Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Sargent’

For the last week or so, and I expect this really is just a coincidence, I seem to have found myself firmly lodged in the Grotto of Duff Sequels, what with Bourne Legacy, Descent Part 2 and Expendables 2 all appearing in quick succession (although to be fair Expendables 2 is still better than the first one). I always try to look on the bright side and find the silver lining, and bearing this in mind I thought I was now acclimatised enough to Duff Sequels to take the plunge and confront what’s famously one of the Duffest Sequels of all time in another episode of Is It Really As Bad As All That? Ladies, gentlemen and others, I give you Joseph Sargent’s legendary 1987 offering, Jaws: The Revenge.

This is a film which has embedded itself in popular culture in a highly peculiar way. A much-loved stand-up comedy routine by the otherwise-obscure Richard Jeni dissects the awfulness of Jaws: The Revenge in some detail. Michael Caine (whose appearance in the movie is often used to criticise his ‘I’ll do anything’ 80s work ethic) is wont to declare that he has never seen the film, which he’s heard is awful, but he has seen the house the sizable paycheck bought him, which he knows was very nice. The ‘This time it’s personal’ tagline often used to ridicule improbable sequel ideas originated, so far as I can tell, with this very film. But what lies beneath all these barnacular anecdotes and memes? What’s the actual movie like?

Well, the story opens in snowy New England and the small town of Amity where the original was set. Roy Scheider’s character, Martin Brody, has cunningly died in order to get out of appearing (the film appears to indicate a shark gave him a heart attack), and the main character is his widow Ellen (Lorraine Gary). One of her sons is a marine biologist in the Bahamas, while the other has joined the local police (who have a huge picture of Roy Scheider on the wall just to ram home that this is still the same franchise). All is lovely and Christmassy until young Deputy Brody has to go out into the harbour and faff about with a buoy or something. Much to his surprise, a giant shark erupts from the waters and chomps off one of his arms before setting about sinking his boat. We cut back and forth from the travails of Deputy Brody to a choir singing carols on the shore, but this effect is curiously lacking in pathos: possibly because the impression given is that the cherubic singing is actually drowning out Deputy Brody’s plaintive cries.

Unfortunately, drowning is not an option for Deputy Brody himself, and most of him is gobbled up. Widow Brody is traumatised and jumps to the somewhat implausible conclusion that this was a personal attack on her family by a vengeful shark, following the events of the previous movies (though probably not Jaws 3D as that doesn’t appear to be in continuity with this one). Everyone tries to persuade Widow Brody to be more rational, but they are playing a losing game as – and this is the point at which Jaws: The Revenge casts loose from the anchor of reason and sets sail for the wildest oceans of Cinematic Crapulousness – the film indicates that she is right. How is this shark connected to the other ones? How has it acquired some kind of peculiar homing instinct for members of the Brody clan? Why, given that she’s convinced that she’s being stalked by – and let’s not put too fine a point on this – a fish, does she spend the rest of the film on small islands and boats, rather than somewhere safely landlocked in the middle of a continent?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Marine Biologist Brody (Lance Guest) turns up for the funeral bringing with him Boring Wife Brody and Irksome Kid Brody, and together they persuade Widow Brody to come and spend the festive season with them in the Bahamas, which at least means the scenery is more cheerful for the rest of the picture. Flying them to the island is waggish pilot Hoagie, who is played by Michael Caine.

(At this point I must digress and reveal that an Italian teenager approached me a short while ago and, very politely, asked, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Michael Caine?’ Somewhat flattered, as Sir Michael was a handsome fellow in his youth, I replied ‘Not a lot of people know that’ (he didn’t get it) and waved him on his way. Only later did it occur to me that the lad probably hasn’t seen any Caine movies except the ones he’s made for Chris Nolan, which means I must look like Michael Caine from the age of 72 onwards. I really must try to get more sleep.)

Caine engages in a colossal struggle with the inconsequential banality of most of the script, bringing pretty much his full firepower to bear. The result is that Hoagie emerges as a relentlessly quirky and charismatic fellow surrounded by a gang of mannequins. Just to keep the thing limping along between shark attacks, once she arrives in the Bahamas, Widow Brody starts to think she’s been a bit silly thinking there’s a shark out there with a personal vendetta against her. However, at this point, the damn shark turns up again (it puts in its first proper appearance about thirty minutes in, floating past the camera in all its static, polymer-based pomp) and tries to eat Marine Biologist Brody and his boat. But he elects not to tell Widow Brody about this on the grounds it might upset her.

Things continue in a similar vein, with Marine Biologist Brody’s marine biology research somewhat impeded by the fact he can’t set foot in the water without an enormous rubber shark with a double bass turning up, until the shark mysteriously vanishes. Crikey! But it turns out that Boring Wife Brody has taken Irksome Kid Brody to the beach, little realising the peril they face. However, Irksome Kid Brody is too small a target and the cartilaginous assassin winds up eating a rather winsome lady in a bikini instead. Confirmed in her earlier suspicions, Widow Brody jumps on a passing yacht and heads out to sea. Is she planning to take the shark on mano-a-mano (so to speak)? Or is she planning to sacrifice herself to it? Or is she simply doing something utterly irrational simply because the plot demands it? Hmm, it’s so hard to say.

Speaking of doing utterly irrational things, Marine Biologist Brody and his buddy use Hoagie and his plane to chase after Widow Brody, only to find the vengeful fish closing in on her boat. Rather than saying ‘Hey, she’s on a boat, she’s safe, let’s just radio for help,’ they quite properly decide to crash their plane into the sea and swim over to the yacht to be with her. The shark is clearly miffed by this and makes an exception to its Brody-only diet to eat the plane. It has a go at eating Michael Caine, too: Caine greets the lunging predator with a hearty cry of ‘Ohhhhh shit!’, but whether this is actually a comment on the quality of the special effects is not clear.

Marine Biologist Brody’s buddy, a zany Rastafarian, selflessly throws himself down the shark’s throat while lodging some kind of anti-shark gizmo inside it. There is some bafflegab about the gizmo giving the shark seizures, but the main result seems to be the shark sticking its head out of the water and roaring like a dinosaur. While the shark is thus occupied, and perhaps also distracted by flashbacks from the original Jaws which appear for no obvious reason, Widow Brody impales the shark on the front of the yacht. Everyone goes home smiling and has a long talk with their agent.

It would be great to get an insight into the creative process behind Jaws: The Revenge, if only to learn exactly whose idea it was to base the plot around a shark with a personal vendetta. I suppose that with some effort one could come up with a worse idea, and the creative minds at the film studio The Asylum have indeed arguably made careers out of doing just that, but the key thing is that Asylum movies like 2-Headed Shark Attack are made with a hurr-hurr-hurr-isn’t-this-ironic sensibility – while Jaws: The Revenge is quite obviously taking itself seriously as a drama. But the premise of the film is so totally absurd that there is no value in this.

I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as a bad film, only a boring one – and, to be perfectly honest, for much of its running time Jaws: The Revenge is actually deeply tedious to watch. The rubber shark does not put in many appearances and this leaves the script with the problem of trying to find things for all the characters to do. This, to be honest, is where the problems with the central idea really start to have an effect. The premise of the film is completely illogical and as a result it’s very difficult for the characters to respond to it in a credible way. Even if the characters were to react to the idea of a shark with a hit list in a rational manner – by organising proper shark-hunting expeditions or simply going a really long way inland – it would either kill the story or completely transform what kind of film this was. It’s almost as if the film-makers were fully aware of what a ludicrous central concept the film has and are doing their best to avoid examining it in too much detail, even when the characters would naturally do just that.

And so, most of the time, the characters aren’t even talking about the shark, but their personal lives, their hopes for the future, their careers – or even just making inconsequential chit-chat. It is all quite horribly dull. Even Caine, for all his twinkly-eyed blokeyness, is more annoying than actually likable. The sheer banality of the dry land sections of Jaws: The Revenge makes them at least as irksome as the bits with unconvincing rubber shark models, but it’s very clear that the film has nothing more to offer to fill in the gaps between them. As exercises in sheer cack-handedness go, it takes some beating, and it’s made even more disagreeable by the decision to restage scenes from the original Jaws and also include sepia-toned flashbacks to it (suffice to say that, 12 years on and in reused footage, Roy Scheider still gets the best line in the movie).

Announcing that Jaws: The Revenge is a terrible film is not breaking bold new critical ground. However, most of the hatchet jobs on this film don’t really look much further than the incompetent special effects and the sheer, absurd stupidity of the central idea of the film. These are both fair game for criticism, but what seems to me to be just as interesting is the more subtly toxic effect that the main premise has on the quality of the drama throughout the movie – it seems to show that when your main idea is as incoherent and implausible as it is here, every other aspect of the drama and characterisation in the movie is going to suffer as a result, and that awkwardly trying to pretend your film is not silly means that you will end up not making a silly film, but a silly and boring one. Which is what Jaws: The Revenge is.

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If we’re going to talk about machines-trying-to-take-over movies, then – given that it’s supposedly such an old chestnut of the SF genre – the list is surprisingly short, when it comes to noteworthy movies at least. At the top there is of course 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I suppose you could also include Westworld. More recently there’s been I, Robot, and also things like Superman III, The Matrix and the Terminator series. Some of these are, I think you’ll agree, not much more than killer robot movies, which is a subtly different area.

Arguably near the top of the heap, though, is Colossus: The Forbin Project, a (for the most part) pleasingly effective thriller made in 1970 by Joseph Sargent. It’s the kind of movie you can’t really imagine anyone making nowadays, although – as is almost to be expected with an SF classic – plans for a remake have been kicking around for ages, in this case with names like Will Smith and Ron Howard attached. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, on with the review.

We open with some shots of state-of-the-art 1970 computer hardware, which of course looks amusingly dated 42 years on. Inspecting it is brilliant scientist Dr Charles Forbin (the estimable Eric Braeden in one of his few big movie roles). Forbin is carrying out final checks on a massive computer complex of his own design, buried deep under a mountain in Colorado. (The set bears a certain resemblence to the Krell machinery in Forbidden Planet, but it’s not clear whether this is an intentional homage or not.)

The system goes on-line and Forbin is soundly congratulated by many worthies, including the US President (Gordon Pinsent). A press conference is organised to announce the good news – the computer, known as Colossus, is the world’s most sophisticated electronic brain, and has been placed in total and irrevocable control of the USA’s defence systems. Colossus is impervious to outside attack and operates completely autonomously. (Okay, okay – one quite reasonably quails a bit at this: did no-one think that putting some kind of fail-safe system in place might just be a wise idea? But, in defence of the movie, I will say two things: firstly, what follows is on the whole good enough to justify the big ask, and secondly, that the original novel (more on this later) opens with a section in which Forbin expresses his misgivings about his creation at some length before being talked out of them by the President himself. This is horrendously clunky and, given that the whole story is predicated on the fact that Colossus is switched on, slows things down considerably and unnecessarily.)

Anyway, everyone is delighted, especially when it appears that Colossus is operating better than predicted and improving in speed and power all the time. Then the machine issues an alert – a second system is in operation, under Soviet control. This proves to be true, and after initial alarm everyone calms down: Colossus and the Russian defence computer, Guardian, will neutralise each other. There is no danger. But then the two computers insist on being put in touch with each other, and – motivated as much by scientific curiosity as anything else, it’s implied – Forbin advises this be permitted. Of course, everyone soon realises that it’s very hard to deny a computer anything when that computer has total control of your nuclear missile arsenal…

It’s fair to say that serious American SF movies enjoyed something of a golden age in the late sixties and early seventies, and The Forbin Project is certainly part of this crop of films. It plays somewhat like a more outlandish version of War Games, but pitched at a more mature audience, and functions as a taut techno-thriller in its most effective sections. It always has both feet on the ground in terms of its setting, characters, and most of its technology, which helps its credibility enormously.

There’s a bit of a wobble partway through when Forbin is placed under total surveillance by Colossus and has to dissemble a romance with a co-worker (Susan Clark) in order to communicate with others attempting to disable the machine – here the tone is rather more playful and droll. Braeden is quite capable of pulling this off, but it notably slackens the tension the film has successfully built up prior to this point, and it never completely recovers.

Still, the script improves considerably on Dennis Jones’ pulpy, crashingly unsubtle novel, managing to incorporate some location shooting in Rome (must’ve been a nice trip for the cast and crew) and omitting some of the book’s weirder details – in the text Colossus opts to give itself an English accent when it fabricates its own voice synthesiser, for example. Unfortunately the film can’t find a strong climax any more than the novel, but given the premise of the story what happens is only logical, and still quite arresting.

I’d always thought this film was made after Eric Braeden’s storming supporting turn as the bad guy in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but it seems not. Braeden gives a proper leading man performance as Forbin, and it’s startling to realise he was under 30 at the time. This type of film is always threatening to topple over into silly melodrama, and – given the antagonist is a computer screen or a CCTV camera for practically the entire film – more than usually dependent on the central performance to work. Braeden completely nails it, giving a restrained, sardonic, and completely convincing turn, his confidence slowly eroding as the total dominance of the machines becomes more and more obvious. Looking at this film, you can imagine a whole career ahead of Eric Braeden where he plays leading man parts in big movies, or perhaps character roles – maybe even a Bond villain. In reality, he seems to have spent decades appearing in daytime soaps (in addition to a guest spot as Monster of the Week on Kolchak) – I can’t help thinking that’s a terrible shame.

If The Forbin Project has a less fatuous message than ‘don’t trust machines’, it seems to be this: early on, the President makes a gloriously hopeful speech about the abolition of war, the solution of the world’s problems, and the coming of the Human Millenium. Everyone is delighted and optimistic. The film closes with Colossus, having assumed the position of World Control, making a very similar set of pronouncements, using almost identical language – and it’s presented as an unutterably grim and ominous development. Perhaps it’s not a question of what it is that we want, but how we get it. But the film is smart enough not to labour this point.

Often one returns to a film after many years, especially one only seen as a young person, only to find it doesn’t really stand up as well as one might hope. The Forbin Project is perhaps a bit too dry and talky to be a really great film, and there is that second act wobble to consider too. But the central story is strong and convincingly told, for the most part, and it does have that great lead performance too. A minor SF classic, if nothing else.

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