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Should I Watch..? Jaws
What's the big deal?
Jaws is a thriller film released in 1975 and is adapted from the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film stars Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss as three desperate men hunting a great white shark terrorising the coastal community of Amity, New England. Considered to be arguably one of the first ever "summer blockbusters", the film had a massive publicity campaign behind it when it was initially released which helped it to worldwide box office takings of $470 million. The film's success led not only to a number of sequels - all of them inferior in terms of quality and box office draw - but to a negative view of sharks which still persists to this day. It also led to numerous imitators from the likes of Deep Blue Sea (1) and Sharknado (2) to Ridley Scott's Alien (3).
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What's it about?
After the body of a young woman is washed ashore, local police Chief Martin Brody decides to close the beaches in the sleepy coastal resort of Amity as it appears that the woman was mauled by a shark. However, Amity's mayor Larry Vaughn forces Brody to open the beaches again as Amity is dependent on the tourists that visit the resort in the summer. Reluctantly, Brody agrees and reopens the beach and witnesses the shark returning and attacking another swimmer.
Traumatised by the attack and with angry residents demanding action, Brody teams up with local shark hunter Quint and oceanographer Matt Hooper in order to hunt down and kill the creature. While Amity's residents begin their own, chaotic shark hunt after a bounty is placed on the creature, Brody sets sail with Quint & Hooper on board Quint's boat The Orca in the hope that the shark will be caught. But nobody fully realises quite how much danger they are in until the shark turns its attention to them...
Chief Martin Brody
Mayor Larry Vaughn
Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb *
Release Date (UK)
26th December, 1975
Action, Drama, Thriller
Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
Academy Award Nominations
What's to like?
Watching the film these days is a bit like reading Genesis - you can see how much of it has filtered down to other films you've probably already seen and how influential the film is. Even today, disaster movies all seem to follow the template of Jaws as though compelled to do so - the atypical hero, the scornful authority figure who ignores the warnings, the sense of mystery about the antagonist as we never fully see them, picking off victims one by one. It's all here but weirdly, it doesn't feel as clichéd as you might expect. It may be as predictable as a Kardashian's Instagram account but it's far more enjoyable and gripping. A huge part of that is down to John Williams' iconic orchestral score, the familiar chords plucking at something primeval in our brains to warn us that something big, hungry and nasty is out there waiting for us.
The film is actually in two parts, the first centring on Amity itself and the terrified residents unsure of how to deal with the menace while the second half focuses on the three leads in their desperate pursuit of the shark. The second half is much better, uncluttered by dialogue and extras and feels much more tense than the first half. Scheider and Dreyfuss seem like the only two sane characters in the entire movie while Shaw's booze-soaked salty seadog routine borders on comical at times. But the real star is Spielberg, who understands that the unseen is more frightening than what we can see. The film's best moments aren't when the shark jumps out of the water to attack the boat or when something grisly appears - it's when the barrels harpooned into the creature skim along the surface but suddenly disappear beneath the waves. The panic on the faces of the characters matches that of your own as you wonder with them exactly what is about to happen.
- The mechanical sharks were all called Bruce after Steven Spielberg's lawyer. Three of them were used in the shoot, each one costing around $250'000.
- Spielberg once said that when reading the original novel, he found himself rooting for the shark because the human characters were so unlikable.
- The famous "forward tracking, zoom out" shot of Scheider on the beach is now known as "the Jaws shot" by video teachers to potential film-makers. It's actually the opposite of the so-called Vertigo (4) shot invented by Irmin Roberts to simulate dizzying heights.
What's not to like?
Obviously, the first place to start is with Bruce the shark whose plastic features are helpfully obscured by the waves around it. Watching the film in the cold light of day, it's easy to mock the thing and especially when it launches itself out of the water for the finale. These days, of course, the creature would be almost entirely CG but personally, I find Bruce's old-school charm more pleasing. It was the best that could be done at the time, no doubt, and perhaps Spielberg's story-telling got the better of him. Besides, viewers of a certain mind-set won't mind - it's not as bad as the rubber shark attached to Adam West's leg in Batman: The Movie (5) so perhaps we should move on.
There are a couple of other issues I have with Jaws. The film is packed with crumby extras throughout the first half, most of whom seem to have dialogue which is either shouted or mumbled through while more important characters are delivering their lines. The film also completely abandons the community and characters of Amity once the Orca sets off in pursuit of the shark, resulting in a lack of interest in the pursuit as well as a curiously unsatisfying conclusion. It would have been nice for the film to move full-circle and end up on the beaches of Amity again, full of holiday-makers enjoying themselves. It might have made the pursuit of the shark mean something.
Should I watch it?
Unless you are a professional surfer or lifeguard, Jaws remains the ultimate example of the "natural predator" movie and as such, is an unbeatable treat. Tense and taunt thanks to that masterful soundtrack and Spielberg's Hitchcock-ian direction, the film is still the best shark movie out there and by some margin. Of course the effects have dated but who cares when the film is this good? Jaws demands your attention and respect and probably will do for some time yet.
Good For: film students, Spielberg's career, terrifying audiences
Not So Good For: open-water swimmers, the easily spooked, shark conservationists
What else should I watch?
Never before had sharks grabbed the attention of film-makers quite like they had here but after the release of Jaws, everybody wanted a piece of the action. Countless copy-cat films like Great White (6) and Up From The Depths (7) were released in the years afterwards while B-movie masters The Asylum seem to insert sharks into almost every movie they make, none more so than the titular Sharknado series. Even official sequels to Jaws struggled to make the grade - the first film made more than Jaws 2 (8), Jaws 3D (9) and Jaws: The Revenge (10) put together.
However, there are a handful of shark-based movies that aren't a load of chum. Deep Blue Sea is an enjoyable train-wreck of a B-movie with CG monsters chomping on the cast like there's no tomorrow while The Shallows (11) adopts a more survivalist approach and features a great performance from Blake Lively in the lead.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox