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When Jaws Jumped the Shark? Remembering Wild Sequel Jaws 3-D On its 40th Anniversary

The third Jaws movie is fun, but is it Jaws?

By James Grebey
People scream in Jaws 3D (1983)

The first Jaws movie from Universal Pictures, directed by a young up-and-comer named Steven Spielberg, is a masterpiece; an incredibly tense, well-made, and well-acted film that created the summer blockbuster as we know it and changed cinema. The first sequel, Jaws 2, can’t reach the heights of Jaws (what can?) but it’s a respectable enough follow-up. Then there’s Jaws 3-D, now streaming on Peacock, albeit in only two dimensions.

Jaws 3-D, which came out 40 years ago this weekend, isn’t totally without merit as a shark attack movie, but perhaps its greatest strength as a movie is showing just how good the original Jaws is… and some fun scenes where a big ol’ shark wreaks havoc on water-skiers.  

The Original Plan For Jaws 3

The third Jaws movie was almost something very different from what we got. If Jaws 3-D is a much sillier movie than Jaws, the original idea for the film was an overt comedy. David Brown and Richard Zanuck, producers of the first two movies, approached some National Lampoon writers who were fresh off the success of Animal House. Jaws 3, People 0, as the never-made film would’ve been called, would’ve lovingly made a joke out of the giant shark. However, the studio reportedly didn’t like the idea of purposefully turning Jaws into a joke.

So, they scrapped Jaws 3, People 0 and instead made Jaws into a bit of a joke by accident. 

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Universal’s hesitance to pivot Jaws into being a comedy is understandable, but the franchise couldn’t continue the way it had been. The first movie was a sensation, based on a best-selling book and directed by a person who would go on to be one of the greatest directors of all time. Enough of the cast stuck around for the direct sequel that it felt like a fine continuation of the story. By the time you got to the third movie, though, it was clear they couldn’t just keep telling the story of shark attacks around Amity Isle. (And it was that their talent was dwindling. Spielberg was only involved with the first movie; star Roy Scheider balked at the idea of doing a third one; a first-time composer scored it instead of John Williams, though his original theme returns; etc.)

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So, as Jaws knock-offs like Mako: The Jaws of Death, Orca, and the dry-land animal attack movie Grizzy were flooding the market, the OG franchise had to find a way to reinvent itself. Moving the action from Amity Isle to a slick, very 1980s SeaWorld amusement park in Orlando, Florida, was far from the New England small-town intrigue of the first two films. It’s not a bad location for a shark attack flick by any means. It’s just that when you take away the direction, the characters, the setting, and all but the main theme music, what you’re left with isn’t Jaws so much as it’s just a shark movie. 

What Was Jaws 3-D About?

That’s not inherently a bad thing, and Jaws 3-D has some fun to offer as a shark movie. SeaWorld’s status as a tourist attraction that attempts to willingly home a dangerous predator only for life to find a way is a neat spin that foreshadows Jurassic Park (directed by Spielberg of course), and it does actually give the movie some thematic connection to the original, which found drama on dry land because of the mayor’s refusal to close the beaches during the summer tourism season. Louis Gossett Jr. plays the park manager with some delightful ‘80s corn-doggedness. And the water-ski chaos is a fun setpiece, even if the special effects couldn’t quite deliver on the promise. 

People panic in a glass aquarium hallway in Jaws 3D (1983)

Special effects were a real issue, though, as was the decision to make Jaws 3 into Jaws 3-D. When streaming the movie in 2D on Peacock, you can see evidence of where it might have been cool to see the shark coming straight at you in a theater in 3D, but the effect is underwhelming. One problem? The shark’s dorsal fin “stopped” the shark from ever coming too far out into the audience, as by the time its jaws were out into the theater, the fin would’ve “hit” the top of the screen, ruining the illusion. The 3D also makes the movie look somewhat blurry in 2D. It was a gimmick in a movie that already had a gimmicky premise that ideally would have been enough.

A severed arm floats in water in Jaws 3D (1983)

Despite its failings, Jaws 3-D is a worthwhile watch, especially when compared to the fourth and final film in the franchise, Jaws: The Return. If Jaws 3-D is when Jaws jumped the shark, The Return crash-landed, as its premise — a giant shark that has a supernatural grudge against the Brody family — is so delightfully wacky that it makes 3-D look like high art. Unfortunately, that also means that The Return might be more fun to watch than 3-D, despite the latter being a better movie. There’s just more to laugh at in The Return, whereas 3-D is full of moments that could have worked just a bit better, even if they weren’t ever going to live up to Spielbergian heights. 

All four Jaws movies are streaming on Peacock.