The Jaws Movies, Ranked From Masterpiece To Garbage Fire

Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" was as close to a preordained hit as Hollywood got in the pre-"Star Wars" era. Based on Peter Benchley's bestseller about a rogue great white shark feasting on beachgoers in Amity, New York, Spielberg brilliantly seized on summering swimmers' fear of the deep blue unknown. People had a healthy fear of wading into the ocean prior to "Jaws," but "shark attack" ranked a good deal lower than getting swept out to sea by an undertow or stepping on a jellyfish. 

With his camera placed precariously at water level, Spielberg changed this forever. Upon leaving the theater, no moviegoer would ever set foot in a body of water again — ocean, lake, swimming pool, bathtub — without summoning every detail of Alex Kintner's bloody, bubbly end. Factor in John Williams' iconic "duh-dum" theme, and it's a miracle swimming in the ocean is still a thing.

By the conclusion of its initial theatrical run in 1975, "Jaws" had zipped past "The Godfather" to become the highest-grossing film of all time. It was a feather in the studio's cap, and also way too much money to declare the movie a one-off. But whereas Francis Ford Coppola's Mafia saga lent itself to expansion, Spielberg's popcorn horror-adventure was a single-serving sensation: Shark attacks, men hunt shark, men kill shark, men paddle to shore, end of story. Alas, when rival studios and B-movie hucksters rushed knock-offs like "Orca" and "Piranha" before cameras, Universal had no choice but to keep the story going. Spielberg checked out immediately, but the studio did its best to recapture the first film's essence ... with the first sequel, at least. 

Pardon the absence of suspense, but in honor of the anniversary of the film's June 20, 1975 release, here are the four "Jaws" films listed chronologically and ranked hierarchically.

1. Jaws

It's well documented that "Jaws" nearly ended Steven Spielberg's career when the film's physically arduous Martha's Vineyard shoot fell behind schedule due to weather issues and technical snafus (most notably a malfunctioning mechanical shark), but less discussed that the filmmaker had a steadying influence in scenarist Carl Gottlieb, a comedy-writing veteran who was simpatico with the young director when it came to transforming Peter Benchley's trashy, subplot-ridden novel into a streamlined story powered by two immensely likable characters. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) already had plenty of fascinating quirks and flaws; there was no need to entangle them in the book's hackneyed, desperate-housewife yearning of Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary).

Absent that rock-solid narrative core, Spielberg might've gone under when the water got choppy. Fortunately, the storms passed, and the director, with key assists from editor Verna Fields and composer John Williams, managed to craft the platonic ideal of 1970s motion picture entertainment. This is far from faint praise. Spielberg's use of overlapping dialogue (favored by peers like Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie) and lived-in locations give the film a deceptively loose feel when, in actuality, it's one of the most tightly cut and structured movies you'll ever see. You've probably read a million takes on why "Jaws" is an all-timer, but I feel like the relaxed vibe doesn't get enough love. That's where the seams are hidden.

Spielberg would lose some of this airiness going forward (hardly to the detriment of his artistry), which is just one more reason to savor "Jaws." There's something sui generis and just a wee-bit stoned about this and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which is probably why he declined to get creatively involved in follow-ups to either. You just can't replicate that kind of high.

2. Jaws 2

This is not to say Steven Spielberg was opposed in theory to directing "Jaws 2." As he told Ain't It Cool News' Eric Vespe in 2011: "I would have done the sequel if I hadn't had such a horrible time at sea on the first film." He went on to express regret that he didn't contribute more to the first sequel. I wish he'd been more hands-on because the notion of Brody having to rescue his children, who're being stalked at sea on crippled sailboats by a great white, could've been a terrific stand-alone adventure in its own right.

As it stands, "Jaws 2" is fine. The focus on Amity's teenage party scene — back when the legal drinking age was 18 — lends an era-specific perspective to the island's class system and politics: Mayor Larry Vaughn's kid (David Elliott) is an entitled brat, while Michael Brody (Mark Gruner) miserably lugs around the weight of his father's heroism and, in this movie, perceived derangement. Unfortunately, the film drags when dealing with Brody's brief fall from grace. Given Scheider was already a reluctant participant in the sequel (for which he was very well compensated), perhaps, once the check cleared, he might've been open to taking a proper supporting role to foreground the kids' story. Anything would've been better than the sad-sack sight of Brody boozing it up all over again. 

The last act of "Jaws 2" is gripping enough to justify a watch (or rewatch), though you wonder how well any of it would work without John Williams' unnecessarily majestic original score. It's mind-boggling that he composed something this fresh the same year he delivered wildly different scores for Brian De Palma's "The Fury" and Richard Donner's "Superman."

3. Jaws 3-D

There's an alternate universe in which the series' follow-up to "Jaws 2" was a full-blown "National Lampoon" parody titled "Jaws 3, People 0." Joe Dante was set to direct from a script by up-and-comers Tod Carroll and John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes), but Universal abruptly pulled the plug when an unnamed someone very high up the "Jaws" food chain voiced displeasure with franchise spoofing itself. If this sounds like a tragic missed opportunity, the screenplay is available online to disabuse you of said notion.

And yet a deliberate parody might've been preferable to the unintentionally hilarious "Jaws 3-D." Under the direction of "Jaws" production designer Joe Alves, the film was a visually ungainly disaster when projected in its intended format, and nigh unwatchable when it hit home video and cable. The technical ineptitude is matched by a listless scenario that finds all-grown-up Michael Brody (a stardom-adjacent Dennis Quaid) and girlfriend Kathryn Morgan (Bess Armstrong) contending with a rogue great white that's infiltrated the supposedly impenetrable premises of a newly upgraded SeaWorld Orlando. Sci-fi/fantasy legend Richard Matheson received a writing credit, though he was adamant his draft was mangled by script doctors (including one-time franchise savior Carl Gottlieb), so don't blame him.

If you're looking for silver linings in this scrap heap, you'll find it in the arrival of famed shark hunter Philip FitzRoyce, played with delightful pomposity by TV's "Manimal," Simon MacCorkindale. FitzRoyce winds up crucial to the dispatching of the shark when his undigested corpse, still clutching a live hand grenade, protrudes just far enough from the beast's maw for Michael to unpin it. This sequence is the only reason "Jaws 3-D" isn't the franchise nadir.

4. Jaws: The Revenge

In 1987, there was reason to believe "Jaws: The Revenge" might be an above-average programmer. This was due primarily to the involvement of director Joseph Sargent, a proficient Hollywood workman with classics like "Colossus: The Forbin Project," "White Lightning" and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" to his credit. Unfortunately, those films were a decade in the filmmaker's rear view when he agreed to helm this deathly serious tale of a vengeful great white hellbent on wiping out the entire Brody bloodline. The tagline says it all: "This time, it's personal."

"The Revenge" was supposed to open with the shark knocking off old-man Brody. Instead, it's Sean who's devoured, which sends the grief-stricken Ellen (Lorraine Gary) fleeing to elder son Michael's digs in the Bahamas, where he's living his dream as a marine biologist. If you're wondering how "Jaws 3-D" figures into the narrative, not to worry — it doesn't. During the 1987 press tour, Universal pointedly sold "The Revenge" as "the third film of the remarkable 'Jaws' trilogy." In other words, Philip FitzRoyce's sacrifice was wholly in vain.

Michael Caine gamely cashes a paycheck as a gadabout pilot with designs on widower Ellen, though his performance in "Jaws: The Revenge" is less memorable than his quote about being in it: "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!" If you've ever watched the TV edit of "The Revenge," you've seen the utterly bizarre "fate or circumstances" narration that opens the film, as well as the enhanced coup de grace wherein the shark doesn't just get inexplicably impaled on the bow of Michael's boat, it inexplicably explodes!

Jaws: The Future

The "Jaws" franchise had one good story in it. As such, it was destined to hit a dead end. That it did so in the spectacularly stupidest way possible is both perversely satisfying and tremendously depressing.

Steven Spielberg's film opens with a shark attack, a struck-by-lightning rarity. We get goosebumps when we learn the gargantuan fish is an apex predator, one "extremely rare for these waters." We tightly align ourselves with Brody when Alex Kintner's mother physically and verbally assaults him for having taken corrupt counsel. "She's right," he says, and we sympathize. If placed in his position, can we say we would've done better? Absolutely not. Because the bureaucracy and political chumminess of Amity isn't a parade of cartoon villainy; it's classic small-town favor-trading. It's an ecosystem unto itself. Brody has to upset the ecosystem to do the right thing, then see his task through to the bitter end on his antagonist's turf — which also happens to be the place where he is weakest. Once the business is settled (via an admittedly improbable kill shot), where else is there to go?

Hollywood figured this out eventually. If you're going to spend a blockbuster load of money on a movie, make sure you've built out the next six blockbusters and a spinoff series or two. Don't leave the studio holding a bag with a basic, blown-up shark absent genetically enhanced tissue that instinctively reassembles at a depth of 1.2 miles or whatever. Basically, don't make "Jaws" — unless you've figured out how to get a great white shark into space, where it competes in a galactic drag race with Vin Diesel. That "Jaws," you can make.