You’ll never go in the water again! Has there ever been a tagline for a movie more affective and more true than that? Released in the summer of 1975, Jaws was a first on many levels. It was the first big movie for a then 28 year-old director by the name of Steven Spielberg. It was the first film to gross $100 million at the box office and because of its success, unofficially became the first summer blockbuster ever released. But unlike other blockbusters that have come and gone, Jaws has been remembered as something more than just a summer popcorn movie.
Often the movies that have a real affect on people are those that tell a true story or one that is dramatic and emotional in subject matter. People can relate to those kinds of stories. But in the case of Jaws, the affect it had on moviegoers was terror and fear, but in a good way. The plot is as simple as any summer movie. A local sheriff must team up with a crazy fisherman and a young oceanographer to hunt and kill a shark that has been terrorizing a small island community. A simple premise, yet the way the story unfolds is believable, compelling and thrilling.
Any great movie has a memorable opening sequence. It’s what sets the table for the rest of the film. Remember that tagline? The tone of the film is set within the first five minutes as a young woman decides to go skinny dipping off the shores of Amity Island, a fictional New England town in the movie. On the surface, she’s basking in her youthfulness as she enjoys a late night dip under the stars. But below, you hear the music. Something is getting closer and closer and suddenly she is dragged under. Her remains wash up on shore and it’s determined that it was caused by a shark.
Not a great start for new Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Naturally he wants to close the beaches, but because of an unscrupulous mayor and other locals who rely on summer fun to drive up business, Brody backs down. Another death occurs and soon the whole town is swamped with amateur hunters and fisherman hoping to cash in on the reward for killing the shark. But Brody wants it done right so he decides to form his own team to make sure they get the right shark.
Brody wants brains and brawn so he hires Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a young marine biologist who’s curious about finding the shark, but not necessarily killing it. Some may argue that Hooper is mainly exposition for the audience to rely on for information. But he’s there for Brody’s benefit and his character becomes more defined as the movie progresses. The man who insists on leading this deadly voyage is Quint (Robert Shaw), an old school seaman with lots of experience hunting sharks. Shaw gets the loudest role in the movie by far, but he disappears into his character and he delivers the best monologue in the movie.
So many movies these days loose steam as they go along, but Jaws is at its best when the three men are aboard Quint’s boat the Orca, and attempt to find the shark. The third act of the film is a perfect blend of humor, thrills and action. You learn a little bit about each character when they’re aboard the Orca both in the dialogue and their actions. Each of them could have easily been one-dimensional characters, but from the time they spend on that boat until the end, you know them and you care about what happens to them.
The mechanical shark used for this movie infamously didn’t work most of the time, so Spielberg had to rely on what you don’t see to provide scares. It might have turned out to be the most serendipitous event ever. Shots of the dark ocean and glimpses of the shark’s fin are all you need to see to feel the danger and terror in some of the scenes. Instead of marveling at the size of the shark by seeing it, we’re frightened by what we might see if it ever fully showed itself. So not only are we afraid of the shark, but also the water.
You could say that everything that happens on the island is just setup for the eventual journey these three characters take on the boat, but they have to earn that journey and the film has many quiet moments that make you fall in love with the characters. A scene in particular that does this is when Brody, his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and Hooper have dinner. It’s a funny and endearing scene as Brody appears to have too much to drink, but you also learn a little bit about Hooper’s backstory and why he’s fascinated with sharks. Plus the scene involves my favorite line in the movie. Hooper questions why Brody lives on an island if he’s afraid of water. Brody’s response after a few glasses of wine: “It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”
Jaws was a groundbreaking film. It was the first film to successfully open nationwide on hundreds of screens simultaneously using “wide release” as a distribution pattern. It was the original blockbuster. But that’s not what makes it great. It’s a summer movie with both brains and thrills. The characters are three-dimensional, humor is seamlessly put into the story at just the right moments and when it has to, it thrills us and scares us. If only every summer movie could do that.
Jaws is the final movie in Crescent Village’s summer series: “Movies Under the Star.” It will be shown on Friday, September 16 at 7:45. Admission is free and you are asked to bring your own chairs and blankets.