Dir. by Steven Spielberg - 2 hrs. 4 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I'm almost more familiar with the shark through the Universal Studios theme park bit on the tour than I am from the movie itself. I'm pretty sure I'd seen it before, although it's entirely possible that I've experienced pretty much everything big that "Jaws" has to offer via parodies and references, and literally everyone knows the ominous score from this film. Movies like this are hard to evaluate because of how much of the material has been absorbed into popular culture, and it's a minor victory if any suspense survives the piecing out of the film. Fortunately, "Jaws" holds up pretty well.
The story is straightforward: a New England beach town called Amity Island is preparing for tourist season, when a local girl goes missing from a bonfire party. She'd wandered off with a guy and headed into the ocean, and some of her remains were found washed up on the shore. Big City Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is alarmed, wants to shut down the beach, and calls in a marine biologist to confirm his idea that it's a man-eating shark who is responsible for the carnage. The Mayor, Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), shoots this down on the grounds that it would be a large financial hit for the tourist town. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) comes in, confirms that it was indeed a GIANT man-eating shark that had munched the girl. When the big Fourth of July beach bash is interrupted by the hungry shark, Brody, Hooper, and grizzled Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) head out on the seas to hunt the shark.
One aspect about this film is that the characters themselves have become stock characters. Any kind of movie in this vein REQUIRES the rich dilettante (Hooper), the authority figure that no one really respects (Brody), the grizzled veteran (Quint), the real authority figure that underestimates the situation (Mayor Vaughn), and a steady supply of supple, young meat for the monster to dine upon. If there is a man-eating monster on the loose, this is the crew that will have to deal with it. And if these weren't stock characters already by the time "Jaws" was made, "Jaws" is the film that made these characters stock (by showing how this formula works - a blueprint for future tales in this vein). Filmmakers and writers are still trying to wring juice from this formula.
And, of course, there is something inherently satisfying about watching a shark chomping down on clueless people. You don't go see a movie called "Jaws" to watch idiots delicately and deftly deflect death, you want to see carnage and the visceral thrill that comes with it. Beyond that, this is a brilliantly executed film, there are several legitimately great shots here. You can start with the severed leg floating downward, showing what the shark can do but not showing how the shark does it, or the reaction shot on the beach with Brody, or the entire final battle on the sea. It's a master class in how to extend suspense and tension, and includes a lesson that sharks don't take downtime to chill out and sing drinking songs for a while.
There have been a ton of shark films after "Jaws," and I'm sure there must have been one or two beforehand. But the way you know that "Jaws" nailed it is that I've never seen a shark film afterwards that added anything new to the formula. Most approach this material in a deliberately cheesy or ironic manner, which is because no one's come up with a way to actually improve on what's done here. The suspense is top-notch, the setting is serene and peaceful and jubilant, and the various main characters fill all the roles that you need to tell a satisfying suspense story. Richard Dreyfuss, in particular, is a hoot here, and a very necessary contrast to Quint, who seems to have a callous over his entire body and personality, and Brody, who seems haunted and wary. Dreyfuss' Hooper is a live wire, not at all restrained, and brings a particular energy to a film and setting where people seem content to relax and not think about things.
But most importantly, just keep in mind the next time you head to a beach for a day of rest and relaxation, you should keep an eye out for fins.
4 / 5 - TV (HD)