What can one say about the perfect Summer movie that hasn’t already been said? Even thirty years on, “Jaws” remains the definitive thriller about man vs. nature, and one of the best pure entertaining rides you’ll ever have with a movie. This was the first of the true blockbusters, the one that started it all.
From this spawned many imitators but so many of them forget what made the original work. “Jaws” took a fear we could all relate too (sharks), threw it up on the big screen and spent its runtime devoted to scaring the hell out of its viewers. It wasn’t about causing people to jump in their seats with fast cuts or silly tricks. Like the best thrillers, the suspense came on gradually – there were moments and sequences devoted to sheer terror but it all came back to the human angle and how it reacted to that.
One of the great aspects of Jaws is its suspense with the creature. The mechanical shark looks fake, and yet because of that and problems with it on the production, Spielberg decided we as an audience would see it as little as possible. What was seen as a cost and time saving measure actually serves to help the movie narratively – for the first hour of the film all we see are fleeting glimpses that only feed our dark imaginations. Up until the final 15 minutes, the shark is an unknown factor – a beast with a cold, unrelenting pursuit of flesh. Its the unknown that’s truly terrifying and Spielberg’s reliance on that for most of the film is one of the key reasons why it has such staying power.
Another is just sheer skillful production. John Williams delivers a rousing score tied in with what has become the most recognisable movie theme ever created. As much as the film is about the shark and the battles with it, the script is more about three key individuals and their relationship to it and each other. Each of the trio – a loving father and loyal local sheriff, a young and smart shark expert, and a world weary but strong willed old sea dog – encompass personality traits we all recognise and admire throughout different points in our life. Each of the actors also play it totally seriously and react very naturally and believably to the way events unfold.
The actors all deliver great work – Scheider makes for a lead hero that’s very easy to empathise with, Dreyfuss gives his character a fun sense of wit and manic energy, and Shaw’s work may border on being over the top but he imbues it with a gravitas that makes it quite believable. Also helping is the way the film handles the threat of not just the shark but local bureaucracy, and how the fight to save a buck or two can result in real danger to people’s lives. The shark attacks are beautifully drawn out and handled to deliver the maximum tension – from the opening thrashing about in the water, to the sneaking up on the young boy who disappears in a split second geyser of blood.
Its not a film for the timid, and whilst the gore is light compared with most horror films, it has more of an impact due to its sparse but shocking use. There’s all sorts of great moments from the diversion that leads into the lagoon attack, the trios first spotting of the shark off the boat’s side, Quint’s chilling monologue about the events on the USS Indianapolis, the two fisherman on the pier, etc. Like Hitchcock or Spielberg’s less polished “Duel”, “Jaws” is a simple exercise in tension pulled off with a steady hand and a gutsy energy. Despite all the advancements in the look and production values of films, “Jaws” exemplifies that there’s still no match for a good solid story, easily identifiable characters and simple but effective hands on filmmaking.