Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those films that is forever etched into my brain ever since the first time I saw it as a kid, only to revisit it several years later as a teenager when it was shown in my Film Studies class. What’s so unbelievable about “Jaws” was and is its impact on the shift in cinema that started in the mid-seventies, with “Jaws” being the “first” real summer blockbuster, paving the way for films like George Lucas’ “Star Wars” which came out only a couple of years after it. “Jaws” was such a success, both domestically and globally, that it catapulted the then 29-year old Spielberg as the “IT” director of the new generation of Hollywood Blockbuster cinema. As well as making him a household name overnight. Besides its undeniable impact that it had on cinema at the time, Spielberg (and author Peter Benchley) were single-handedly responsible for making an entire generation of people think twice before going into the water. In modern-day society, one can only imagine but can’t possibly understand the cultural significance of something like that. Here we are even forty years later, and you can still hear people say that they’re afraid to go in the water. All because of one single movie that was made four decades ago. Besides both the impact it had on launching Spielberg’s career as a director as well as the impact it had on cinema overall at the time. One of the greatest components about “Jaws” is its ability to stand the test of time and not seem even the slightest bit outdated or obsolete. That and its universal appeal. For someone who likes mostly art house cinema but can appreciate more commercially viable motion pictures, particularly the ones of old, I am amazed, like I was tonight, to see a fully sold out theater of people, some wearing “Jaws” t-shirts, but everyone there for the same reason. To bear witness to what is still the scariest ocean motion picture ever made.
I don’t feel that it’s entirely necessary to provide a synopsis of any kind as probably and any everyone you know, no matter what generation, has probably seen the film at least a handful of times. But very loosely it revolves around killer shark terrorizing a fictional East coast seaside town in Massachusetts (the movie was filmed almost entirely in and outside of Martha’s Vineyard) called Amity. The town’s chief of police (played by the iconic Roy Scheider), after a series of shark attacks where people come up dead, decided to put a ban up to stop the beach goers from swimming in the water, much to the chagrin of the town’s mayor. He soon meets an oceanology expert (who was and still is my favorite character in the film played by Richard Dreyfuss) and an old sea-captain Quint (a rather eccentric but wonderful Robert Shaw). And once the situation gets too out of control for the local authorities to handle (in one of the film’s many unforgettable shots of Scheider looking straight through the gates at the sea). The three men team up on the sea captain’s boat on a Moby Dick-like quest to take down the infamous shark.
This film remains such a classic staple in cinematic history that to discuss only a couple of its components would be to do it an injustice. What it does do masterfully, is play against audience expectations, playing up to out notion of the fear of the unknown. Spielberg slowly builds up the tension by revealing the shark scenes set to one of the most recognizable and effective film scores in history by the great composer John Williams. It constantly keeps you on the edge as the three men voyage into the ocean of uncertainty, not knowing when and if they’ll ever come back. This tension I speak of is a hard feat to pull off, but Spielberg does it with a certain deftness and Hitchcock-like hand that the picture builds and builds and builds, especially in its second half, to its Captain Ahab/Moby Dick like showdown that comes in the last act of the film. It’s one of Spielberg’s most impeccably staged and shot films that it truly is a marvel to sit back and watch how it all unfolds and is executed. As the three men stand off against the killer shark, and the shark against them, it climbs to a level of suspense like no other film. Certainly no other film of its time. This was my who knows who many times seeing it, but my first time on the big screen with a packed audience. And one of the thrills of seeing some of these great older, cinematic masterpieces on the big screen for the first time, like tonight, was that you can almost feel a certain kind of energy radiating off of the crowd. It was one of the most communal, shared experienced films I’ve seen in a long time. With the packed house laughing (with Quint/Shaw providing a lot of the comic effect), sitting at the edge of their seats, ooing and awwing at every sight they see of the shark as the chase and plot thickens. Then there’s the climactic line where Scheider’s character, looking through the barrel of his gun at the shark as his ship sinks into the water, shouts “SMILE YOU SON OF A” before he finally shoots the tank in the killer whale’s mouth and then it completely blows up. This had almost every single person in the crowd clapping in their seats. Which to me exemplified this “universality” piece I speak of about the film perfectly. The film has the uncanny ability to engage us all in the same fight together, so that when the shark is finally killed, you can do nothing but sit back and cheer as so much had been built up to it. This is one of the most important and influential works in cinematic history. And I for one feel incredibly grateful to have experienced it with a group of people on the big screen. An experience that is now embedded in me forever and one that I will truly never forget.