenge falls woefully short even by the most modest expectations. Aside from the lumbering mechanical shark looking like an oversized rubbery mass with papier-mâché teeth, the beast’s role in the story lacks the most basic definition. Moreover, its appearances are ill-timed and shot in awkward close-ups. But the greatest indictment against this vendetta-seeking shark is that it doesn’t even rack up much of a body count. I cannot emphasize enough that this movie is called Jaws: The Revenge. Two measly kills simply don’t cut it. That the shark has a fearsome roar when nearly half its body inexplicably rises above the surface (the film’s lone original contribution to the Jaws lexicon, by the way) doesn’t make up for the fact that this thing is a very inefficient killer.
Enjoyable as it would be to further recount the film’s innumerable failings (most of which have been richly documented elsewhere), with the remainder of this piece I want to instead zero in on Jaws: The Revenge’s heavy reliance on nostalgia. It is an intriguing case study: This is one of the first sequels with a substantive distance from the original (12 years), and I’m especially vexed by how something so mired in reverence for the 1975 classic that initiated the shark attack phenomenon exhibits none of the qualities that made that movie special. In fairness, to achieve even a small semblance of the mastery of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster is an unreasonable expectation. But that doesn’t stop Sargent and his writers from invoking Jaws at every turn. The most glaring of these instances is how they employ sepia-toned flashbacks to remind of the similarities between the two films.
Take, for example, the new iteration of the famous dinner scene from Jaws in which Brody’s son is mimicking his father’s exacerbated expressions. The new version is sweet enough, but it doesn’t have a trace of the feeling and humanity expressed in the scene from the earlier film. In fact, the comparison serves only to re-enforce the shoddiness of the latter effort by comparison. The climax also incorporates clips from Brody’s final standoff in the original movie. But aside from being logistically absurd (as Ellen was not present for Martin’s “Smile you son of a…” moment), this scene is an even more desperate attempt to ride a wave of nostalgia. Failing to build any tension and excitement of its own, Sargent expects the clips from Jaws to do his job for him as the scene unfolds and crescendos in the same fashion. It even ends with the shark exploding (even though it’s impaled and contains no flammable item in its mouth, but never mind) and then careening to the depths of the ocean in the very same way as it did in Jaws. In fact, the movie uses the exact same shot. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a poetically symmetrical bookend to the series or a cost-saving measure that validates the movie’s total laziness. Although surely intended as a nod of respect, the frequent references to (and thefts from) Spielberg’s immortal film only magnify the sins of Jaws: The Revenge. Consequently, in addition to rightly holding the distinction as one of the least competent productions of the modern era of commercial filmmaking, Jaws: The Revenge all-too-well articulates the emptiness of nostalgia for its own sake.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the recently published book Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2. Follow his updates on Twitter.