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When It Comes to the Descendants of ‘Jaws,’ More Is More

Steven Spielberg’s classic used suspense and sparing shots of its central predator to succeed, but many of its successors in the shark canon have leaned into absurdity and physical presence

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2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

As someone born in the ’90s, it’s hard for me to imagine a time before summer blockbusters were a thing or Steven Spielberg was a household name. Among the many legacies of Jaws, which turns 45 this year, the superlative film is responsible for ushering in the era of the summer blockbuster and putting a then-27-year-old director on the map. (I am 27, and instead of creating one of the greatest movies ever made, my finest achievement is perhaps learning how to assemble IKEA furniture without having a complete breakdown.) But there is so much of Jaws’ rich legacy that is steeped in allegory—including the unfortunate prescience of Amity Island’s mayor, a man willing to risk the lives of his constituents to keep business booming, and the progressive ways in which the movie grappled with masculinity—that one can overlook what was so appealing about the film in the first place: the big-ass man-eating shark.

For anyone who’s fond of the beach, Jaws presents a terrifying concept—amplifying the primal thrill of not knowing what’s in the ocean by adding a predator that is, in extremely rare cases, capable of killing a person. You can’t overstate the effect the movie has on a first-time viewer: For months, I would instinctively play John Williams’s legendary theme in my head and, being an idiot, scare myself. And as my parents would recall, Jaws freaked them out enough in the ’70s that swimming in a pool would give them jolts of adrenaline.

It might seem silly to get that scared by a movie, even one based on an over-the-top, fictitious version of a great white shark. But it’s the way Jaws presented its shark—or rather, didn’t—that pushes your imagination in such a dramatic direction. One of the most infamous tales from Jaws’ historically troubled production had to do with the creature itself: The mechanical shark was notoriously dysfunctional, so Spielberg had to pivot away from showing it for much of the movie. What could’ve been a well-made but schlocky creature feature instead became a master class in suspense, where the less you saw, the scarier the film was. You never see as much as a fin in Jaws’ terrifying, all-time-great opening sequence.

While none of this is exactly revelatory when it comes to Jaws—the film’s been treated to critical appraisals for decades—it’s the kind of creative device that has been largely ignored by other shark movies. Unless you’re Jaws, more is more.

As Jaws turned into a franchise with some less-than-stellar sequels we mostly pretend never happened, those films declined to keep things subtle. In Jaws 2, the scene where the latest great white swimming along the shores of Amity Island attacks a water skier and her driver is so zany that the boat straight-up explodes (the shark later dies chomping on a power cable); in Jaws: 3-D, we have not one but two sharks, a swole mother and her still-imposing baby, and at the end of the film the larger fish literally swallows a dude whole; in Jaws: The Revenge, the creature protrudes out of the water and roars like a damn kaiju. (If it needs to be said, sharks don’t roar.)

There is little connective tissue in Jaws’ sequels, outside of the series’s central characters, the Brody family. It’s a testament to how bad these films were—particularly The Revenge, which seemed to imply that the shark and Ellen Brody have some kind of psychic connection (!?!?!)—that the franchise started by the bellwether of the summer blockbuster ended in ignominy. But it usually doesn’t matter how good or bad a shark movie is: Outside of Star Wars and superhero franchises, they might be one of the most dependable draws at the box office.

That’s how $130 million can be spent on The Meg—a 2018 blockbuster about a couple of megalodons emerging from the Marianas Trench to chow on some unsuspecting scientists/beachgoers—with enough confidence that it will rake in enough money to warrant a sequel. Rather than ratchet up the suspense by drawing out shark reveals, The Meg gleefully flexes the immense scale of its prehistoric creatures, at times juxtaposing the impressively CGI’d megalodons with normal-sized sharks. (Even the movie’s marketing leaned into just how unabashedly silly the whole premise was relative to Jaws.) But while The Meg pushes the idea of giant man-eating sharks further than any other film—Sharknado and other assorted Syfy TV movies notwithstanding—there’s one blockbuster that rises above the rest in terms of sheer Galaxy Brain logic.

That would be (what else?) 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, a perfect movie that barely tries to explain the shoddy science behind its premise. You see, in the film, a company is experimenting on mako sharks because their brain tissue could create a breakthrough for curing Alzheimer’s. How? Well, no time to think about that: A really unfortunate side effect of all these experiments is that they make the sharks look like they were pumped with HGH. Also, the sharks are now extremely smart. How smart? They are good enough with planning and tools to use Stellan Skarsgard’s gurney to break through laboratory glass, and they know that the best time to eat Samuel L. Jackson is when the man is mid-monologue.

As descendants of Jaws in the shark movie canon, The Meg and Deep Blue Sea are quintessential popcorn entertainment: fun, indulgent, and not to be taken remotely seriously. I adore Deep Blue Sea in particular and have watched it nearly as many times as Jaws, but it’s not exactly carrying the torch for Spielberg’s film. I mean, in Deep Blue Sea, LL Cool J fights one of the supersharks by setting a kitchen on fire. (A shark ate his bird.) Instead, the shark movies that most closely capture the suspense and psychological thrills of the original Jaws are the ones that belong to their own subgenre: movies in the open water.

The gold standard of these films is literally called Open Water and is likened to the Blair Witch Project because of its understated approach and shoestring budget that ended up making a healthy profit. Loosely based on the true story of a couple who were left stranded in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef after going on a diving tour, the film is an excruciating watch, as the divers are soon surrounded by sharks and it becomes only a matter of time before one of the creatures goes in for a nibble. Like the idea of a great white stalking the shores of a beach town, being stranded in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight and fins surrounding you is inherently terrifying.

Similar variations on this formula have also proved effective: The Australian horror film The Reef might be even better, featuring a group of stranded tourists desperately trying to make their way to an island before they’re picked apart one by one. I’m not saying The Reef or Open Water belong anywhere in the company of Jaws, but they’re a clinical exercise in suspense.

And yet the finest shark movie we’ve been blessed with since Jaws also, thankfully, wasn’t trying to cop much from Spielberg’s masterpiece—in terms of approach, aesthetic, and anything that doesn’t have to do with the apex predator itself. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows rules on its own terms, as a classic tale of Surfer Blake Lively versus a great white that is so vindictive that it won’t allow her to swim back to shore after she’s stranded on a rock. What does Blake Lively fighting a shark sound like to you: absurd, ingenious, unfathomable, the best use of her talents as an actress ever? Yes.

The Shallows is a pared-down tale of grueling resilience—rewarding for its simplicity, ruthlessness, and affinity for a seagull. The closest thing the film might have in common with Jaws is that it shows enough restraint with the great white that Lively is able to remain the main attraction. And when the shark does get its screen time, the CGI work is credible enough to keep you on edge. (As iconic as Quint’s death was in Jaws, the oft-faulty mechanical shark relies on Robert Shaw’s committed screams of anguish to sell the scene.) The Shallows clocks in at under 90 minutes, but from the moment Blake Lively goes for her fateful surf, the film doesn’t gives you a chance to collect your breath until the shark (spoiler alert) impales itself. Talk about a self-own.

With respect to my beloved Deep Blue Sea, if The Shallows is the best shark movie descendant of Jaws, it’s instructive that Collet-Serra’s film excels without trying to recapture Spielberg’s greatest hits. Jaws is so unique and transcendent, the fact that it’s considered one of the greatest movies of all time is a miracle in and of itself. The production was a mess, the mechanical shark didn’t really work, and Spielberg almost quit on the job, leter describing the filming experience as giving him PTSD. By all means, Hollywood should continue making shark movies: Good or bad, I will inhale them all, and there’s a strong chance they’ll make a lot of money at the box office. But trying to be the next Jaws, and succeeding, seems about as rare as a shark attack.