I didn't see Jaws when it was first released in theatres – I wasn't born yet – but there's a common refrain I've heard from those who did: “I couldn't go back into the water for a long time.” Jaws isn't one of the scariest horror films ever made (it could be argued that it's really more of an adventure film), but it offers one of cinema's most striking reminders that the ocean is not humanity's domain. On land, humans are the earth's dominant species. In water, we are almost cartoonishly helpless - weaker, slower and less capable of long-term survival than nearly any other creature that may be swimming around us. Throw a hungry, intelligent, man-eating shark into the mix, and the ocean becomes a watery deathtrap.
In real life, shark attacks are rare. The behavior of the shark in Jaws isn't exactly scientifically accurate, anyway. There's no rational reason to scrap our beach vacation plans. Still, it's just close enough to reality to get under our skin. We look at the ocean, and it seems so calm, vast and beautiful – who knows what terrors it's hiding beneath that inviting surface? Scenes from Jaws linger with us, deviously reminding us that if a shark does attack, there's precious little we can do to defend ourselves. Most of the folks who survive in Jaws do so not because they were clever or resourceful, but because the shark trained its sights on someone else first.
The first shark attack in Jaws occurs late at night, when a free-spirited young woman (Susan Backlinie, 1941) decides to go skinny-dipping off the coast of Amity Island, Massachusetts. She invites her boyfriend to join her, but the boyfriend is drunk, and passes out before he reaches the water. The next day, Amity police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider, The French Connection) discovers the young woman's mutilated body. The coroner claims that a shark was responsible, and Brody decides to shut down the beach until the situation is resolved.
Such actions can't be taken likely: it's summertime, and Amity's economy relies heavily on vacationers. If the beach is closed, people will simply vacation elsewhere. Amity's mayor (Murray Hamilton, The Hustler) has a little talk with the coroner, and suddenly the coroner begins to claim that the young woman's death was probably the result of a boating accident. Amity's beach remains open. Naturally, more shark attacks are just around the corner.
Horror films often draw a direct connection between greed and tragedy, but Jaws does this with more nuance and empathy than most. Yes, the people pushing to keep the beaches open are fools, but the movie resists the impulse to ignore their humanity. These are ordinary small business owners, not wealthy executives seeking to deepen their fortunes. Even the ingratiating, weak-willed mayor manages to feel distinct from the countless similarly-constructed characters in other horror movies. While most horror filmmakers would have punished the mayor for his hubris by turning him into shark bait, Spielberg gives him a more severe punishment: genuine guilt.
While the first half of the film details the way Amity responds to the shark attacks, the film's second half zeroes in on three characters: Chief Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw, From Russia with Love), who set sail on a three-man mission to kill the bloodthirsty beast. They know that they're dealing with a great white shark, and they know that it's larger than average. What they don't know is that they'll be doing battle with a creature boasting unprecedented strength and intelligence.
The three men have vastly different personalities, and the conflicts that arise between them inspire a great deal of tension and humor. Brody is quiet, clumsy and nervous – he fears the water, but his willingness to see his mission through to the end reminds us that fear and courage are not mutually exclusive qualities. Hooper is the chattiest member of the group; a science nerd who approaches the challenge in front of him with a combination of book knowledge and fancy gadgetry. None of Hooper's expensive doodads impress Quint, a tough-as-nails seafarer who figures that his real-life experience dealing with sharks outweighs anything his companions bring to the table.
All three actors do fine work (and there's a terrific nervous energy that arises when all three men are sharing the screen), but Shaw stands out as the film's MVP. Quint is the defining character of Shaw's career – a coarse, Ahab-esque figure with a mad glint in his eye and a host of colorful anecdotes to share. Despite containing more than a few white-knuckle setpieces, the film's most memorable scene is a haunting monologue from Shaw (John Milius' uncredited contribution to the screenplay) that paints a vivid mental picture of oceanic horror.
The film's other MVP is the shark, of course, though he stays offscreen for much of the film's running time. The mechanical shark's assorted failures and Spielberg's innovative solutions are now the stuff of legend: because the shark often wasn't functioning properly, Spielberg opted to keep it off-screen for much of the film's running time. Spielberg makes the idea of the shark even scarier than the actual images of the shark – by the time the toothy beast deigns to fully reveal himself, we're so convinced of his unsettling savagery that we're not even thinking of him as a special effect. Once again, I'm reminded of how much less threatening movie monsters feel in the age of CGI - the shark may be an imperfect creation, but it has a real physical presence that a computer-generated killer like Indominus Rex simply can't match.
Speaking of which: Jaws is often thought of as the very first honest-to-goodness summer blockbuster, but it has little in common with the blockbusters of today. Yes, it's a crowd-pleasing thrillride, but it devotes so much more time to thoughtful characterization and filmmaking technique than most blockbusters do. While modern blockbusters tend to start huge and grow larger as they proceed, Jaws grows increasingly intimate until climaxing with a gripping, desperate one-on-one confrontation between a man and a shark (Pretentious Film Critic Clark is tempted to look for a metaphorical confrontation happening here, too, but Jaws is such a well-oiled machine that it doesn't need profound metaphors to achieve greatness).
One can't talk about Jaws without mentioning its great music, of course. John Williams' score contains a wider variety of sounds than you might remember – robust adventure music, gentle atmospheric material, Copland-esque Americana – but the film's simplest, most effective idea is that see-sawing two note theme. You know, the one that everyone hums when they're swimming towards someone else in the pool. I remember a time when I was swimming in the ocean, and someone began shouting that there was a shark in the water. Sure enough, there was a fin within eyesight. Like everyone else, I frantically swam for shore. It was quickly determined that the shark wasn't particularly large or dangerous - we didn't get back in the water, but we were never in danger of being eaten. Still, during those initial moments of panic, I suspect that most of us were hearing the exact same thing: “Duh-dun-duh-dun-DUH-DUN-DUH-DUN-DUHDUNDUHDUNDUHDUN!”
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Year: 1975