Reel Rumbles #19 – “Jaws” vs. “Predator”
In This Corner…
Just when you thought it was safe to head back to the Flickchart Blog, another Reel Rumbles is here to determine once and for all what is scarier: a murderous great white shark on the loose in a small fishing village or a lone member of a mysterious alien race haunting the jungles of Central America? Separated by twelve years and undeniable advancements in special effects, this looks, on paper, to be a match for the ages. But is it really that close? Does testosterone-fueled action and a Die Hard pedigree trump master filmmaking and deep characterization? Read on and find out in Jaws vs. Predator.
Round One: Story
Jaws (1975) is a monster movie. It’s one of the best of its kind. With the unforgettable opening sequence, the terrifying attack on a six-year old in broad daylight, and the exciting finale, there is plenty to remember. But the scene that gives it its heart and soul is a much quieter one that rarely comes to mind when someone mentions the film by name. It occurs at the dinner table as Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) meditates on the guilt of allowing the public to swim in an area that he knew to be dangerous. Against better judgment, he listened to the paranoid mayor and the town council and usurped what he knew to be right in favor of not causing a panic on the cusp of Fourth of July weekend. Torn over his decision and unsure of what to do next, he notices his young son sitting next to him, mimicking his father’s mannerisms and hand signals. From that point, he knows what he must do. Brody teams with oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark hunter Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) on a quest to find and kill the beast responsible for his island’s grisly deaths. In spite of his own fear of water, he is willing to risk it all for redemption even if it means losing his life. This depth of character is what gives Jaws the edge over its adversary.
While Predator (1987) is an unquestionably intense film, its story doesn’t stop to flesh out the details. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Dillon (Carl Weathers) are little more than muscle heads looking for a fight, and the rest of their hunting expedition makes them look like Shakespearean creations. Still, it is a fun movie and far superior to most of its ilk based on energy alone. Nevertheless, when facing down the mouth of a great white, it doesn’t have enough heart to win the day.
Advantage: Jaws, 10-8.
Round Two: Script
Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s script is filled with great characterization and dialog. Noteworthy is the fun they have with Quint’s character. For much of the film, Scheider’s Chief Brody is the central figure, commanding of our attention and sympathy. Yet once he joins his fellow hunters on a voyage into the deep to bring the killer shark to justice, Quint becomes one of the most interesting characters on the screen. We certainly get the feeling that he and the shark have the strongest bond of any two characters in the film. It’s a twentieth century Moby Dick unfolding before our very eyes.
In Predator, co-writers Jim and John Thomas have the simple task of stringing together a coherent story and allowing the star power of Schwarzenegger and the incredible effects to do the rest. There isn’t anything wrong with the Thomas’s screenplay, but it’s certainly not the film’s strong suit, and not at all what we remember about what makes it such a worthy investment of time. As such, Jaws takes another round.
Round Three: Performances
Roy Scheider vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Scheider had true screen presence. Today’s audiences will unfortunately see him as “that guy from the shark movie” or “the old man from [insert bad direct to video movie title here].” In reality, he had a charisma that made him a well-deserved superstar in the seventies and eighties. Films such as The French Connection (1971), The Seven-Ups (1973), Marathon Man (1976), Sorcerer (1977), All That Jazz (1979), Still of the Night (1982), Blue Thunder (1983), 2010 (1984), and 52 Pick-Up (1986), earned him the right to be called one of America’s favorite leading men. Schwarzenegger, beyond his imposing physique and rigid, unchanging vocal ability, has never brought anything memorable to his movies. In short, if you’ve seen one Arnold performance, you’ve seen them all.
Robert Shaw vs. Carl Weathers: Poor Carl Weathers. Forever trapped in the Apollo Creed role from Rocky’s 1 through 58, he doesn’t stand a chance against an actor like Shaw, who here exhibits some of his best work.
Richard Dreyfuss vs. Elpidia Carrillo: Dreyfuss is compared to Carrillo here because the two actors carry just as much of their respective films. Both give fine performances, but are overshadowed by better screen time from the two stars ahead of them. The nod goes to Dreyfuss. He really injects more personality.
Rest of the supporting cast: While Jaws bests Predator in almost every way, the latter wins the day in this area. With Lethal Weapon’s screenwriter Shane Black in a memorable turn as Hawkins, Richard Chaves as the fierce Poncho, and Jesse Ventura as the nasty Blain, there is more cool in the jungle than on the water.
Kevin Peter Hall vs. The Mechanical Shark: Another area where Predator shines! The Mechanical Shark is now legendary for the problems it gave to director Steven Spielberg. McTiernan was fortunate to get the late great big man Kevin Peter Hall in the Predator costume. This is one monster with a lot of character, even while scaring the crap out of us. Hall gets a real opportunity to act in the final showdown with Dutch, and he does not disappoint.
Overall: Jaws, 10-8
Round Four: Direction
John McTiernan shows his action chops in this film, and one year later in the aforementioned Die Hard (1988). But he got his start with a little-known film, one any child of the 80’s would probably recognize, called Nomads (1986). In it, he worked with a young Pierce Brosnan, so he was more than equipped to handle the testosterone on the set of Predator. He handles the special effects, violence, and terror, with a tight grip, keeping us on the edge of our collective seats to the final stirring moments. But by the time Steven Spielberg finally shows us what we’ve been so terrified of in his finale to Jaws, he’s done such a great job of building and suspense and character, that we care way more what happens to Quint, Brody, and Hooper, than we do Schwarzenegger. Even though it was early in the big man’s career, we’d already seen Commando and knew damn well nothing was going to happen to him. Curiosity is all that lags behind at the end of Predator. How’s he going to kill this thing, is the prevailing question. Not WILL he kill it! With Jaws we never feel that same level of safety, and it’s to Spielberg’s credit.
And the Winner Is…
I like Predator. I really do. It’s fun. It’s suspenseful. It’s grotesque. And the effects still hold up. But when you put it in the ring against a film like Jaws, there really is no comparison. Spielberg crafts a masterpiece that he rarely bests at any point throughout the rest of his career. It’s in the monster movie genre, yes, but it succeeds far beyond any that came before it and few that have come after. It preys on a common fear: what is hiding in the murky depths of the ocean as we kick and paddle at the surface, hoping the tingle we feel against our legs won’t soon turn in to the piercing blades of shark teeth. It does so amid the iconic and haunting John Williams score, and it does so with characters we can’t forget. As such, this one’s academic: Jaws – KNOCKOUT.