When you start with a classic, there’s rarely anywhere to go but down. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws not only changed the way films were marketed and ushered in the concept of the summer tentpole movie, but it also became the rare movie blockbuster whose critical status has only grown over time. With massive, unexpected success for Universal Pictures (to the tune of half a billion 1975 dollars worldwide), and a formula ripe for imitation (big shark eats unsuspecting tourists), there was no question that Jaws would get the sequel treatment. Jaws 2 came out three years later, with a 3-D outing rising in 1983, and the fourth and final entry, Jaws: The Revenge, hitting screens 12 years after the illustrious original in 1987.

And while it’s a cliche that movie franchises wear thinner and thinner as the sequels pile up, the Jaws series provides a depressingly predictable exemplar. Each successive film desperately attempted to recapture the magic (artistic and box office) of Spielberg’s original — without Spielberg, who adamantly refused to helm a follow-up. As the sequels (and the ever less impressive shark models) returned to summer movie screens, the initial audience feeding frenzy for all things Jaws dispersed with near-lockstep regularity. Box office numbers fell essentially by half with each new Jaws movie, while the first film’s rapturous critical scores plummeted even more precipitously.

Truly, the only question is whether the ranking of all four Jaws films will descend one through four, or if the widely derided Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge will flip for the bottom spot. Find out below in our definitive rankings of all four Jaws films.

4. Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

There are elements of this misbegotten final Jaws film that could be praised — if the execution weren’t so jaw-droppingly terrible. Lorraine Gary, lured out of eight-year semiretirement, not only plays one of the era’s few middle-aged female protagonists but is also the unquestionable lead, even romancing Michael Caine’s age-appropriate island pilot (albeit at the height of Caine’s anything-for-a-paycheck period). The decision to cut back on the earlier sequels’ attack-heavy gore (there are only two or three onscreen kills, depending on which studio-tampered ending you see) and focus instead on the Brody family’s collective trauma at being the object of a razor-toothed fish’s ire is an admirable swing at dramatic ambition. The studio’s decision to hand-wave away the marginal Jaws 3-D, likewise, suggests a more character-based return to series continuity. And … that’s it.

Director Joseph Sargent doesn’t quite destroy the goodwill garnered by his crackerjack New York crime classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, but there’s rarely been a more slapdash, indifferent job done directing a major studio film. Continuity errors abound (look for Caine’s magically drying shirt), and the never-more-wonky shark mechanisms are in hilariously obvious evidence. But the concept that dooms Jaws: The Revenge to its place at the sandy bottom of cinematic wrecks is its central one: that this particular shark holds a personal grudge against all members of the Brody family, presumably in recompense for all the shark blood they’ve shed over the years.

With a marketing campaign centered on the film’s “This time it’s personal” ethos, Jaws: The Revenge inexplicably turns Ellen Brody shark psychic, with Gary tasked with going stiff and histrionic every time the vendetta-bound shark inevitably targets one of her few remaining family members. The shark even makes the 1,900-mile swim to the Bahamas, where the back half of the film is set and where the film’s theoretically dramatic core plays out in soap opera stiffness and arbitrary jump scares. Why is psychic Ellen unable to sense that the shark is coming for her adorable granddaughter when she’s able to use her supernatural powers to flash back to scenes from this and earlier movies in which she was not present? No one can say. As the fatal hole in the hull of the Jaws franchise, Jaws: The Revenge desperately and ineptly attempts to give audiences what it thinks they want, only to show, with dispiriting regularity, how little it understands the classic original film’s appeal.

 

3. Jaws 3-D (1983)

A creaky theme-park ride of a film, Jaws 3-D is, appropriately enough, set at a real-world amusement park in Orlando’s Sea World. That’s where the now-grown (and now Dennis Quaid) Michael Brody has become an underwater park designer, while younger brother Sean comes down south for a visit — right as another giant great white comes calling. Throw in a barrage of 1980’s-era 3-D gross-out effects (and the attendant lousy-looking cinematography), and this third Jaws movie is about as far from Amity, Spielberg and good filmmaking as it can get.

The story goes that even producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck knew that nobody could take a third film about the same family being bedeviled by yet another behemoth shark seriously, initially pitching a National Lampoon-style comedy titled Jaws 3, People 0, to be directed by Piranha’s Joe Dante. But ultimately choosing to believe that the lure of a horror-oriented Jaws was enough to keep the profits rolling in, they finally handed the reins to Joe Alves, the talented production designer for the Jaws series (and second unit director for Jaws 2). It would be Alves’ only directing credit, and even if the film looks terrible and plays like a turgid, Florida-transplanted rehash of the dullest elements of the first two movies, Alves can’t be held wholly responsible for what turned out to be a critical disaster and box office disappointment.

3-D, as much as it’s promoted as a groundbreaking advance, remains a fad unsuited for anything but exhibitionist showboating at the expense of coherent filmmaking. Here, underwater action is murky and (literally) unfocused, the process' lighting and staging turn the original’s lightning-fast terror into molasses-paced set pieces, bereft of suspense. The sunny setting is antithetical to tension as well, with Sea World’s baffling decision to associate its brand with panicky crowds and bloody mayhem offsetting the incessant product integration throughout. None of the original cast appears, with only the occasional stray line of dialogue bothering to tie the Brody boys’ past into their improbable current predicament. Quaid (who’s admitted to being in the depths of a cocaine addiction during filming) is a strident and bug-eyed lead, while co-stars Louis Gossett Jr., Lea Thompson (in her first film) and Bess Armstrong (the only actor bringing anything to the table, as Michael’s marine biologist girlfriend) are left adrift, asked to goggle unconvincingly at the worst special effects of the series.

 

2. Jaws 2 (1978) 

With a guaranteed follow-up smash on their hands, but without Spielberg to deliver it, Universal steamed ahead anyway, and, three years later, Jaws returned to Amity. All “troubled productions” aren’t the same, and Jaws’ success (and Spielberg’s departure) added disgruntled returning stars, a rushed scripting process, revolving directors (John D. Hancock was fired and replaced with French director Jeannot Szwarc) and massive expectations to the usual travails of shooting at sea. Star Roy Scheider was forced to return as Martin Brody by his studio contract (and a hefty raise) and eventually came to blows with Szwarc. Richard Dreyfuss bailed with Spielberg (and landed the lead in the director’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

And yet, Jaws 2 still sort of works, on its own, on far less ambitious terms. Szwarc (later responsible for big-budget flops Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie) decided to show his shark much more than Spielberg did, reasoning that the slow-burn approach to the beast wouldn’t work a second time. The result is broader, gorier and more indebted to the booming slasher craze, especially once a flotilla of Amity teens find themselves stalked and picked off by a merciless, seemingly supernatural killer. (Bruce even sports scary burn scars after an early run-in with some careless boaters.) John Williams is back, his amped-up score working overtime to compensate for Szwarc’s pedestrian direction. And if Scheider was pressured into returning, the idea of Martin Brody coping with some form of shark-related PTSD once Amity’s waters start running red once more gives the game actor some new shades to work with.

That all said, Jaws 2 is an illuminative example of a film knowing the words but not the music. Without Spielberg’s skill and instincts, and with Universal’s mercenary intent evident in every frame, the film splashes around, with fitful success, in the squarely ordinary world of commercial filmmaking. The same story beats (Murray Hamilton’s glad-handing mayor once more pooh-poohs Brody’s warnings in deference to good old American tourism) are trotted out to far less effect, and the last half of the film becomes a shrill spectacle of bloody one-upmanship and stalwart — and rote — heroics. It isn’t Jaws, but, for the exercise in jump-scare audience-bait it is, a Jaws sequel could be worse.

 

1. Jaws (1975) 

In a landscape where every MCU movie is considered a disappointment if it doesn’t top a billion dollars, it’s hard to overestimate just how unlikely the success of Jaws was. Steven Spielberg was a 26-year-old TV director, with one theatrical feature to his credit. Peter Benchley’s beach-read novel was a bestseller, but hardly a literary achievement. Shooting on the open ocean was unprecedented and fraught, with the groundbreaking shark models as unreliable as they were essential to Spielberg’s vision. The director also rejected studio notes for name stars, casting, instead, midtier actors like Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary (wife of Universal head Sid Sheinberg) to maintain that vision of a small island town and the ordinary folk terrorized by the unknown. Budgets spiraled, Shaw and Dreyfuss feuded, shooting stalled and the crew (all more experienced than their young director) took to calling the troubled production “Flaws” out of the corner of their mouths.

Improbably, what Spielberg achieved endures as one of the most exciting, entertaining and light-footed films ever. Endlessly imitated for its deft blend of comedy, horror, spectacle and pure popcorn thrills, Jaws offers viewers to this day the sort of escapist movie experience the movies were invented for. As the mismatched trio pursuing a massive, relentlessly hungry shark off the shore of the sleepy tourist island community Amity, police chief Scheider, scientist Dreyfuss and shark-obsessed Ahab Shaw engage in their shared, increasingly desperate open-water pursuit, their clashing styles and methods a slyly witty take on American masculinity tasked with proving it’s still top of the food chain.

Improving on Benchley’s overstuffed and tawdry source material with every creative choice, Jaws is lean, propulsive, and still potently able to evoke the fear of what lies beneath. John Williams’ score plays viewers like vibrating string instruments, his ocean chase pursuit theme as exhilaratingly rousing as his immediately iconic mounting cello dread becomes the soundtrack to a million aquatic nightmares. Jaws announced the young Spielberg’s arrival as a major filmmaker, broke the box office, changed the film industry and set a high-water mark for action-adventure films that few — if any — have reached since.

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