No film has ever come close to taking a bite out of Jaws, though the new Shark Night 3D tries

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Relativity Media

As the summer blockbuster season draws to a close, Hollywood is preparing to release the first wave of Oscar-bait prestige pictures. But just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater, here comes one final attempt to wring every last drop out of the summer box office—and, perhaps inevitably, it's in 3D. Friday sees the release of Shark Night 3D, a goofy-looking gorefest directed by David R. Ellis (of Snakes on a Plane infamy). Though Shark Night 3D was probably fast-tracked due to the surprise success of last summer's Piranha 3D, there's another, much older summer blockbuster that inevitably casts a shadow over it (cue the low-pitched, throbbing theme song...).

It's virtually impossible to write about a new shark flick without making some kind of reference to Jaws. Just as James Bond defines the spy film, or Rocky defines the boxing film, Jaws defines the shark movie, and its importance in cinematic history can't be overstated: it propelled the career of second-time film director Steven Spielberg, made stars of its cast, and even inspired a wave of trophy fishermen—sparking a significant decline in U.S. shark populations.

And it made boatloads of money. When Universal made the then-unusual decision to release Jaws into hundreds of movie theaters simultaneously—eventually making more than 37 times the film's total production budget in the United States alone—the summer blockbuster was born.

But most intriguingly, what Jaws' success didn't do was inspire an immediate wave of copycat shark movies: the closest analogues to Jaws are Piranha, a Roger Corman B-movie from 1978, and Great White, a low-budget Italian knockoff from 1981. When Spielberg turned down an offer to direct 1978's Jaws 2, he explained that he "had already made the definitive shark movie." More than 35 years later, it's still hard to argue with him.

There are a few reasons that "shark movies" never truly took off in Hollywood. It's extremely difficult—and expensive—to film in water, and the price of failure can be massive (see Waterworld, which went wildly over budget and torpedoed Kevin Costner's career as an A-Lister, or Cutthroat Island, which performed so badly at the box office that its production company went bankrupt). And unlike most movie monsters, sharks come with significant limitations. Shark Night 3D 's "Frequently Asked Questions" page on asks the question that must keep any shark movie's screenwriter tossing and turning all night: "Why don't they just get out of the water?"

The few shark films that have been widely released since Jaws almost always veer, somewhat inexplicably, toward self-parody; only 2003's harrowing Open Water, which is based on a true story, plays it as straight as Jaws does. The other big-budget shark movie—1999's Deep Blue Sea—is built around the weird, high-concept premise that the film's sharks have been genetically altered to be smarter, faster, and more aggressive. Shark Night 3D looks to be going down the same road, with the trailer's implication that someone deliberately released the sharks to prey on the film's blandly attractive cast. Of all the lessons filmmakers could have taken from Jaws' success, it's strange that no one has successfully mimicked the terrifying simplicity of its premise—which is arguably its greatest strength as a film.

But then again, even the Jaws franchise couldn't avoid falling victim to self-parody. The 3-D effects used in the third Jaws film were cheesy, but that was nothing compared to the bizarre final film. Jaws: The Revenge featured an apparent prodigy of a shark who was vengefully pursuing members of the Brody family. It also featured one of the most notoriously nonsensical ending sequences of all time, with the shark exploding for no discernible reason. To put into perspective just how precipitously the franchise declined, the first Jaws has earned a rare 100 percent critic's approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Jaws: The Revenge earned an equally rare 0 percent.

For one reason or another, big-budget Hollywood studios have steered clear of the ocean's most notorious predator. The real second life of the shark movie has been on TV specials and direct-to-DVD. It's expensive to make a good shark movie, but it's incredibly cheap to make a bad one, and a shocking number of low-budget, awful-sounding examples have been released in the past ten years: a cursory Netflix search reveals everything from Shark Attack 2 ("A biological experiment goes awry, releasing a gaggle of mutated great white sharks with a taste for human flesh") to Shark Zone ("Jimmy's forced to come face-to-face with his frightening past when Russian mobsters show up and order him to recover missing diamonds—which are guarded by bloodthirsty sharks") to Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus ("a group of scientists discovers that a secret military mission has unearthed a prehistoric shark and a giant octopus").

These cheapo releases solve the budgetary problems inherent in a shark film by falling back on has-been actors (Shark Attack: starring Starship Troopers' Casper Van Dien and former Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson!) and stock footage (see Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, which is so laughable that a mocking video of its low-budget shark attack has been viewed more than 33 million times on YouTube). Though they're universally terrible, like most B-movies, they possess a certain homespun charm; Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus may not be as definitively terrifying as Jaws, but who could say no to a giant shark leaping out of the ocean to devour a 747 jumbo jet?

Shark Night 3D, with its $28 million dollar budget, lies somewhere in between Jaws and the countless killer shark B-movies that have been released in recent years. It has some hurdles to overcome. Audience fatigue with 3D movies is clearly growing, and the film's PG-13 rating means that it won't pack the same horror-comic punch as Piranha 3D. And it's not being screened for critics in advance, which is always a bad sign (though in an interview with CraveOnline, director David R. Ellis promised "good action" and "scary-ass sharks," and really, what else can you ask for?).

But despite all the goofy films—and even though humans are rarely killed by sharks (in fact, you're more than 20 times likelier to be killed by a dog)—there's something about them that remains uniquely terrifying. Sharks evoke a primal human fear of the unknown: the depths of the ocean, and the strange, inhuman things that are lurking just below the surface. And when a filmmaker finds a way to tap into that fear, and the tall, black fin glides smoothly through the water toward an oblivious beachgoer, there's nothing scarier.

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