The current printing of the DVD box calls it Jaws 3, while the onscreen title of the same is Jaws III. Ignore these lies! They are only feeble attempts to hide a secret shame, for make no mistake, the title of the thing is Jaws 3-D. For it came during the enthusiastic flurry of 3-D movies in the early 1980s, and was the second of the three great horror franchise sequels that made the cutesy-pie marketing decision to have the third entry be in 3-D, following Friday the 13th, Part 3 and preceding Amityville 3-D. There is an extremely strong argument to be made that Jaws 3-D is the best of these three films, which is an object lesson in how fucking bad bad '80s movies could be.

How fucking bad is Jaws 3-D? This fucking bad: the very first thing we see before the movie proper even begins is a snazzy 3-D variation on the Universal studio plate, in which the spinning planet and the word UNIVERSAL wrapping it zoom out towards the audience (presumably - to my knowledge, there is no home video release of the 3-D version of the film, which means that all I'm going on is that a whole hell of a lot of things seem to point unnecessarily at the camera, or get larger in otherwise pointless ways. More on this later Update: I am entirely happy to report that it has since been released on Blu-ray in 3-D, and it's as godawful tacky as I could ever have hoped). It's tacky as shit, and it promises us a tacky experience to follow, which promise is absolutely not broken in the slightest. This is a relentlessly dumb movie - not as willfully and viciously stupid as the fourth and thus-far final entry in the series, Jaws: The Revenge, but far dumber: though there is never a second in which it seems like we're not meant to take this all quite seriously, the whole thing is so hokey and so incredibly incompetent in execution that it feels less wicked in its ignorance and more like a comic relief hillbilly, of the sort seen in this very movie's water-skiing interludes.

And really, doesn't it say just about all there is to say about Jaws 3-D, that it is a killer shark movie with comic hillbilly water-skiing sequences?

But for all I know, that could be entirely the fault of the location, and not of the filmmakers at all. Jettisoning Martha's Vineyard, which for two movies had stolidly doubled for the beleaguered community of Amity, Jaws 3-D was filmed instead at SeaWorld Orlando, the third in the chain of aquatic amusement parks, and in a fit of absolute insanity on the part of some SeaWorld executive, the sort that really ought to have ended a career or two, the filmmakers were even given the go-ahead to use the SeaWorld name for their merry tale of killer sharks invading a theme park and endangering the lives of tens of visitors. The result, even despite the whole "SeaWorld's attractions are so ill-conceived that they are practically begging to be turned into deathtraps by impossibly big Great Whites" angle, feels uncommonly like a particularly desperate bit of corporate synergy, though there was absolutely no kinship between the parks and Universal whatever. But it's still all there: the fixation on SeaWorld shows and the pornographic display of SeaWorld's attractions and aquarium-ringed dining room and stingray petting zoo and all. Particularly the water-skiing shows, which take up at least as much of the film's running time as shark attacks do, unless it just seems that way.

At one point in the film's development, it was going to be done as a self-defeating parody titled Jaws 3, People 0 (John Hughes was involved - National Lampoon's Vacation-era John Hughes. Alas, the possibilities...). The studio, allegedly with some goading from an outraged Steven Spielberg, who really oughtn't care at that point, pushed instead for a "serious" movie, although they did not get it: Jaws 3-D is full of some of the most illogical moments in the whole franchise, so many that it's tiring just to think of them, and some of the most grandly absurd misjudgments about sharks not just in the Jaws series, but the whole corpus of killer shark pictures. At one point, the shark roars like a goddamn lion, and if you can find room for that in a "serious" shark picture, you have more creativity than I.

At any rate, it is an indefinite period of time after the events of Jaws 2, at least more than the 5 years separating the two films, given that 17-year-old Mike Brody has grown up enough to become a whiz-bang engineer who has just accomplished one of the most exciting achievements a career could have: he has built a huge artificial lagoon with a connection to the sea, with an hourglass-shaped walkway submerged 40 feat under the surface to offer park visitors an unparalleled chance to study aquatic life. He is also played by Dennis Quaid, who refuses to acknowledge this film's existence - and that is his right, although a) he's actually pretty good and has nothing, personally, to be ashamed of; b) respect your damn roots, man, and c) people who were in both Dragonheart and G.I. Joe: The Revenge of Cobra should really watch what stones they throw, and in which direction.

So Mike Brody, it would seem, has turned the traumas of his two shark summers into a fascination with the sea (note that when he speaks of this time, he refers only to "that" summer), while his younger brother Sean (John Putch) has gone the exact opposite direction, and has taken the opportunity of college to ship himself square into nice, safe, landlocked Colorado. Still, he's not enough of a hydrophobe to pass up a chance to hang out with his brother for a summer, which is why he shows up just as SeaWorld's Murdering Sharkland is readying for its big premiere.

Mike and his longtime girlfriend, the park's main marine biologist Kay Morgan (Bess Armstrong), are a little too busy with getting the new area up and running, so Sean drifts into the arms of water-skier Kelly Ann Bukowski (Lea Thompson, in her first film role) for a passionate summer romance. Meanwhile, SeaWorld's one-note manager, Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett, Jr. in his immediate next film after winning an Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman, though he could not have known that at the time) is dealing with his own set of problems, but mostly glad-handling the unctuous adventure documentarian Philip FitzRoyce. Earl of Haddonfield (Simon MacCorkindale), who is present as part of the grand opening festivities, though in what exact capacity a world-famous game hunter can serve the PR department of a wildlife-themed park, is sort of left up in the air

Being attentive, you have perhaps noticed that I have not yet mentioned any sharks. Well, Jaws 3-D isn't especially concerned with that, outside of a really charming opening in which a fish is devoured by an unseen, but huge, predator, leaving only its head, mouth still bobbing open, to float at the audience in one of the only decently-handled process shots of the whole picture. Somewhere along the line, one of SeaWorld's technicians makes a point of going out alone at night to inspect something that could wait until the morning, and is eaten; and while Sean and Kelly cavort in the lagoon, two coral poachers on the other side of the water and at least one whole ecosystem away are taken care of in similar fashion, but since none of the character find out about the first death until ages later (and nobody ever finds out about the poachers), this plays not as the merciless growing tension of Jaws or even the lumbering build-up of Jaws 2, but as a hail-Mary attempt to keep the audience diverted until the plot can kick in, rather like the grubby horror films popping up all over in the early 1980s with no regard for anything like "art". The plot does, eventually, ramp up, well past the 30-minute mark; longer than it took for the same moment in the first two Jaws pictures, and Jaws 3-D is every bit of 20 minutes shorter than they are.

Basically, there's a ten-foot Great White swimming about and terrorising the local fauna; our heroes manage to catch it with no big difficulty, and at Kay's urging attempt to keep the first such animal in captivity. Long story short (so long...) they fail because Bouchard is a towering idiot, so blindly motivated by greed in the most narrow sort of Evil Movie Capitalist manner possible that he throws a tremendously fragile animal into a wading pool with a hand-painted sign next to it (the best possible way to advertise your once-in-a-lifetime exhibition). Here things would stop, except that on top of all of this, Bouchard has commanded one of the lagoon's gigantic turbines to be shut down, so that it doesn't burn itself out over some kind of indeterminate blockage.

The second the water stops flowing through the pipe, that blockage extricates itself: for that blockage is a 35-foot Great White (that can swim backwards, no less, not a feature of any shark ever), the little shark's mommy, and though the film thankfully never plays around with the idea that it's out for revenge, the effect is the same: a shit-ton of hungry fish knocking about in a lagoon filled with daft stereotypes played out on water-skis and magnificent tubes deep underwater filled with gawking tourists. The rest of the film pretty much writes itself, saving Carl Gottlieb (his third go with the series) and Richard Freaking Matheson the trouble. In defense of the ordinarily supremely-talented Matheson: by all accounts, the script he worked on bears fairly superficial resemblance to the one shot - no SeaWorld, for starters, and what that could possibly leave, I can't begin to guess - and he just had the poor luck to end up with the onscreen credit.

So, here is what we know so far about Jaws 3-D it is fucking squirrelly (a 35-foot Great White, a solid 10 feet longer than the implausible behemoth of the first movie, takes care of that), it is focused on the character drama at the expense of sharks for the first 30 minutes, making us desperately antsy, and then when the shark attacks kick in, we dearly wish it would go back to the character drama - underwritten and vaguely (and less-vaguely) sexist and hackneyed as it is, at least the four actors involved give it some pep. We know that Bouchard is a particularly stupid example of the Evil Capitalist that can be found in every killer animal film that came after Jaws (which does not, itself, have an Evil Capitalist, only a desperately self-deluding one). We know that FitzRoyce is a ghastly part played gamely by the overqualified MacCorkindale with an eye to making such implausibilities as "I am a brilliant game hunter who will now go swimming with explosives strapped to my waist!" go over even a little bit.

All of these things make Jaws 3-D bad; all of these things make it, perhaps, so transfixingly bad that it would be enough just for the loopiness of it to be a better distraction than Jaws 2 (whose dull competence, ironically, makes it a less enjoyable film than the objectively more terrible third film). But then there is the effects work, which is positively shocking: obviously, the budgets for these things kept dropping, but even so, you cannot be prepared for how all-encompassingly shitty this movie looks. There is first the matter of the sharks: Big Momma is actually a tolerable model, maybe even the second-best of the series after the fish in Jaws 2; at any rate, she is equipped with lips that move independently of her jaws, a key feature of real sharks found nowhere else in the franchise, and that alone is enough to make one agree to silently gloss over how unfortunately fiberglassy those teeth look. And it certainly doesn't help matters that that first- and last-time director Joe Alves, the production designer of the previous films (as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Escape from New York, so you know he's bona fide), is so eager to show off the shark in aaaalllll its glory - we see more of the prop here than in any other film in the series - that we get a nice long look at, for example, how a portion of the shark's tail bends funny, exactly like there was a piston or something, right under the plasticky skin. But, in the main, I like the mother shark. Let us pass on.

Because holy motherfucking shit, the baby shark looks awful. At least two props were used: one is a little mechanical job that, when it hits a wall while swimming greedily after two dolphins, has its neck telescope back into its body like a retractable knife, in what is very nearly the most desperately faked shot in any Jaws picture. And I say "nearly", because it's still a veritable masterpiece of realism compared to the prop they use for the baby in captivity, in all the shots when actors have to walk it around the pool. This one is not a mechanical job; it resembles, in fact, a novelty surfboard, and is roughly that flexible. If there was nothing else to recommend Bess Armstrong's performance - and all things considered, she's a lot better than the role should allow - the scene in which she uses all her might to position an obviously uncooperative and awkwardly buoyant shark doll in such a way that it looks, somewhat, like a sick and dying animal would be enough all by itself to earn her, if not our respect, at least our endless sympathy.

Seriously, it looks pathetic - it is as bad a visual effect as anything could possibly have been in a studio picture by 1983. It is Ed Wood bad.

In comparison, the many effects shots almost don't look terrible. Almost. See, Jaws 3-D had to do two kind of tricky things: it had to use a lot of process shots to make various sharks and submarines interact with various models and various matte paintings in somewhat realistic ways; and it had to also make those models and paintings look swell in 3-D (in amongst a stunning number of tasteless 3-D gewgaws; the film has F13 Part 3 beat cold, at any rate. The effort defeated the filmmakers. For the most part, the visual effects in Jaws 3-D look rather like a photo of a shark being crudely pasted onto a glass frame that's wobbled back and forth in front of a blurry photo. I can only imagine that this looked marginally less dreadful in its original theatrical presentation, with actual 3-D; as it stands, the effect is sort of like the aggressively flat animation of Yellow Submarine only less convincing.

And that is what pushes Jaws 3-D into So Bad It's Good territory: the sheer unmitigated incompetence of the whole thing, married to the idiot plot, married to the random directorial gestures, including a hellaciously dumb final shot that is one of the funniest damn things you can imagine. Jaws 3, People 0 itself couldn't have ended on a broader, weirder, or more stupefyingly insulting note. God bless it, for the next film would double down on its idiocy without possessing any of its moronic charm.

At any rate, it has forever been saved the title of "Worst 3-D Shark Film". Shark Night 3D sure as hell saw to that.

Reviews in this series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3-D (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)