The idea of a summer blockbuster did not exist until 1975, when a little-known director named Steven Spielberg put the fear of ever going in the ocean again on an unsuspecting populace.
Jaws is a thing I love.
On the podcast The Rewatchables the hosts agreed Jaws is probably the most “rewatchable” movie of the past 50 years, and I could not agree more. I have watched some or all of Jaws dozens of times. It is a film that literally grabs you by the ankles in the first minute and does not let go until Chief Brody’s well-placed rifle shot blows Bruce the Great White Shark out of the water.
On the surface, the story seems pretty simple. A man-eating shark menaces the small beach town of Amity (which means “friendship”), killing several people before the heroic Chief of Police (Martin Brody) dispatches the beast with the help of a cantankerous ship captain (Quint) and a snarky oceanographer (Matt Hooper). In fact, the book Jaws borrowed its basic plot from a real life series of shark attacks that occurred on the New Jersey shore in 1916, but it was that hard-to-define combination of storytelling, casting, and kismet that made the movie version of Jaws a sensation.
Today, the movie’s brilliance is axiomatic, but at the time of shooting, there was no guarantee of success. The director (Spielberg) was an untested twenty-eight year old helming a film being shot on location with at least one of his lead actors constantly in the bag (Robert Shaw) and the movie’s main special effect (the shark) not even available for use until well into the shooting, which ran three times as long as scheduled. This type of horror movie was also unheard of at the time but became so iconic that its mimicry has stretched from the sublime (Alien was pitched as Jaws in outer space) to the ridiculous (Sharknado anyone?)
So what is it that makes Jaws so great? Of course, much has been written about how Jaws made a virtue out of necessity, that the delay in getting Bruce the Great White Shark operational accrued to the film’s benefit as the unseen menace lurking underneath the water was not revealed until the final third of the movie. Then there are the story beats, which condition you from the first scene to be prepared (thanks to the iconic John Williamson score) that things can go from peaceful to apocalyptic in the strain of a few violin notes.
Spielberg taps this theme over and over again, carnage appears out of nowhere and swiftly recedes, from the brutal attacks on Chrissie and Alex Kintner to Charlie’s near-death experience when he and his fishing buddy go on a late-night jag trying to catch the shark. The remnants of these attacks, the blood-stained water, the shredded raft, the destroyed pier, impart a level of fear that makes the visual of the shark unnecessary. It all comes together impeccably, whether it is the now-famous “Spielberg shot” - zooming Brody back and forth on the beach - to Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the destroyed hull of his boat.
Jaws also serves as an allegory for what happens when we are exposed to something we cannot fully comprehend. This would be a theme Spielberg would go on to explore throughout his career, be it in regards to extra terrestrials or the horrors of Nazi Germany. But in Jaws the fault lines are quite clear - Mayor Vaughn and the town elders are far more concerned over lost tourist dollars that would result from closing the beaches than the well-being of the people who visit (or live) in their town. Chief Brody, on the other hand, is the Cassandra, identifying the risk at its earliest stage only to be shouted down by the mob until they are forced to reckon with their shortsightedness when an attack occurs in broad daylight.
The closing chapters with Brody, Hooper, and Quint on the Orca are a movie-within-a-movie, a master class in interpersonal dynamics, the toggling between anger, frustration, joy, and fear. It is male bonding of the most primal order, Quint’s hypnotic tale of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Brody seeing the shark break the surface, his cigarette falling from his lips as he utters the now famous line “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Hooper so nervous before entering the shark cage he tells Brody “I got no spit.” It is pulse-pounding and exhilarating at the same time, a tour de force by all involved.
Not all was perfect. In addition to heralding the summer blockbuster, Jaws also started the lamentable pattern of sequels, each, successively worse than the one before and none coming close to the original’s high standard (Jaws 3-D? Hard pass.) But for one summer at least, the beaches were full, but the ocean was empty.
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