Has there ever been a film that sparked as much universal fear as Jaws? It is a minority of people who dip their toe in the big blue oceans and seas of this world and are not, if only briefly, reminded of Steven Spielberg’s iconic film. The definitive shark movie and, arguably, the definitive monster movie. ForJaws, while on the surface being a jumped-up B-Movie, is that rare thing in film, a piece of cinema that has stuck in the collective memory for generations. It’s up there with Star Wars and Indiana Jones as a film everyone, at some point in their life, will see. But more than that, it infested a God-fearing level of all things fin related. How many films can do that? Are you scared of pea soup from The Exorcist? Do typewriters fill you with dread thanks to The Shining? No. But you know that whenever you think ‘SHARK!’ you’ll think of Jaws.
By now everyone knows the story. “This was no boating accident,” says marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to a terrified Chief Brody (Roy Scheider). It seems that a killer Great White Shark is stalking the picture postcard town of Amity Island. With holiday season round the corner, Brody is anxious to closethe beaches rather than serve the tourists up as “smorgasbord”. But with the island’s trade dependent on the holidaymakers the beaches stay open until one after another the body count rises. Finally the town agree to let Brody hire Quint (Robert Shaw), a seasoned fisherman who knows just how to catch and kill the shark. Setting out aboard Quint’s boat, Brody and Hooper soon realise this shark means business and one-way or another they’re gonna need a bigger boat.
Based on Peter Benchley’s brilliant source novel, Jaws is an utter thrill ride from beginning to bloody end. From that opening scene right through to “Smile you son of B…” Jaws is a film which takes hold, digs its teeth in and drags you thrashing and screaming on a wonderful and exhilarating adventure.
Spielberg, hindered by Bruce’s (the robotic shark fondly named after his lawyer) refusal to work, had to invent other means of conveying the underwater terror. From the reverse zoom on Brody, as he realises Alex Kintner is being devoured before his very eyes, to John Williams’ iconic two-note theme, there is never a moment in Jaws where the audience are not utterly terrified of the shark. If anything the hindrances of the production forced Spielberg to think outside the B-movie box of tricks. Suddenly character became paramount, atmosphere crucial and most importantly; the longer you leave your monster unseen the more the audience’s imagination fills in the gaps for you.
The script is near perfect. Meticulously building character while never stiffing on gripping set pieces. Who can forget the two fishermen and the floating pier or Ben Gardner’s head appearing from in the boat wreck? And then there’s one of cinema’s most haunting speeches as Quint regales us with the story of the Indianapolis. It’s one of those scenes in which, for a brief moment, you’re completely captivated by a story almost unrelated to the events on screen.
And Jaws is funny, often, but in ways you never see coming. The moment Hooper and Quint compare scars or “That’s some bad hat Harry”. Just when you wonder if there should be more emotion you’re treated to the heartbreak of watching Brody and his young son give, perhaps, the most honest and real of father and son interactions.
Of course the shark of Jaws is a wonderful metaphor for the three protagonists. For Brody it represents everything that scares him about the water, the fear of what is lurking beneath the dark surface. For Quint it is his nemesis, a foe he has been seeking revenge on since he delivered “the bomb”. And for Hooper it is a Holy Grail, a perfect specimen, a killing machine that should have died out with the dinosaurs yet still lives and kills with unrelenting power. All of them are drawn to it in their very own unique ways and the shark just wants a good feed.
Performance wise Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw are all on career best form. Brody, the frustrated cop on land, becomes the grumpy and terrified child at sea. It’s his constant wide-eyed look of terror with which the audience is able to latch onto. Dreyfuss, who initially turned down the part, brings a certain degree of comic relief. His Hooper is the cheeky boy of the crew, a belligerent elder sibling to Brody who is always expected to set an example. And then there is Quint. Shaw injects the old sea dog with just enough of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab while never allowing him to become a caricature. Just when you think he’s on the verge of uttering a pirate like ‘aarrgh’ he gives as the delicate and haunting Indianapolis speech.
It is hard to over emphasise the importance of Jaws. While it may have launched the career of Spielberg to unprecedented heights it also is widely credited as being the first blockbuster. Released in the summer of 1975 it had people literally queuing round the block to get tickets. Despite the innovation of special effects and CGI there are almost never films that touch upon the brilliance of Jaws. Seen here for the first time in eye-popping Blu-ray, something films of this ilk demand to be seen in, it is a film that should, and almost certainly will, go down as one of the greatest films ever made. Even if the shark does look fake.