Released 42 years ago today, Jaws effectively changed the world of movies, fandom, and the public perception of the natural world. In fact, the film was so successful in its initial release that it became the seminal "summer blockbuster," setting the trend that continues to this day of releasing films full of action, adventure, excitement, and humor to cater to the hordes of theater-goers looking to get out of their houses in warm summer months.
Based on Peter Benchley's novel of the same name, the film features a small island town off the coast of New England that mysteriously has a large great white shark looming its waters, picking off swimmers who venture too far off the shore. Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) enlists the help of scientist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to use the town's resources to kill the shark once and for all.
Despite the apex predator's attacks being the inciting incidents for most of the film's narrative, when looking back at the success the film has achieved over the last four decades, the shark itself is far from the most important element of the film.
Sadly, it was due to the film's inclusion of a shark as the main antagonist that resulted in the vilification of the animal, causing author Benchley to spend the rest of his life trying to correct the perception of the animal he helped create in the public's mind.
To celebrate the film's anniversary, let's look back at why the shark itself has nothing to do with the film's success.
An Unknown Threat
Many audiences have cited Jaws as the reason why they're afraid to go into the ocean or the reason they're afraid of sharks, but in reality, a shark like the one in the film hasn't been seen in millions of years. Estimated to be over 25 feet long and weighing three tons, that is far larger than the 15-18 foot long sharks that are more typical of the species. The difference between the shark on film and the shark in reality is similar to comparing King Kong to an average gorilla.
Regardless of the discrepancies between fact and fiction, what's more important about the film is the way our main characters react to the threat, rather than the time spent focusing on the threat itself.
Quint, with all of his experiences hunting sharks, feels he has a connection to the animal and its more primal nature, conveying that he has an almost spiritual connection to the animals. Hooper, on the other hand, has spent much of his time researching the animals and gathering statistics, using science as his biggest ally. The two constantly bicker and get at odds with one another over the concept of faith vs. science, while Brody is, for all intents and purposes, a "fish out of water," not having a solid grasp of either belief, representing the average person who doesn't know what to believe.
The inclusion of a shark makes the film feel more grounded in reality than if it was to feature some sort of monstrous abomination, which would push the tone into more of a science fiction realm. Whether they were fighting a shark, the Kraken, or Cthulhu, the film's most compelling sequences involves the human characters and their responses to it, not the scenes of the giant fish itself.prevnext
The Shark Isn't Working
Speaking of how it didn't matter what loomed underneath the water's surface, the film itself rarely shows the behemoth in full. This could be considered a directorial decision to allow the audience's imagination to conjure images of the beast, refusing to confirm the terrifying images our brains thought up, or it could be because the shark rarely functioned properly.
Spielberg was adamant about shooting the film on the actual ocean instead of in a pool on a studio, but when the mechanical sharks created for the film were submerged, they often sank and the saltwater would corrode important mechanical equipment that would make them function. The sharks constantly needed to be drained, cleaned, and repainted. These complications with the props forced Spielberg to improvise how he could convey terror without being able to show the audience exactly what our heroes were up against. Those improvisations ultimately made the film more effective than were we to have regularly seen the shark, which would have reminded us it was really just a big metal puppet.
Initially, the film was supposed to shoot for less than 60 days but ultimately shot for over 150, in addition to costing double its original budget. Universal Studios might have been nervous about the film's cost at the time, but considering it went on to gross $470 million worldwide, it was a gamble that paid off.prevnext
Few directors have become as lauded as Steven Spielberg, who has earned critical acclaim, huge box office returns, and a slew of accolades for a variety of his films. However, back in 1975, he had made the Sugarland Express and the TV movies Duel and Something Evil. The studio took a huge gamble on the director, which paid off massively.
In retrospect, Jaws contained many of the elements that became expected ingredients in his films going forward. As proven with films like Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and Catch Me If You Can, the director has been able to attract incredibly accomplished actors who play off one another impeccably. Although the studio initially wanted stars like Robert Duvall and Charlton Heston to play the lead roles, Spielberg knew exactly what Shaw, Dreyfuss, and Scheider would bring to the characters, giving the performers defining roles of their careers.
Whether he's working with accomplished actors or new talents, Spielberg has a knack for capturing a sense of adventure like no other. He might be showing an archaeologist exploring tombs like in the Indiana Jones films, it could be a group of kids trying to hide an alien from authorities in E.T., or it could be a reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story for Hook, few directors so effortlessly capture whimsy quite like Spielberg. Admittedly, some of the whimsy in this film involves people getting eaten by a shark, but the director still somehow imbued a sense of fun into the endeavor.
As memorable as any shot or performance in the film, the score from John Williams is the first of many timeless collaborations between the director and the composer, giving audiences some of the most memorable musical pieces of all time. The two would go on to collaborate together multiple times, crafting iconic music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park.0comments
Considering all of these strengths the film has, to reduce the film to merely being a "shark movie" does it a disservice and inaccurately represents the scale of the masterpiece.
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