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Jaws 3D Didn’t Need the D

Joe Alves is a talented man. He was a regular player in Steven Spielberg’s early works as production designer/ art director on The Sugarland Express, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an enviable portfolio for any such creative. He knows how to frame a shot and how to physically create the intended atmosphere. But if there was ever an example of such artistic finesse not being synonymous with director-material, it’s Alves’ singular directorial credit for Jaws 3D. It is easy to imagine poor Alves skulking off into the sunset, never to be seen again, once the magnitude of Jaws 3D’s failure really sank in; indeed, he would return to a sporadic career in production design, before apparently calling it quits with 2000’s Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists. He certainly achieved great success during his career, and it could be called a shame that Jaws 3D blights his record. On the other hand, it was under his perhaps misguided tutelage that one of the best bad movies of all time came together, and this in itself is quite the achievement.


Jaws 3D in itself is a really cool idea: a great white shark is loose in SeaWorld. It had the potential to be an exciting departure from the franchise’s quaint New England existence; potential that would be wrung out by the Hollywood system’s demands and expectations. Like its predecessors, Jaws 3D’s script went through a chain of writers, being mashed and pulped beyond recognition, before Guerdon Trueblood and none other than Richard Matheson were landed with the undesirable writing credits on the finished film. Matheson, of course, was one of the most skilled sci-fi writers of the 20th century; he knew how to explore strange new worlds while maintaining a relatable base of human emotion. If anybody could pull off a shark-in-SeaWorld script, he could, at least were it not for the standard studio interference that diluted his ideas down to a watery, vaguely shark-flavored concoction. By the time of shooting, the script had also passed through the hands of franchise stalwart Carl Gottlieb and a number of other script doctors, producing a choppy, cheesy and thoroughly incoherent final draft.

A Brief History of 3D in Film

Image via Universal Pictures

Cinema in the third dimension has a colorful and somewhat troubled history. The basic idea of combining two eye-distanced images with some apparatus or other – usually special glasses – to produce the effect of a three-dimensional picture has existed since the 1830s, and when motion pictures began to emerge, a number of innovators looked at ways to carry this same process over to the new format. They quickly discovered it to be a costly, time-consuming and equipment-heavy way to both make and show movies, given that it required twice the cameras, film stock, editing and projectors, while also proving prone to synchronization issues due to the use of two separate film reels. The format experienced a brief golden era in the mid-’50s when flashy action and sci-fi movies were popular, during which titles such as House of Wax and Man In The Dark looked to 3D to deliver a uniquely thrilling viewing experience. It died off fairly quickly, having reminded moviemakers and theater managers alike of the expense and effort required by 3D.

3D of the 1980s

So it took thirty-odd years of technological advancement for the industry to have the balls to try again. The cinema landscape of the 1980s bore similarities to the ‘50s, in that popcorn entertainment was in high demand, and viewers were more than happy to settle for B-movies that didn’t take themselves too seriously. It was the perfect time to try 3D again, and now there were more options than before. The problem with innovation is that when it is good, it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid. So goes the story of Arrivision 3-D, a filming format that hoped to revolutionize the 3D movie industry by making it a cheaper and less technical affair. By shooting a single image on a single strip of film and splitting it with a special adapter, it could, in theory, half the cost and equipment requirements; it was an added bonus that it could also be projected in the standard 2D fashion, requiring just a special screen and lens adapter for the theater, and red-and-blue cardboard viewing glasses for the audience.

Image via Universal Pictures

Jaws 3D released just on the cusp of home video, and so received a VHS release in 1984, retitled Jaws 3 due to its standard 2D presentation. This was when the technical cracks of Arrivision really began to emerge, with resolution, color and image suffering. The home release resorted to using the left-eye image from the single reels of film, which effectively halved the quality and resolution of the image. It also gave the edges of the image a blueish blur, and foreground characters a strange, uncanny appearance, as if they are acting in front of a very realistic green screen. Although a notable downgrade from the original theatrical experience, the resolution of VHS covered a multitude of sins. It was when the DVD released in 2003 that a spotlight was shone on the movie’s technical lack of grace, propelling Jaws 3D to a new level of infamy.

The Special Effects of Jaws 3D

The effects in Jaws 3D were never good to begin with. The sharks not only look stupid but are so lacking in mobility that scenes have to work around their impediments, sticking to close-up shots that kill any sense of atmosphere or understanding of what is going on. Their blinding artificiality is only worsened by the sped-up footage of real sharks interspersed with the action sequences. The fact that the real animal footage often shows sunlight above the surface of the water when the scenes they are spliced into take place at night just takes the cake. And then, of course, there are the shots designed specifically around the 3D viewing format, which blend about as well as the cutout animation of early South Park, and give the movie its laugh-out-loud moments.

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The shark-through-the-glass scene is undoubtedly Jaws 3D’s money shot. It is just so beautifully absurd that if any doubt still existed, it proves once and for all that this movie is silly beyond redemption. The main characters are in the underwater control room of the park, which has a big glass screen looking out into the water. The shark is, for whatever reason, looking to cause damage to them and has, for whatever reason, figured out where they are. Even though it didn’t work the last three times it tried, this time it will definitely be able to break pressurized underwater glass with a single ram of its snout. As the characters scream in a horrible slow motion that the frame rate clearly wasn’t prepared for, a still photograph of a goofy-looking shark puppet hovers slowly over a blurry still photograph of the park lagoon. Its jaws part ever so slightly as it stops suddenly, and a cartoon glass-cracking effect appears across the screen, and water goes gushing out, as the shark remains motionless and suspended in this supposed flood of water into a pressurized container.

Jaws 3D

The stupidity of this scene sums up the movie in a nutshell. No, it doesn’t make sense; no, physics are not a thing in this world, so just kick back and laugh. The movie looks awful, it sounds awful, it feels awful. There is no singular trait that a viewer can latch onto and recognize as good. The acting is horrible, and when we can understand what the hell is being said, it becomes evident that the script sucks too. Nothing quite makes sense, and the gracelessly choppy editing and glaring lack of continuity suggests that a lot ended up on the cutting room floor. Perfectly stable structures suddenly fall apart when the shark is nearby, safety ropes with no signs of damage suddenly snap for no reason. The shark is so badass that it apparently developed the lungs and vocal cords required to roar. Despite a budget of $18m (which, adjusted for inflation, is roughly the same amount spent on the original Jaws in 1975), and plenty of pushing from Universal, this wound up being an accidental B-movie.

Louis Gosset Jr. gives a perplexing performance as SeaWorld boss Calvin Bouchard, during which he seems to portray a different character in each scene, with any developments from previous scenes apparently forgotten. Dennis Quaid and John Putch play the third incarnation of the Brody brothers in another needless amendment that the studio demanded; they could be any other people with no links to Amity at all, and it would have about the same effect. Quaid spends half the movie on a strange incoherent rampage through the park, during which he commandeers no fewer than three different vehicles before promptly throwing himself out of them in dramatic fashion, while Putch mostly pouts and gets a bit too friendly with his brother’s girlfriend. Bess Armstrong is likable enough as Quaid’s girlfriend Kay, the lead marine biologist at SeaWorld, while Lea Thompson is charming with what little she is given as water skier Kelly.

jaws 3d shark fin in amusement park

Jaws had a finesse to it that made it more than just a shark movie, that elevated it among peers and imitators. Jeannot Szwarc did his best to uphold this sense of sophistication in Jaws 2, much to the movie’s benefit. But Jaws 3D, the melting pot of ideas and influences that it became, has an inherent ‘80s silliness to it, perhaps perpetuated by an original idea for the sequel that would see it become a parody titled Jaws 3 – People 0. Alves was dead against the tongue-in-cheek ideas that Jaws producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had originally pitched, and it seems that he spent the entire production process trying to make Jaws 3 a serious movie and keep it that way. The final cut evidences his struggle for creative control and scramble to cover all bases. An unfortunate combination of studio interference, a script nipped-and-tucked beyond recognition and overambitious technical demands indicate that perhaps the highly-skilled Alves was best suited to life as a production designer after all.

‘Jaws 3D’ Gets A Blu-ray Release – But the 3D Is Unnecessary

The movie saw its long-awaited 3D home media release in 2016 as a special feature on the Blu-ray edition of Jaws 3, having been reformatted for Blu-ray 3D. For fans of the movie, it is a novel viewing experience – one that those too young to have seen it in theaters would certainly appreciate. But what this version of the movie makes clear is that the fun of Jaws 3D was never in the third dimension (nor, for that matter, was the terror, contrary to the film’s tagline), it was in the movie as a whole. The stupid script, the phony acting, the horrible effects sequences – they all came together to make a funny, crappy creature feature that had retained a cult reputation for a reason. If nothing else, the 3D sequences horribly adapted for 2D presentation just add to its appeal, just as bad CGI did for Deep Blue Sea.

jaws 3d shark

There are bad movies, and there are so-bad-they’re-good movies, and Jaws 3D falls squarely into the latter category. It is goofy and inept, but so well-intended that it becomes charming. It is really more in the spiritual family of Piranha than Jaws, with viewers coming back time and time again not for some intellectually-stimulating meditation on man’s relationship with nature, but for 90 wacky minutes of monster mash made by people far too talented to be bogged down by projects of its ilk, but chose to be so anyway. “It was fun. It was fun when I was working with the crew – excellent crew – it was some of the political stuff [that] was difficult,” Alves summarized the Jaws 3 experience, and as it happens, this seems to be how the fanbase remembers the movie too. There is no greater word for it than “fun.”

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