It’s said that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws changed filmmaker forever, ushering in the age of the summer blockbuster. I’m not so sure about that; Spielberg’s friend George Lucas had quite a bit to do with it as well. But there’s no question that Spielberg was the first to make a film that was a monster hit from day one, and which inspired all the other studios to try to catch the same lightning in a bottle (it’s been said that Alien only got made because it was pitched as “Jaws in space”). This movie is a master class, not just for popular money-making films, but for film in general.
Universal Pictures was simply trying to capitalize on the popularity of Peter Benchley’s hit novel about a small Maine island that becomes terrorized by a rogue great white shark.They bought the rights to it and had Benchley himself write a screenplay with the help of veteran Carl Gottlieb. They brought in Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfus: actors who were well-known, but not such big stars that they were too expensive. In Spielberg, they hired a little-known director whose previous effort, the TV-movie-of-the-week thriller Duel, had been well-received.
The story of the movie’s production has long since become legend. Most critics take it as a given that some of the film’s very best scenes came to pass because Spielberg had to work around the fact that the mechanical shark, nicknamed “Bruce,” often malfunctioned. However, those critics should go back and watch some of this film’s incredible set-pieces, such as the Alex Kittner shark attack or the quiet moment when Shaw’ s character Quint straps himself into his industrial-strength fishing gear. This movie never seemed harried or lazy, in the way that you see from most movies that were assembled under duress.
Spielberg’s control of his audience is complete, but also light; his style is not at all oppressive, unlike later directors such as Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. My main complaint with Bay’s style is that even the most trivial scenes contain a “hero shot,” where the lead character is shot from below, with the camera moving around, making him or her appear a hundred feet high. Spielberg saves Scheider’s biggest hero moments for when he is actually doing something heroic; in fact, the most famous shot of Scheider in Jaws may well be this one, in which he is horrified that he may have just allowed someone to die through his own inaction.
It may be that Jaws is to blame for the blockbuster era, but Jaws cannot be blamed for the quality of stinkers like Battleship or Wrath of the Titans. Where those movies are completely forgettable, Jaws is unforgettable. Just consider Shaw’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis, easily the most famous scene in his career: it’s nearly silent, with John Williams’ music subdued and almost no sound effects in the background. One character talking is not supposed to be so frightening, especially not in the modern era when every scene is supposed to have action in it. It’s so effective that when Quint encounters the shark later in the movie, Spielberg doesn’t need to do anything so crude as flash back to the monologue: Quint’s horrified screams leave no doubt in the audience’s mind what he is thinking (or perhaps remembering) in that moment.
I saw a wiseacre on Twitter last week suggesting that Jaws is an It’s A Wonderful Life for the Independence Day holiday. That’s probably true, in that it’s an older picture which has some dark things to suggest about the holiday and human nature in general, before giving a justifiably happy ending. However, unlike with Capra’s films, there is not a single scene in Jaws that one might describe as “corny.” The film is clear-eyed and even a bit cynical, as the politically craven mayor had to be influenced by Richard Nixon and Watergate. The shark is stronger than all of our social constructs, stronger than our boats, able to ruin the holiday during which we celebrate our national strength. As with most great thrillers, the only way to beat that kind of enemy is with strong-willed actors and a little bit of good luck.
Reviewed by Mark Young