The great tragedy of Jaws is that, after nearly forty years, so many of the films that it inspired are not very good (and I’m not just talking about the Michael Caine vehicle Jaws 4: The Revenge). With Jaws, Steven Spielberg cemented his place in cinematic history by loosely and inadvertently inventing a new film genre – the blockbuster. Spielberg was an ambitious young upstart fresh from winning the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes for his debut film, the neo-noir The Sugarland Express. Then on Jaws, Spielberg had to compromise and overcome myriad challenges, from faulty mechanical sharks to budget and time constraints. He once said “I thought my career as a filmmaker was over…because no one had ever taken a film 100 days over schedule”. However, it is Spielberg’s ingenious compromises that makes Jaws not only an influential blockbuster, but also a supreme work of cinematic art.
The malfunctions of the mechanical shark, nicknamed ‘Bruce’, prompted Spielberg to rely heavily on John Williams’ iconic and eerie score – particularly the infamous semitonal theme – to represent the shark. If you haven’t seen the poster for Jaws, there’s no physical indication that the menace terrorising Amity Island is actually a shark. Up until we eventually see Bruce, it could well be the Loch Ness monster migrating from Scotland that is massacring the beachgoers (if Werner Herzog directed Jaws, this is probably how it would play out). In great horror movies, directors play on the eternal fear of the unseen and unknown, rather than emphasising seen and known entities.
The ambiguity of what is happening in those waters is what made audiences evade the beach for so long. There is something incredibly disorienting about seeing the ‘effect’ of a violent action, but not seeing the ‘cause’. In this regard, I would compare Jaws to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; in the same way that we don’t physically see Leatherface’s chainsaw penetrate any of the characters’ skin, we don’t see Bruce’s teeth maul a hippie teenager or a young boy. Instead, we see their synecdochal bodies juddering violently and their blood spurting from the ocean like a misanthropic waterfall. This no-cause-but-effect relationship is particularly upsetting because of its intangibility, incomprehensibility, verisimilitude and universality. If a shark attacked someone we love in reality, we would only see the aftermath, not the cause.
Spielberg’s restraint, albeit forced, when using sound and character development to replace visual action comes from the film’s strong basis in horror, and sets Jaws apart from the blockbusters it inevitably inspired. Make no mistake: though Jaws definitely has unambiguous elements of action and adventure, it is first and foremost a horror movie. Even though Bruce is easier to avoid than Michael Myers or Leatherface because his exclusive domain is the ocean – a place where, let’s face it, us land-dwelling mammals are not meant to be – Jaws is a slasher flick. It is about a merciless, relentless, unreasonable killer who is picking off people who come near him one by one. Really, it’s a wonder that a high-concept this pulpy and brutal managed to scrape a PG rating.
Jaws is not a shocking movie, but its interminable value as a horror film lies in its unabashed espousal of popcorn entertainment. Along with The Exorcist, Jaws transformed horror from a maligned and cheap genre to one that could make hundreds of millions of dollars. To put it simply, Jaws is fucking entertaining – a film that dials up the exhilaration and tension to 11 and never lets its kinetic energy wane, even when our heroes are ashore.
Though Jaws is unequivocally a piece of popcorn entertainment, Spielberg uses his high-concept to explore the disparate manifestations of male relationships. There is not much bubbling underneath the thematic surface of Jaws, unlike some of the other films in this list, but the way that the police chief of Amity Island Martin Brody (Roy Schneider), marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark hunter Quint interact with each other adds a touch of human sophistication to the adventurous proceedings.
The naïveté and haughty intelligence of Hooper collides with the jaded and cynical altruism of Brody, which collides with the nonchalant self-confidence of Quint. Though this clash of personalities prompts animosity between our heroes, they share stories, laughs, triumphs and heartaches together. The hunt for the pernicious shark has one beneficial outcome – it has forged friendships. The absence of human affinity makes so many contemporary blockbusters feel hollow; the construction of simple, human characters and stakes ensures that films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, Point Blank, Robocop and especially Jaws will stand the test of time.
Initially to a fault, Spielberg does not characterise any of the shark’s original victims, instead deciding to establish an overall aura of fear amongst the town and a general sense of uneasiness. The audience is positioned to see the events from Brody’s perspective – even though we don’t care about the individual victims who have died at the shark’s eponymous jaws, we care about the safety of the town in general, as we are simultaneously bewildered by the townspeople’s idiocy when perennially returning to the beach.
Peter Biskind has written extensively on the production of Jaws in his expose of New Hollywood titled Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Biskind writes “Spielberg was so sure he was going to be nominated for an Academy Award that he invited a TV camera crew to his office to film his reaction to the good news. Only there wasn’t any. Jaws was nominated for Best Picture, but the director was slighted”. As arrogant as that is, Spielberg perhaps had a right to feel hard done by. He had created a wonderful, landmark film: Jaws is pure escapism splashed across the cinema screen, as exhilarating now as it was for those watching in 1975.