There comes a time in every film fan’s life when they have to admit that they haven’t seen one of the universally acclaimed must-see movies, to confess and make amends for a sin of omission. While there may not be time to see every film ever made, there are some that do need to be at least tried. But the idiom that “the past is a different country” applies equally to the world of film; some viewers simply find older techniques or production values, not worse exactly, but just different enough to be uncomfortable. And why not? Many classics have a modern equivalent in some respects. 2001: A Space Odyssey has Interstellar, Ben Hur has Gladiator, Planet of the Apes has, well, Planet of the Apes.
Jaws has…? Is there a replacement for Spielberg’s classic shark flick? The Shallows was a good’un, and Jaws’ maw spawned enough shark attacks to close Seaworld, but are they actual alternatives? It seems not. As a blockbuster monster movie Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park is probably the closest we’ve had.
So, wary about dipping a toe in the water after so long, it’s time to watch Jaws.
Almost immediately, Jaws is not the film popular culture would have you expect. The momentary introduction with the main John Williams theme playing as a shark’s-eye view swims through a reef does not disappoint, yet this is not the film. The real opening sees drunk teens barbecuing on the beach and a skinny dip going horrendously wrong – for the teen and cinematically. Despite beautiful shots of the drunk guy left on the beach, the actual shark attack is hokey, with such memorable cries as “it hurts!” drifting over the water.
This gets to the core of Jaws’ first half – it’s not the shocker or horror you may think it is, it’s actually a pastiche, a satire, a laugh out loud comedy. No one practiced running on sand, instead falling over on film and stumbling through the scenes; and a slew of citizens line up to distract the chief of police (Brody, played by slightly shark-like Roy Scheider) with tiny issues as comedic foils to the big issue shark attack. The primary antagonist for the first hour is hardly the shark, with the local politicians and representatives ably mocking our reality where optics and profit are far superior to safety, and society as a whole shun the gravity of their situation. Watching the mayor encourage families into the water to the backing of fair ground music strikes the balance between chilly and cheery expertly.
While the shark attacks themselves are slow, stilted and unconvincing, the sense of impending peril each time someone goes into the water is genuine: this is the true terror of Jaws – the shark’s bark is worse than it’s shite bite. Spielberg’s framing of our protagonist’s angst as a dog, an older lady, a canoodling couple or a young boy float and frolic in the water is an unparalleled masterclass in suspense. This continues throughout: a jetty torn to shreds in an attempt to catch the shark is slowly actualised, but the threat of peril before and after this are significantly better than the actual danger zone. Most of all, the underwater shots are super effective, as the sound cuts out, the music is stripped back to the raw notes and we simply see kicking legs or the hull of a boat.
It is, of course, no surprise that visually Jaws is gorgeous – whether it’s the pages flicking through a shark book reflecting in glasses, or views out over the beach in sunlight and ocean in fog. The level of humour, however, was a pleasantly unexpected revelation. With a witty script and a sharp eye for the peculiar perspective on events, laughing out loud was not part of the plan but completely unavoidable. Add to this a fair share of sweet moments – Spielberg proving early on that he is superb at directing kids, especially in a copycat dinner scene between exhausted father and inquisitive son. One of the main fountains of funny is Richard Dreyfuss’ smooth and gregarious shark expert Hooper. He is perfect in the role, and a great audience surrogate for many a viewer.
Halfway through, an abrupt gearshift – the mayor has had a crisis of confidence and the shark attacks have become personal as Chief Brody’s kids are nearly victims. Every side character and story is torn away to leave Brody, Hooper and Robert Shaw’s Quint (surely the most realistic on screen fisherman ever) on the good ship Orca for some big game fishing. First time viewers will recognise this boat and this fishing, even though it’s only the real climax which is familiar when it arrives; the lead up to this, however, is well worth the wait. Still funny, still tense, still expertly shot – this large third act is akin to a fever dream, as the trio set off on their mission and descend into madness as the difficulty and danger becomes increasingly apparent.
Monster movies clearly owe a debt to Jaws; it may not have been the first to do it, but the slow reveals as the shark is seen more bit by bit, with fake-outs and final full frontal shots is a textbook example of how to big up your beast. It seems unlikely, however, that the present day descendants of Jaws (or the inevitable
first second third fourth sequel – Back to the Future II wasn’t entirely joking) would have the jolly, twinkling score that accompanies this film even at this late stage, the bold choice of counter composition to the more famous menacing “ba-dum” notes.
Jaws was compelling viewing – once you’re in, Spielberg has you hook, line and sinker until the end of this brilliantly crafted and scripted movie. Seeing the context for well-known references such as “Bad Hat Harry” is an added bonus, and having preconceptions picked up erroneously from reading around the subject disavowed (who knew that they never actually went and got that bigger boat?!) is pure delayed gratification. Good things come to those who wait, but don’t wait too long before catching Jaws if too you haven’t yet.