Movies You Should See #17: Jaws • director Steven Spielberg
Everyone knows the premise of Jaws, so I won’t bore you with a rundown of the plot here. However, even though this film is the literal mother of all summer blockbusters, a widely known film, I felt that I needed to include it here. Part of the reason that I’ve included some of the films I have in this list isn’t because I don’t think people have seen them, but because I think people have gotten so used to having these films around that they no longer see them for the brilliant pieces of cinema that they are. Jaws definitely falls into that category.
This piece is probably intended mainly for the people in my generation and younger. They now look at Jaws and more often that not, when I bring it up, they seem to dismiss this film and only mention how fake the shark is. My response is so what?
No, the shark wasn’t real. It was a robotic model, and only in a few shots was footage of actual sharks used. However, this shark is just as real as any CGI that can now be created by computers and designers - more real perhaps because actors could actually interact and respond to it instead of working in front of a green screen or screaming at a tennis ball. This prop, effect, was real. It may not have always worked, it may not have always looked as real as a living, breathing shark - but it was and is terrifying. And the real point is that this movie isn’t about seeing the shark.
Yes, yes, I know. You’ve been told a million times that the brilliance of Jaws isn’t about what you see, it’s about what you don’t see. But really truly think about that for a moment. This movie is crafted so well that you’re more scared when you can’t see the shark than when you can. Do you have any idea how hard that is to accomplish? Jaws is proof that Spielberg knows what he’s doing. It’s not a myth that the way Jaws ended up isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Spielberg set out to make a much more traditional monster movie, blood, guts and lots of shark. Yet, as it always goes, necessity is the mother of creativity and when the shark proved to be far less reliable than they thought, Spielberg moved on to plan b. And he hit it out of the park.
Removing the shark from most of the movie made everything Brody and the characters couldn’t see a threat. The very nature of the island, the water surrounding it, became a menace. Amity Island became a trap that no one could avoid and the characters have to go where only one character, the shark, has the advantage. Once on the water Spielberg does the truly terrifying thing and begins to strip everything away from our human characters, leaving no barriers between man and shark.
The shark, or lack thereof is not the only brilliant thing in this film though. The performances are truly incredible. Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw & Roy Scheider are equally incredible. There is one scene in particular, a scene that has been analyzed and studied by directors everywhere, that is truly brilliant and shows these three off. Of course what I am talking about is the scene in the belly of the Orca, when Brody, Hooper and Quint tell war stories only to be drawn in to Quint’s truly horrifying tale of his service in WWII. It is mesmerizing how slow and subtle the shift can change from a drunk party, to somber and serious.
This movie was the first summer blockbuster. It really was. Yet it differs from most modern blockbusters in one obvious way: this film concentrates on the story more than it concentrates on the effects. I’m not saying that effects are bad, but there are a sad number of tent pole films now that rely more on explosions, 3D and crazy visuals than the characters we should be caring about. It’s a tragedy, and going back to the original summer blockbuster can show you how important it is to concentrate as much on the writing and characters as on the visuals and spectacle.