When it comes to the significant 3D horror films of the early 1980s, I enjoy them all, and I defend them in exactly the same way: as 35mm funhouse attractions. That’s definitely true when you catch any of the heavy hitters in their native format: Friday the 13th Part III, Amityville 3D and, of course, Jaws 3D. These movies go to great lengths to leap off the screen and into our laps. The 3D “magic” offered throughout them is like a night at the carnival: giggles and cheap scares that, while crude, remain effective.
Truthfully, though, I’ve always liked Jaws 3D, even growing up with the standard 2D release. As a kid, I recognized the diminishing quality across the series. Jaws 2 being a very good film, but still below Jaws, and Jaws 3D being a massive drop from Jaws 2, but still entertaining fun. And before I’m accused of bathing this movie in blind nostalgia, I’ll mention that Jaws The Revenge was once a favorite of mine (roaring shark aside, it’s a tedious and unwatchable bore now).
Jaws 3D feels a lot like another Universal sequel, Revenge of the Creature. Leonard Maltin drew the same conclusion upon this movie’s release, and it’s easy to see why: similarities are noticeable and seemingly intentional, from the oceanarium setting to the presence of both a sympathetic animal psychologist and an unscrupulous opportunist.
Getting away from the 3D FX, the SeaWorld setting offers a nice change from Amity Island, and while the movie never takes full advantage of its new locale, there are some pretty nifty moments of distinction along the way–like the shark terrorizing a bumper boat attraction, a slew of overacting tourists trapped inside an underwater lagoon, and the mother shark being bested by a heroic dolphin duo.
It’s disappointing that the “Underwater Kingdom” is more of an afterthought, because Jaws 3D wastes that potential. The movie brings young Sean Brody (John Putch) to Florida to visit his brother Mike, but instead of trapping him and love interest Lea Thompson in these tunnels for a rousing climax, these characters are written out before act three gets underway. This leaves a bunch of faceless tourists trapped down there at the mercy of the shark. We don’t really care about them, and it’s a definite missed opportunity.
But let’s get back to those heroic dolphins because, in a way, they’re symbolic of my overall enjoyment of this movie–it’s so damn idealistic. It’s so earnest that I find it hopelessly likable. Dennis Quaid might’ve referred to this as the biggest embarrassment of his career, but together with Bess Armstrong they make a fun on screen couple. Their performances are a little ham-fisted, and they spend the first half of the movie acting like they’ve ingested handfuls of uppers, but so many of their scenes together are…jovial. I buy them as a couple and as protagonists, even if they’re absurdly idealized. There’s even a subplot about Mike getting a better job opportunity in another country, and instead of this creating any real tension between the couple, it’s resolved a few scenes later and she’s impossibly happy for him! Fighting does not exist in a world where dolphins can taxi our heroes to the surface in order to escape the clutches of a great white.
Everyone in the movie is this way, even the “villains.” As the park owner, Louis Gossett Jr. is unscrupulous in his exploitation of the captured great white, and in his refusal to evacuate the park when danger arises. But he’s kind of likable at the same time, delivering the film’s most memorable line (“You talkin’ about some damn shark’s mutha?”), and being allowed a shot at redemption (rescuing an employee from certain death) instead of comeuppance. Simon MacCorkindale appears as the smarmy celebrity shark hunter, but even he’s not without his charms and sympahties. For a movie as unsubtle as Jaws 3D, its refusal to paint its human bad guys with broad strokes as mustache twirling douchebags is a real curiosity.
The idea of an angry mother shark coming to avenge the capture and unintended death of her baby is also a neat idea. At 35 feet, this shark is absolutely massive, and the reveal that it’s inside the park is well-staged, albeit unsurprising and physically impossible (since sharks can’t swim backwards). It’s a shame that director Joe Alves never takes full advantage of that size, though, as the shark is only ever glimpsed in wide open shots lacking a true sense of scale.
The shark may be lacking in scale, but her carnage is pretty fun. This is a movie where the camera is placed inside a shark’s mouth as it swallows a victim whole. Where severed limbs float out into the laps of the audience. Where the shark goes for broke by charging into an underwater command hub in what should be the movie’s pièce de résistance, but falls flat even in 3D. None of these FX were ever particularly effective in 2D, but many do work nicely when glimpsed in three dimensions–even now. And that’s why I’m always falling back on that funhouse defense. Jaws 3D is a silly, clumsy ride, but it’s good fun despite its imperfections.
Two shark posts in a single week. I should have saved these for the week my latest novel releases, since it involves a bloodthirsty shark off the coast of Florida, but I’ve never been that calculated. I have, however, always enjoyed Jaws 3D, and since Universal’s recent Blu-ray release at last gives fans the ability to enjoy its original presentation in their own home, it felt like the right time to sing from the rooftops.
Many people do not share my enthusiasm, and that’s fine. This isn’t the first time I’ve stood against the grain and it won’t be the last (look for my defense of Batman v. Superman coming soon). Jaws 3D may always carry a negative stigma, but for my money it’s always been a pleasant little monster movie with amiable performances, interesting atmosphere, and a gleeful sense of carnage (Quaid’s obligatory “get out of the water!” scene is a delight). For me, that’s more than enough. Your mileage may vary.