The Sheriff of Amity Island teams up with a marine biologist and a local captain to hunt down a shark that’s terrorizing the beaches.
You know the iconic music; those two notes alternating, slowly at first, but then building to a charge. It’s the sound that signified death beneath the waves. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know this sound, because this film has become a staple in pop culture. It’s spawned three sequels, a Universal Studios ride, and was the first movie to ever earn more than $100 million; to call this film a success and a benchmark in film history is an understatement. This film is a classic, one that still holds up more than forty years later, and has the power to captivate and thrill audiences. But what makes this film work? What makes us return to Amity Island over and over to team up with Chief Brody, Quint and Hooper? In my opinion, it’s many things working together in perfect harmony, but the film never would’ve done as well as it has without the captain of the ship, the man behind the camera.
(SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
The film starts with teens partying on the beach; they drink, listen to music, make out next to a fire pit. It’s a typical end to a day at the beach; so recognizable we could almost picture ourselves amongst the teens. Two of the teens wander away to go skinny-dipping, before the girl is attacked by some unseen creature beneath the waves. The attack is shocking and brutal, her screams for help are even more terrifying when the boy she went swimming with passes out on the beach, and she’s left to die at the hands of the great white shark. From there we follow Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, “The French Connection”) as he responds to a call about the girl’s body. Seeing the corpse, Brody thinks they should close the beaches, but the Mayor wants him to leave the beaches open. It’s tourist season, and to close the beaches would devastate their economy. Soon however, leaving the beaches open proves to be a deadly mistake, and after the shark again draws blood, Brody, with the help of Quint (Robert Shaw, “The Sting”) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, “Mr. Holland’s Opus”), is forced to take to the sea in order to confront their deadly adversary.
The first thing that makes this film great: characters. Good characters are at the heart of every great story, and this film is full of great characters. Chief Brody is afraid of the water, but he’s also convicted; he needs to make sure his town is safe, and to do so, he’ll need to overcome his fear. Hooper, the cocksure marine biologist is brought to life by Dreyfuss’s performance. Quint, the heroic sea captain is a force to be reckoned with. Even the mayor, who we come to hate for leaving the beaches open, is a carefully crafted character with real motivations for what he does. The characters that Spielberg and the writers have made bring Amity to life. It feels like a small town, a little harbor where nothing could possibly go wrong, so it makes it all the more terrifying when the violence starts to break out along the shores.
The directing is the next thing that I’d like to touch on. Here is where Spielberg really got his start and even here you can see the brilliance of the way his mind works. His attention to detail is something to behold; there are many shots that show crowds of people over beaches, in town, in town halls, and during these scenes, people in the background are all given little things to do; things that give their characters trenchant details that breathe more life into Spielberg’s frame and the world he’s created. Not only that, his use of long shots with deep staging is incredible. There are plenty of long shots that start in one area, and track with the characters as they move across a ferry or over the sand on the beaches for an extended period of time. It’s impressive, especially given the limited resources and budget Spielberg was working with. It’s pretty much common knowledge, an urban legend that surrounds this movie, that the shark wasn’t completed when the filming for this movie began. Spielberg had to improvise and show less of the shark than he’d originally intended, but that improvisation created a monster more terrifying than what could’ve come of a fully functioning creature, because we’re forced to imagine what the rest of the beast looks like. That fin sticking above the water, swimming through the crowded waters, has become just has iconic as the music John Williams composed for this movie.
The story itself is something that is so visceral and compelling that it brings us back to our instinctual nature. This is a story of man vs nature; it’s a story of survival. There aren’t any evil villains trying to take over the world with some farfetched diabolical scheme; this is man vs beast. It’s relatable and that makes it even more terrifying when we see the havoc the shark wreaks on the coast.
It’s hard to imagine a world where the movie “Jaws” doesn’t exist. Even before I’d seen the film, way back when I was a wee little lad, I remember knowing about its existence, because “Jaws” has sunk its teeth deep into our culture. It’s been parodied in countless ways, the filming techniques used in the picture still influence filmmakers today, and most of all, it holds up after forty years. It’s as enjoyable an experience today as I’m sure it was when it was first released in 1975, and that right there should be proof enough that “Jaws” is worth seeing.
This review is the first part of our Examining Spielberg Series, in which we’ll be discussing a number of Spielberg’s films in depth on the True Myth Media Podcast, as well as posing reviews for a few of his films.
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