For a long time I could never watch Jaws. As a kid, the use of a shark, floating body parts, blood in the water and the moment the kid gets eaten, usually left me in floods of tears and with a determination to never watch it. When Jurassic Park came out in 1993, nine-year old me thought I could handle it, but once again I couldn’t. It wasn’t until I was in my teen years that I was able to make it to the end credits and whilst I ADORED the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had been afraid of.
By the time Robert Shaw gets eaten, it’s very clear that the shark in question was never really a shark at all so much as a giant condom with sharp teeth and a fin, but the journey to that moment, and the explosive climax are the stuff of a movie classic.
To talk about Jaws is to talk about a film that I imagine half the planet has watched. From John Williams’ iconic score, to a plethora of famous moments that have entered movie lore (the first attack, Ben Gardner’s head, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”), Jaws marked the blockbuster arrival of Steven Spielberg and paved the way for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET and Jurassic Park.
In many ways Jaws is the film that bridges the gap between the darker, artistry of early 70’s Hollywood and the onslaught of the more mainstream blockbuster that launched when George Lucas made Star Wars. Depending on who you talk to, either Star Wars is the first blockbuster, or it’s Jaws, and while Lucas’ space saga is credited with being the “first” blockbuster”, in many respects it is actually Jaws that has that distinction, at least in terms of becoming a pop cultural phenomenon, but there is a lot here that can remind one of the darker aspects of those films that set the tone for Hollywood in the early 70’s.
Whilst not as dark as The Godfather, or The French Connection, it does have a level of grit that would disappear once Hollywood started to play in the sand box of the modern blockbuster. Whilst Lucas’ movie would have a young cast, and a youthful energy, Jaws relies on character actors with a certain level of grit to them, like Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. The violence, especially for a movie that had a PG rating in the UK (now upgraded to 12 for its Blu Ray release) is especially bloody, more akin to a horror movie. Jaws is essentially a slasher movie with sharper teeth, with its first half essentially coming across like an escalating horror narrative where the shark is picking off the populace with brutal ferocity, and the second half turning into a “man against the elements” thriller that comes across like an ocean-set Deliverance. We even have a town mayor who is more interested in commerce rather than saving lives, a cynical portrayal of politics that could only be a response to the recent Watergate scandal.
Spielberg’s handling of the material is what makes this all feel like a legitimate blockbuster. The film has pace, although it’s not afraid to stop and let its characters develop and talk like characters used to do in movies, whilst the action and suspense are genuinely thrilling and nail-biting. Would any blockbuster today stop for a few moments to have a moment as sweet as that between Chief Brody and his kid charmingly mimicking each other at the kitchen table?
Whereas most movies today either feel the need to keep going with action, or feel like they’ve simply stopped in the middle of the track when they aren’t, there is a genuine sense of momentum to Jaws‘ thrills and importance to its character development and it shows how masterful the film’s construction is that it can pause for thought for a elongated dialogue scene like the moment Quint (a show stealing Robert Shaw) talks about the USS Indianapolis and or intrepid trio swap stories about their scars.
On a side note, let me just say, I adore modern movies, but a movie like Jaws, even when it somewhat spoils the illusion by showing a huge piece of rubber chewing down on Quint in its final act, is like the Citizen Kane of killer shark movies.
Amazingly, we are now living in an era when killer shark movies are all the rage, mostly through SyFy productions where the shark is combined with a tornado, or octopus or whatever object comes to the filmmaker’s mind. Whilst the killer shark movie has become the domain of either SyFy made for TV movies, or “mockbusters”, Jaws is a wonderful classic that still retains its brilliance today.
That it was plagued by production problems that have become part of movie making urban legend is the icing on the cake, and that when one sits down to watch it and THAT theme music kicks in, it’s still a brilliantly terrifying watch, the likes of which are sadly never made to such standards anymore. It could only have come from 1975 and from someone has talented as Steven Spielberg.
COMING SOON: “Who wants to see some dumb cartoon rated ‘G’ for kids?”