Saturday, June 19, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: JAWS 3-D (1983) & THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (1983)

Back in the ‘80s, JAWS 3-D was the highest grossing 3-D movie ever made. Maybe if Universal had any sort of confidence or even an inkling that it would be popular they would have made a better movie. Maybe.

Admittedly I enjoyed JAWS 3-D in the theater back in the day, but many walked out thinking it was crap. And they were right. Universal’s apathy toward its follow-ups can nowhere be more clearly seen that their JAWS sequels.

It is without any hyperbole to say that JAWS (1975) was a brilliant horror-thriller that in spite of its limited resources manages to fire on all cylinders, does everything right and cops-out on nothing. An excellent cast, superb script, brilliant score and a crew talented enough to manage to make the lack of budget invisible to the audience. I remember the lines that literally snaked down the block, across the street and around the corner to get in to see this film on a freakin’ weeknightBudgeted at $8 million, JAWS pulled in over $7 million domestically on its opening weekend. This movie invented the Hollywood blockbuster. This is what every studio executive fantasizes about in private moments. JAWS was such a massive hit that the rampant merchandising never even seemed as forced as it does today. We not only wanted all that stuff, but we loved it. Well, that's not entirely true... I'm still a bit cranky about that crappy Super Nintendo game.

So, this little film that Universal thought was a joke and a flop waiting to happen, turns into the biggest blockbuster in the history of modern cinema. How do we follow this up? With JAWS 2 (1978), of course! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and get that bitch out and into theaters before the magic wears off! JAWS 2 actually had a vastly expanded budget of $20-30 million (depending on the source), but in typical Universal fashion is cynically made and falls right into the classic sequel trap. The important cast members return (Roy Scheider reportedly did it as a contractual obligation) as does John William’s score, but Universal throws TV director Jeannot Szwarc on the bridge (after firing John D. Hancock) and it’s nothing more than a tedious rehash dressed up as a sequel. Here writer Carl Gottlieb, who co-wrote the original, provides a script with the same sheriff, same beach, same situation, except the twist is that this time no one believes his warnings (like they really did in the original?) and must fight a one-man war against the shark while lots of cheap actors are used for sharkbait. The only way to do this scenario right is to get an Italian to make it as absurd and violent as possible, a balls-out exploitation film, losing the pretensions of making a film as educated as the original. The original idea, as written by Howard Sackler, the lead writer of the original, was to have Chief Brody’s sons hunting down a new shark, a concept that Carl Gottlieb carries over into JAWS 3-D. The film became the highest-grossing sequel in history, succeeded by the release of ROCKY II (1979).

Following this, Universal went into state of confusion as to how to bring about the second sequel after the first, how ever profitable, got panned by the critics and filmgoers. One of the big ideas was to bring in National Lampoon and Joe Dante to make an insider industry spoof titled JAWS 3 / PEOPLE 0. This less violence / more comedy approach was being pushed by studio heads who obviously missed the trawler on the whole concept of what made JAWS successful to begin with. The spoof concept was finally killed after Universal spent over $2 million dollars on preproduction. Eventually they settled on doing a low-budget story that would take place in a new Sea World park in Florida. The extra-huge budget of JAWS II was never actually intended and would have never been given the greenlight on the outset, so this time Universal was going to keep the costs under control. One of their big mistakes in the cost-cutting department was dumping John Williams in favor of the more economically priced and relentlessly uninspired Alan Parker. “Hey, we got a killer shark, what the hell do we need fancy music for?” Clearly Universal was thinking that if they had to make another crap sequel, they might as well get some of the bankroll from Busch Theme Parks, owners of Sea World, their new partner in the Orlando joint venture. “We got a movie about sea life and we're in bed with Sea World... Bingo!” One wonders if the Sea World park managers were at all amused by Lou Gossett Jr’s eccentric New Orlean’s street pimp approach to the role which, among other things, pretty much makes Sea World look only slightly more competent than BP Oil.

Amusingly the credits read that the screenplay was “suggested by the novel by Peter Benchley”. Really? Damn, I have to admit I’ve never read the novel, but I may have to now, because I’m having a hard time buying that it did anything of the kind. Perhaps it suggested another bonus for Universal executives, that I could believe. In a throw-back to the unproduced original JAWS II concept Dennis Quaid and John Puch are supposedly the sons of Martin Brody, though this relationship is never explicitly stated, only hinted at by some brief bits of conversation where Sean Brody (Puch) mentions that he’s afraid of the water due to a childhood trauma and Mike Brody (Quaid) mentions that they grew up in Amity where they had “that shark attack”. Even later he vaguely mentions that it was he who traumatized his brother confusing the issue even further. These guys don’t need an elaborate backstory (these days they would be given at least 15 minutes of the film devoted to their up-bringing and the trauma would be shown in detail), but throwing out a few vague tidbits that don’t really add up to anything is either sloppy or the result of too many cooks in the kitchen. The final screen credits read “screenplay by Richard Matheson and Carl Gottleib, Story by Guerdon Trueblood”. Trueblood being a TV writer who's sole feature directorial credit is the sleazy cult-classic THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973)! The mind boggles at what the film would have been like if only he were handed the directorial reigns.

Even worse, the Brody boys are two of the whiniest manchildren you are ever likely to meet and it’s difficult to imagine why Kelly (Lea Thompson, who in my advancing age is lookin’ surprisingly good in a bikini) would be the least bit attracted to this guy. Sean whines about being “the baby brother”, he whines about going swimming with a cute girl in a bikini, he whines about how the freakin’ bumper boats appear to be unsafe... Dude, grow a pair and shut the hell up! Chief Brody and Quint would listen to roughly two words out of this whiny punk before using him for chum, blood kin or not. Bess Armstrong who showed lots of potential in Mark Blankfeild’s counter-culture cult classic JEKYLL AND HYDE TOGETHER AGAIN (1983), here is given nothing to do as Kathryn, a marine biologist who is confined to being either The Wonderful Girlfriend Who Dreams of Marriage (to non-committal Mike) or The Ernest Scientist Who Cares about Animals (and is, of course, devastated by Sea World’s corporate greed). Dull scenes drag on and on and on with little happening other than lots of waterskiing acrobatics (presumably appealing to Busby Berkeley’s broad 1983 fan-base) and banal conversations about cutting down maintenance overtime (cue ominous music), personal relationships (“we need to talk… about us”), employee training (“we enforce our dress code here, so please keep your hair and nails trimmed”) and a bunch of other crap that’ll make you want to prop open your eye-lids with toothpicks. Some of this wouldn’t be so bad if Quaid could muster up even a microscopic amount of enthusiasm for the part. When having another “serious moment” with Kathryn, he says “god, I love it here” in the flattest monotone imaginable. He could be talking about waterborne bacterial infections with that delivery.

Simon McCorkindale (the guy you call when you can’t shell out the “big” bucks for Michael York) shows up as a famous aquatic photographer, Philip FitzRoyce, with his manservant, err, I mean, Aussie sidekick, Jack (British character actor P.H. Moriarty completely wasted and fumbling with his Aussie accent) who seems to be some sort of big game hunter type, but this is never really explained. The park’s pimp-walkin’ manager, Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett Jr. who reads the role as some sort of two-bit street-hustler in a three-piece suit), is instantly suspicious that FitzRoyce is there to expose the park’s presumably numerous safety violations. Only OSHA officials could find excitement in that plot device. More examples of glittering prose are found when FitzRoyce tries to get Kathryn to go out to dinner with him, to which she replies “Oh, I’m sorry Mr. FitzRoyce… That’s a behavior I just don’t do.” Oh, snap! No she di-uhn’t! Phew! Thar be some rough waters ahead…

Here Sea World’s new gimmick is underwater tubes connected to a central hub that guests can walk through to get to four underwater “attractions”. These attractions are simply sets that Sea World has built underwater and are not only non-interactive (except for the tentacles grabbing teenage girls in what would be massive legal safety issue), but look like they were made out of parts bought from Pet Mart’s clearance bin. The ultra-low budget special effects rely heavily on miniatures and blue screen and are really painfully obvious. The travelling mattes (remember those?) are thrown together so sloppily that some have significant edge-detection issues. The climactic scene where the shark rams the control room shattering the window is so slow and unrealistic that the reaction shots of the cast inside are slowed down in post so that the whole thing would look like it’s dramatic slow-motion. All of this would be ok (in a fun cheesy way) if the rest of the film were watchable. It’s not.

After a worker disappears, Mike and Kathryn take a mini sub to the “pirate ship” attraction (where we get the ultimate one-up of the clichéd hand-in-the-camera 3-D effect - a fake skeleton’s hand in the camera!) where the ship is attacked by what appears to be one of those plastic JAWS bath toys. The ship is rammed by the static shark who then grinds it into reverse and high-tails it out of there. Eventually the shark is captured and through Buchard’s corporate craziness is accidentally killed. As if finding the worker’s chewed up body (yes, sharks chew in this movie) wasn’t bad enough, during a dinner, the momma shark swims right up to the dining room window and roars her disproval at the cast (yes, sharks roar in this movie too), then it’s on like neckbone sucka, while the whole affair comes under attack by the roaring, chewing, backwards swimmin’ bitch with teeth (if this had come out after ALIENS in 1986, I’m positive that line would have been used).

At the time I enjoyed seeing the film on the big screen in 3-D. Some of the effects were less than stellar and this is unquestionably one of the top films for "stupid" 3-D effects. Someone had a lot of NoDoz-fueld late-night brainstorming sessions to come up with the lamest ways of thrusting things out into the audience (yes, I'm sure it was NoDoz, why do you ask?). While the underwater scenes of schools of brightly colored fish and coral reefs are actually pretty cool in 3-D, I’m pretty sure they were either filched from an IMAX 3-D short or shot by a different crew. The big 3-D gags are all bluescreen process shots and they are all really obvious. The severed arm was cool enough, but most of the 3-D shots are of inanimate objects that the camera would dolly in on. At the shipwreck attraction there is a pirate skeleton whose left arm is sticking out. Dolly in on that! There’s a tentacle coming out of a wall in the undersea kingdom. Dolly in on that! There’s a bent reed sticking out of that patch by the boat. Dolly in on that! Yes. I said a reed. Seriously, who brainstormed that? “We need some more objects to dolly into – wait! I got it! There’s water right? What is around water? Reeds! We’ll bend a reed back and it’ll stick out of the screen! Genius!”

The fact that this is the highest grossing 3-D film and, aside from THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (1983), was the last studio 3-D film until modern day, tells us a couple of interesting things. Again, like FRIDAY THE 13th PART III (1982), more than just the core target audience bought a ticket. This was a film that would get asses in seats and a lot of those asses would belong to people who normally wouldn’t go see a 3-D horror movie. Such is the power of JAWS. As the band of the same era, Great White once philosophized, “my, my, my, once bitten, twice shy, baby.” In other words, if you get all the average schlubs into the theater then blow it, they aren’t going to be really interested in doing it again for another twenty years.

Any hesitation in thinking that Universal just doesn’t care would be instantly cast aside by the following sequel, JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987), which with a straight face bore the now infamous tag line “this time it’s personal.”

In August of ’83, Paramount released their true 3-D killer, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (1983). Up until this point 3-D had been the gimmick of genre movies, and Paramount actually made a brave step onto virgin soil with America’s first 3-D comedy!
This is how I heard it went down:
“Ok, so we want to break into the mainstream with 3-D, we don’t want just the pot-heads and the horny teens… but we want them too, so it can’t be too highbrow. Also, we have no budget and need to bang out a script by Wednesday lunch. ”
“Hmmm… can’t afford any major special effects, but then you don’t need ‘em for a comedy, that’s the beauty of it! Hmmmm…”
“I know! Let’s do an invisible man film! ”
“Brilliant! ”
“The Invisible Man in 3-D! ”
“Perfect! Nobody’s done and invisible man comedy and since he’s invisible, we’ll save tons of money!”
“Now, who are we going to get to play this invisible man?  They’d have to work cheap.”
“Hey, I heard Steve Guttenberg will work for a case of beer and a handjob! ”
“Done! Someone call my secretary and give her the bad news…”
At least, that’s the story I heard. Don’t quote me.

I was tempted to do a full write up, but I can’t seem to get my hands on a copy these days and don’t want to do a review based on decades old recollections. Besides it’s bad. Watch this clip and you’ll understand the meaning of the word. In addition to the 3-D effects being completely broken, the movie lacks the subtle educated wit of subsequent Guttenberg outings such as POLICE ACADEMY (1984), though it does have William Forsyth’s first screen appearance, so that must count for something.

The film lasted a week in the theaters and grossed a mere $2 million. Its tagline was “The funniest thing you've never seen!” It seems the marketing department were prophets.

2 Reactions:

  1. The Man Who Wasn't There is now on Netflix Watch Instantly and it sucks more than ever.

  2. In keeping with the cost-cutting, Universal handed off the actual making of the movie to Alan Landsburg Productions*. Yes, that's right, "Jaws 3-D" came from the company that gave us "That's Incredible!," "Kate & Allie" and "Gimme A Break" (as far as I know, this was their only theatrical movie. And I'm not surprised).

    *Note that the copyright notice says "MCA Theatricals" rather than Universal.


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