Jaws may be Steven Spielberg’s greatest achievement. Sure, Schindler’s List may get more critical kudos and Indiana Jones may be more iconic – but Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s aquatic thriller is a masterpiece from start to finish.
The film works on every level, as a horror movie, a drama and as an adventure picture. All the elements combine to make a cinematic treat. The opening shark attack has enough tension and scares to fill a dozen slasher films. Verna Fields’ editing coupled with John Williams’ now legendary score creates an atmosphere of pure menace, and the opening scene also wrote the rule book on how to stage an underwater shark attack on film. It has been copied and mimicked (even by Spielberg himself in 1941) but never bettered. The film’s character moments also hit the mark too. Brody’s (Roy Scheider) dinner table scene with his son adds humanity to the film, while the male bonding segment on the Orca, which sees our heroes show-off their scars, adds humour and nuance to the characters. However, it much more than that – note how Scheider’s Brody goes to lift his shirt to reveal a scar, but then thinks better of it. What really brought Brody to Amity? Why is a city cop now working on a small New England island?
The casting is superb, with Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss all clearly relishing their roles, throwing themselves into their parts with gusto. Scheider’s everyman IS the audience – the man who uses rational thought and says what we’re all thinking – cue: “we’re going to need a bigger boat”, he constantly questions why they don’t just head back into land. Dreyfuss adds an exuberance to the role of Hooper, he brings levity but also serves as useful (non –clunky) way of distilling information. As for Shaw’s Quint – who doesn’t get chills during his USS Indianapolis speech?
Spielberg’s limited resources for the film have led to its greatest strength. We rarely see the shark, and that’s something which has stopped Jaws from dating. Our fears are greater than anything that a film can show us. Even “Bruce’s” appearance in the climax has stood the test of time. The reason? You believe in the story and the characters. We’ve gone through the trauma with the characters; we know what that shark can do. It’s not a special effect, it’s a villain, one of the best – up there with Norman Bates, Michael Myers and Darth Vader. Evil incarnated.
Jaws is often credited (or blamed) for creating the summer blockbuster. However, it’s more than thrills which make it special. Take these characters in the same setting, remove the shark and you’d still have a riveting drama – it’s not just senseless plot-less action. Jaws manages to capture the zeitgeist, captivating and entertaining audiences whilst also entering the collective consciousness. It has grossed over $470 million in 1975 money, a figure which would be over $1 billion dollars in today’s coin. That’s an awful lot of tickets sold- it’s Avengers money – and how many people can hum the score of that film?