Jaws is my favorite movie of all time. I am always met with statements of disbelief when I tell people this, to which I can now submit Exhibit A: my save the date postcard I designed inspired by the movie’s poster. (If that doesn’t convince people of my love for this movie, I don’t know what will.)Once the disbelief wears off I am next met with perplexing looks that say, “Really? The one with the shark– that’s you’re favorite movie?” To which I respond, “Aha! But have you watched the movie closely? The first two acts are actually about local politics, with an “us vs. them” undercurrent running throughout!” I mean, who couldn’t love that, right?
This is another movie that my parents let me watch on TV when I was about 11 years old that has stuck with me over the years. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, and early James Bond films, I get heavy dose of nostalgia whenever I watch Jaws. But unlike those others, Jaws is not fantasy escapism. It’s grim reality, dealing with issues of death and duty and pure terror in the face of an unemotional killing machine. For a long time I couldn’t really explain why this one, of all the great films my parents introduced to me at a young age, resonated so much with me as a preteen. However, after years of watching this movie I think I’ve figured out why I hold it so dear.
The most obvious reason is that it hits a level of “acceptable scary” that I’m comfortable with. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of scary movies, the big exception being thrillers in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock. Jaws has that vibe for sure, mostly hinting at the terror hidden just beneath the water’s surface rather than showing it. This is scary enough for me, mostly because I am very uncomfortable being submerged under water. Anything involving water, ocean life, and the prospect of drowning frightens me. That said, I wasn’t exactly terrified of the movie even as a kid, but I do remember being on the edge of my seat and jumping at all the right parts.
Other reasons for why this film struck a nerve with me as a child are less obvious. I’ve really only noticed them in recent years myself. For one, my mother served on the local school board and I overheard many a story about their meetings. The events my mom described have the same general feel to the events in Jaws– mainly people making decisions or voicing opinions that served their own purposes rather than the public need. The first two acts pit Chief Brody (Roy Schneider) against Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) in a battle to protect people’s lives or save Amity Island’s summer tourist trade. This portion of the story also sets up a common undercurrent I felt growing up in rural Maine. Brody isn’t a local. His actions– primarily closing the beach after the first shark attack– are met with suspicion and even outright hostility by the lifelong islanders. It doesn’t matter how long he lives on the island and works to protect its citizens, he will never be considered a local because he wan’t born there. Again, I saw this attitude play out with my mom. She was born in California, and even after 14 years living in Maine she was still viewed as an outsider.
Jaws is a movie I identified with without realizing why. In a strange way this scary shark attack film reminded me a little of my life. It touched on a fear of the water I’ve had since childhood, but also echoed other fears I wouldn’t be able to articulate until well into my teens: What if I do something that makes everybody hate me? What if I make the wrong decision and someone gets hurt? Will I ever feel like I belong anywhere?
For me, Jaws is more about the fears and villains that lurk on dry land more than the ones swimming through the water.
This is the film that basically invented the summer blockbuster, for that alone, it should be considered a masterpiece.
For those that don’t know, Jaws is the story of a seaside New England town terrorised by a giant killer white shark. The local sheriff, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) must keep the town safe from this aquatic menace when town officials decide to not shut down the beaches even though this man eater is out there. Brody teams up with a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and a professional hunter (Robert Shaw) to hunt down this shark before it eats any more residents.
The best thing about this film is the suspense. The film is genuinely terrifying, made even more so by the haunting John Williams score. This was one of the early collaborations between John Williams and director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was so impressed by Williams work in Jaws that he refused to let any other person score his movies and even recommended him to good friend George Lucas for a little film called Star Wars.
One of the best aspects of this film is how much Spielberg is able to do when you rarely see the shark at all. Jaws is rarely seen at all until the final act, up until then, Spielberg creates tension using not much more than music and his actor’s reactions. This leads to a much more exciting film. Of course, the truth is that Spielberg was somewhat forced to do his movie this way because the mechanical shark being used was apparently terrible to get working so his screen time would have to remain minimal. Spielberg took this potential setback and used it to help create one of the most suspenseful films of all time. Even though the shark regularly refused to work, the few shots where it did still look good. It is not obvious the shark is fake even though Jaws was released in 1975.
The three leads work together well. Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw have good chemistry. They spend most of the final act out on the ocean hunting down the shark, so it was essential they had a good repour.
Spielberg has crafted one of the most exciting and suspenseful films of all time in Jaws. It is a tense spectacle that still holds up today, despite being nearly 40 years old.